Dunning-Kushner Syndrome

It’s unfortunate and ironic that Michelle Goldberg can’t get out of the trap of inherently believing her fellow travelers, but the opening anecdote about a quote from Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman doesn’t really challenge the public narrative enough to present a problem.

According to Sherman, when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that the state would need 30,000 ventilators at the apex of the coronavirus outbreak, Kushner decided that Cuomo was being alarmist. “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity,” Kushner reportedly said. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top expert on infectious diseases, has said he trusts Cuomo’s estimate.)

In what great nation does a kid of no particular competence get to be in charge of life or death?

Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was born to the right parents, married well and learned how to influence his father-in-law. Most of his other endeavors — his biggest real estate deal, his foray into newspaper ownership, his attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians — have been failures.

This is, of course, hyperbolic and unfair to Kushner, though entirely consistent with Goldberg’s exceptionally blurry lens. Jared Kusher isn’t a cartoon character in Goldberg’s progressive anime war game, and there is reason to dispute whether he married well, all things considered. But even so, would he hold a position in a White House at all but for the fact that Trump has reinvented the federal government to resemble the mom and pop shop of his real estate business? Maybe he could catch a gig as deputy second assistant undersecretary of something, but let’s be real. He’s got neither the experience nor competencies to hold a position of actual authority.

So why is he Coronavirus Czar?

Undeterred, he has now arrogated to himself a major role in fighting the epochal health crisis that’s brought America to its knees. “Behind the scenes, Kushner takes charge of coronavirus response,” said a Politico headline on Wednesday. This is dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy.

Like Gabe Sherman, Andrea Bernstein would be the sort of person to be invited to a Chipotle-catered dinner party at Goldberg’s Brooklyn walk-up, but since she wouldn’t speak to anyone inclined to say anything nice about Kushner, she’s left to rely on the assessments of people like Bernstein.

Kushner, Bernstein told me, “really sees himself as a disrupter.” Again and again, she said, people who’d dealt with Kushner told her that whatever he did, he “believed he could do it better than anybody else, and he had supreme confidence in his own abilities and his own judgment even when he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Kushner has confidence in his intellectual abilities? That’s not exactly unusual these days, given that every sophomore on campus majoring in critical theory feels empowered to explain thermodynamics to random boomer physicists on twitter.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this confidence is unearned. Kushner was a reportedly mediocre student whose billionaire father appears to have bought him a place at Harvard.

Goldberg goes on to not merely dismiss Kushner’s intelligence, but to shred some of his high-profile business dealings on behalf of his family, after his father went to prison.

He gutted the once-great New York Observer, then made a failed attempt to create a national network of local politics websites.

Some of his dealings failed? It’s certainly not the sort of stuff that instills confidence in his abilities, like being a “billionaire” real estate magnate, but it also happens. People who try to do hard things sometimes fail, as opposed to Goldberg who didn’t fail in her management of the “once-great New York Observer” because she, well, wasn’t in a position to fail.

But Goldberg’s attack on Kushner misses the point. In the ordinary, day-to-day, running of a nation, decisions get made, many of which are merely a matter of priorities or call-shots. One way or the other? Who knows, just pick one. Any fool can manage this. Given Trump’s reliance on trusted members of his family to run his business empire the United States, we could do worse than Kushner. It could have been junior, you know.

It’s fair to argue that presidents before had the “best and brightest,” as David Halberstam explained, and somehow failed to achieve Utopia, instead giving us body bags from an unwinnable war in Vietnam. So if those who are universally acknowledged to be brilliant and expert in matters haven’t proven themselves capable of doing better than a guy throwing darts at a board, why attack the dart-throwing guy?

The answer of the moment is that we’re dealing with complex scientific and medical realities that demand a deep appreciation of how all the moving parts of a pandemic work.

Politico reported that Kushner, “alongside a kitchen cabinet of outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants, has taken charge of the most important challenges facing the federal government,” including the production and distribution of medical supplies and the expansion of testing. Kushner has embedded his own people in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a senior official described them to The Times as “a ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.”

A bunch of kids lacking any of the competencies to make knowledgeable decisions at the wheel of the truck delivering supplies to save us from this plague is a horrifying image. But is the problem that it’s a “frat party” or that it’s Trump’s son-in-law’s frat party?

Goldberg extols the virtue of New York Governor Andy Cuomo’s ventilator estimates as she denigrates Kushner’s rejection of those estimates. Andy is no doctor, no epidemiologist, no statistician nor expert in any of the disciplines that would come in handy here. A less dedicated wag might note that had Andy’s father not been Mario, he might have to work for a living. Yet, Goldberg embraces Governor Andy uncritically.

On Thursday, Governor Cuomo said that New York would run out of ventilators in six days. Perhaps Kushner’s projections were incorrect. “I don’t think the federal government is in a position to provide ventilators to the extent the nation may need them,” Cuomo said. “Assume you are on your own in life.” If not in life, certainly in this administration.

Kushner may be one of the smarter people in Trump’s orbit, and we should be thankful for that. But there are times when actual education, knowledge and experience matter more than sleeping with the big guy’s daughter. This isn’t just a Trump problem, even if coronavirus dropped on Trump’s watch.

16 thoughts on “Dunning-Kushner Syndrome

  1. B. McLeod

    I have been having this recurring dream in which I turn on the news, and the news anchor is the dinosaur news anchor from the series with the Sinclairs, and he just keeps saying, “Citizens, we are on our own.”

  2. Hunting Guy

    Mario Puzo.

    “The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.”

  3. Noxx

    I am trying to think of a national tragedy in my lifetime in which the response wasn’t bumbling and inept. Not having any luck.

  4. Jay

    I think the only one with a syndrome is you you old bag. If New York doesn’t sink beneath the weight of this pandemic it won’t be because Kushner talked the administration out of lock-downs, out of forcing businesses to create more medical supplies, and out of telling Americans what the CDC was telling him. Maybe you should read articles about him by people you don’t get unhinged over. Remember your buddies at emptywheel? Go read what they have to say. Honestly, do you ever wonder what it would be like to stand for something besides every characteristic you claim to hate?

    At least you’re good for a laugh.

        1. SHG Post author

          Commenter confidentiality precludes me from discussing personal information. I trust you can understand, Judge.

    1. Rojas

      There once was this sawed off sonofabitch that observed that it’s really gonna suck to hear that sound.
      And who would have thought those guys sitting on golden thrones can’t shit respirators and N95s.

    2. Skink

      Jay, the Hotel doctor has a syringe ready. He says the medication will help and will last 30 days. If you’re good and take the medicine, I promise you’ll get chocolate mousse for dessert! If not, well, I’m afraid it’ll mean some time in the pond out back, where the cooks dump the old grease.

      Whattya say? Wanna be a good boy?

  5. orthodoc

    According to Nash’s game theory, a random strategy can be the winning one at times. (Or at least that’s what I learned from A Beautiful Mind). If Kushner is the bobblehead that Goldberg suggests, maybe we will get a random strategy from the White House. That is better than a dead-certain plan that takes us to perdition. (If the country is still on shutdown when most people run out of booze– either because the stores are closed, as they are in Pennsylvania for example, or because they run out of money–‘perdition’ might understate the state we are in.)

      1. orthodoc

        thanks for rubbing it in. The stores are not only closed but “due to the overwhelming demand, the online store is not available at this time.” Overwhelming demand? Who’da thunk it? We need Kushner to run this too.

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