In Joseph Conrad's great short story, "The Secret Sharer," the captain of a ship comes to harbor a secret. A murderer named Leggatt slips on board in the night, and the captain, without exactly knowing why, chooses to hide him in his cabin. Desperate to save the man, and safeguard his deception, the captain almost drives the ship aground as he steers it close enough to shore for the killer to plunge into the water and escape.
The captain, new to the ship, asks himself a question at the outset: "I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." Yet, faced by events that seem to awaken some personal demon, he is unmoored. "It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror."
What does the captain see reflected that leads him to an almost fatal compromise? It could be a personal memory of some act of violence; it could be Leggatt's desperate humanity; it could even be that he draws this doppelgänger out of his subconscious, an apparition, as he anxiously embarks on a ship to which he is a stranger, with a crew he does not know.
I have been thinking of "The Secret Sharer" as I contemplate the American carnage of the Trump administration after 13 months. Everybody who serves President Trump is faced with his or her "own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror." Everyone is compromised, whether fatally or not. How could it be otherwise serving a man who does not know the difference between reality and make-believe?
When it comes to Trump's intentions, there is, as Gertrude Stein remarked of her native Oakland, no there there; and so people are driven crazy trying to imagine what is.
Some, notably members of his own family, have survived, but none has escaped the moral toll of entwinement in the web of a man whose narcissism demands absolute power; whose greatest talent lies in inserting a knife into others' weak spots; and who, when asked by Joe Scarborough whom Trump talked to, responded: "The answer is me. Me. I talk to myself," according to Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury."
It's natural, if misguided, to believe one can change somebody, especially if that somebody has come from nowhere to be president of the United States. Surely, Trump would come to learn elements of decorum. I've no doubt that Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus and Dina Powell, among others who have come and gone, believed they could help bring order. (Steve Bannon thought Trump should defer to his war plan for Western civilization, and thought itself was foreign to Anthony Scaramucci, but these are different issues.)
But in no case does the "somber and immense mirror" leading to dark compromise loom as large as in the case of Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who moved from secretary of Homeland Security last summer to instill basic command principles at the White House.
Kelly was the straight shooter. He was the good soldier. He was the decent man dedicated to process. He was the moderate of strong traditional values. He was the adult in the room.
Except that he was not what he appeared to be and, once sucked into Trump's maelstrom of turpitude, another side of his nature began to emerge.
Kelly has, it turns out, an uncertain relationship with truth. He maligned a black congresswoman, Frederica S. Wilson, with a falsehood, and declined to apologize. He presented a misleading account of the departure of a staff secretary, Rob Porter, whom he admired but who was accused by two ex-wives of domestic violence.
This was consistent with Kelly's past defense of a Marine colonel accused of sexually harassing two female subordinates. Kelly called him a "superb Marine officer;" the man was later arrested for "indecent liberties with a child."
Some of Kelly's "sacred" values turn out to be pretty ugly.
Kelly led the zealous pursuit of the eviction of undocumented immigrants resulting in a doubling of "noncriminal" arrests in fiscal year 2017 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; he dismissed many kids eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as "too lazy to get off their asses;" and he evinces a Trump-like nostalgia for the world of "Mad Men," if not quite the 1860s world of the Confederacy.
Now, post-Porter, in what looks like an attempt at redemption, Kelly wants to take on Jared Kushner on the issue of White House security clearances.
But there is no redemption in Trump World. There is only the vortex. Kelly, like the captain, must have wondered "how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." He must be pondering, as the rocks loom, just how far he has fallen short and just what in his nature his acts betray.