Will the real General Kelly Please Stand Up?

The Marine from Brighton Has Emerged as a Lightning Rod in the Immigration Battle

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff
When General John Kelly was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security, and, later ,White House chief of staff, many in and around Boston felt a sense of pride and optimism that one of our own would emerge as an “adult in the room” of the Trump Administration. General Kelly’s proven courage and high competence in his long career in the Marines had earned him the respect and admiration of those he commanded under fire, his fellow officers, and many politicians.

Born on May 11, 1950, in Brighton, John Kelly grew up on Bigelow Street in a Boston Irish family with strong Catholic beliefs. The UMass Boston grad went on to serve more than 40 years in the Corps, including three tours of duty in Iraq. He rose to head the United States Southern Command, defined by the Pentagon as “the unified combat command responsible for American military operations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.” In late 2010, his son Robert, 29 years old and a Marine following in his father’s footsteps, was killed in action in Afghanistan.
Kelly has rightfully been hailed as a Boston neighborhood-guy-made-good and a man who has endured the immeasurable agony of losing a son to war. Not even his harshest critics can dispute or tarnish the sacrifice and service John Kelly has made on behalf of the nation or his personal and professional performance in uniform. Recently, however, since he was named by President Trump as his chief of staff to replace Reince Priebus, Kelly has become a lightning rod for hardline stances on immigration and DACA, reportedly aligned with Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller, whose anti-immigration resume has led many foes to brand Miller an outright bigot.
In a fall 2017 issue of the Daily Beast, Mike Barnicle posited: “Many have asked and wondered how or why such an exceptional guy like General Kelly would take the task of trying to turn the absurdly incompetent, chaotic Trump presidency into a functioning vehicle. And the answer is simple and obvious: Because he loves this country and does not want to have it fail or falter at the gate of a future filled with both promise and peril. His only ambitions are for America.”
I believe those words. That’s what so perplexing in recent weeks about Kelly, who, with Miller, is blamed for derailing a DACA deal and steering Trump to his “s---hole” comment and bigoted derision of Haitians and Africans. One expects Democrats and many in the media to come hard at General Kelly as Miller’s fellow “Trump whisperer.” Another local guy, MSNBC’s (and Dorchester’s) Lawrence O’Donnell went so far as to label Kelly a racist after his verbal attack of an African-American Florida Congresswoman who was in the car with a grieving Gold Star widow when the president made what could kindly be called a callous, clumsy call to her.
One does not expect a conservative Republican such as Lindsay Graham to single out General Kelly as an obstacle to any bipartisan resolution of DACA and other immigration issues such as chain migration. Graham did just that.
From a historical perspective, it’s always unsettling to see Irish Americans embracing Nativism. John Kelly’s family roots are of immigrants who arrived in Boston and elsewhere in America to encounter virulent prejudice simply because they were Irish and Catholic. Some of his ancestors likely knew full well the reality of “No Irish Need Apply.”
General John Kelly surely knows that in Boston, the Irish immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s were in many ways as reviled by “real Americans” as the “Mexicans, the Muslims, the Haitians, and the “rapists and murderers” who now fuel the hateful platform of Trump and a huge swath of his supporters. This is not about border security – which any sane Republican, Democrat, and Independent wants. What Trump, Miller, and others have brought back is a sadly traditional American dish – a simmering stew of toxic Nativism – to a fresh boil, seasoned with a dollop of racism.
What Nativists of the past knew all too well was that they loathed anything Irish, anything Catholic, any immigrant except the right kind, anything they deemed “un-American.” They proclaimed that they needed to save the nation from going broke to pay for “Paddy and Bridget,” who were arriving in unprecedented waves. Anyone who was not a native-born, Anglo-Protestant was not a real American, but a threat to them. Again, the outsider, the other. The Nativists, or Know-Nothings, “wanted their country back.” Today, the phrase has an all-too-familiar ring.
To find General John Kelly, with so much of his life steeped in service and sacrifice, enabling an unabashed Nativist president is troubling – especially given that Kelly’s and so many other Irish American families’ ancestors arrived in America through chain migration. Once, famine, disease, and oppression drove the Irish to America’s shores. Historical myopia notwithstanding, our ancestors were not wanted by “real Americans.”
As our nation writhes with the issues of DACA, the “Wall,” border security, and illegal/undocumented immigrants, many pundits attempt to dismiss the historical experience of the Irish, Italians, and other immigrant groups by intoning “that was then, this is now – it’s different.” Nativism is never different. Fear and hate are its accelerants. It is likely that General Kelly had an ancestor or two who understood Nativism all too well.
Again, there is no disputing Kelly’s heroism, leadership, honor, and sacrifice in uniform – which is why his recent alignment with Trumpian Nativism does not seem to fit a man of Irish Catholic descent.