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American Psycho

Jared Kushner—climber, sycophant, snob—is the perfect avatar of elite incompetence for our times.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

To understand how Jared Kushner received the opportunity to fail at managing the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, you mostly need to know that he is married to the president’s daughter. But to truly grasp the distinctive style of failure that Kushner has brought to bear on his latest and most urgent challenge, it helps to know about the career of a man named Kevin Hassett.

In 1999, Hassett was 37 years old and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a familiar home port for Republican policy types, when his third book, Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market, arrived in stores on October 1. The timing was not ideal for a hucksterish book arguing that the market would soon “rise to much higher ground.” Three months later, the Dow began a steep descent; stocks declined by 44 percent in real terms over the next few years.

That book-length public blooper didn’t adversely affect his career. Hassett spent the next two decades flitting between AEI and various political campaigns. He was chairman of Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2017 to 2019 before returning in March of this year as an adviser focused on the economic recovery. It was in this new role that Hassett produced another simple econometric model that was, once again, preposterously wrong. Jason Furman, who headed up the CEA under President Obama, called Hassett’s “cubic model” projection, which showed coronavirus deaths dwindling away entirely by the middle of May, “utterly superficial and misleading,” and tweeted that it “might be the lowest point in the 74 year history of the Council of Economic Advisers.” In The Washington Post, Hassett insisted that “no administration policy has been influenced by my projections.” He had to produce this disclaimer because administration policy had, in fact, been influenced by his projections. The Washington Post reported that Hassett’s chart sketching out the projected death tolls “was embraced inside the West Wing by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other powerful aides helping to oversee the government’s pandemic response.” “It’s not hard to see why,” Slate’s Jordan Weissmann wrote. “It has a trail of pink dots leading to zero.”

So here we have Kushner, a powerful special adviser with no meaningful expertise in public health or epidemiology, using a breathtakingly specious chart produced by an economist who’d flubbed the biggest prediction he’d ever made—all as a justification for the federal government to do less to confront a rampaging pandemic. While the Trump years have offered many such crystalline and bottomless moments of executive abandonment, this one felt uniquely Jared. The collaboration is what makes it—a legacy figure in the field of elite ineptitude, delivering the old egregiousness in a style optimized for the vacuous new avatar of elite incompetence. The gilded tools of one generation of catastrophic conservative governance pass into the soft and clammy hands of the next. If it weren’t for all those people dying, it would be beautiful.

Jared Kushner is not yet 40, and was a newspaper publisher and commercial real estate magnate in New York City before he became a major player in Trump’s administration. (He remains a slumlord, in Maryland.) He has a degree from Harvard and a J.D./MBA from New York University; his father, a New Jersey real estate titan and convicted felon, donated generously to both institutions prior to Jared’s admission. Kushner himself is by all accounts ambitious and hardworking, but also a cipher—a climber and a sycophant, a snob, someone who isn’t quite filled in. Ivanka Trump has said that her dream man was Christian Bale’s portrayal of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho; the man she married, in 2009, is a milder, ganglier, edited-for-television version. As it happened, her father’s chaotic and relentlessly paranoid administration proved the perfect environment for a sufficiently labile and servile nullity to rise quickly. He has.

That rise is the signal success of his professional life. Kushner bought the New York Observer in 2006 and wrecked it utterly; its last print issue ran the day that Trump won election in 2016. His record $1.8 billion purchase of 666 Fifth Avenue remains one of the great boondoggles in New York commercial real estate history. And yet Kushner’s many failures seem only to have made him more ardent and secure in his self-belief. He has carried that forward into his political career, forcing himself into and up the organizational chart at the White House not because there’s anything in particular he wants to do with that power, but because he believes he deserves it.

A Trumpian suspicion of conventional expertise, a trendy deference to business-boy buzzwords, and a rich kid’s innate distaste for people with less money all likely had something to do with how Kushner came to oversee a team of two dozen volunteers he’d borrowed from big management consultancies or from other government agencies to help coordinate the response. (At FEMA, officials came to call this group the Slim Suit Crowd.) But in the search for answers to the question of how this bespoke team with, per The Washington Post, no “significant experience in health care, procurement or supply-chain operations” wound up tinkering unhelpfully in all three areas, it’s important not to overthink it, given the people involved. Volunteers from McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group were asked to procure protective gear for the same reasons that there are (presumably) chandeliers in the bathrooms at Mar-a-Lago—in the absence of actual discernment or real consideration, a rich person simply defaulted to the most luxurious option.

So how did this crew of private-sector efficiency experts come to award a $69 million contract to an unvetted and unqualified Twitter reply guy, or send PPE to a preferred hospital of Trump’s favorite on-air talent at Fox News? Quite naturally. Kushner’s crew wound up overseeing essential things they knew little about in the same way that ­McKinseyfied efficiency came to hold sway over American capitalism—because of a certain inbred deference to rich people in suits, but mostly because no one stopped them.

It fits. Everything that happens in this administration happens because people decided they could get away with it. The media tend to ascribe these outcomes to some inchoate ideology—when Kushner sought out a crew of McKinsey consultants, they attributed it to his belief in the superior candlepower and deal-craft of the private sector. The truth might be even dumber—a bunch of people with no real principles smugly, blithely winged it.

Conservative-movement lifers like Kevin Hassett are in the costume design business. Their work, in and out of power, is to dress up the atavistic avarice and self-serving fatuity of the wealthy people who fund and shape conservative politics as an ideology. For a long time, the idea was to invest these grouchy, suspicious, proudly unreasoned instincts with enough cosmetic heft that they could pass as actual values. Trump has undone this—there are no real values, now, only deals. As it happens, the old work of finding clever new ways to the same old answers was always just a matter of Getting To Yes. The solution was always going to be something as useless and superficially serious as Hassett’s vanishing pink curve. The real challenge, it turns out, was fitting it for an appropriately expensive-looking suit.