Some agita attended the belated discovery that retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s son Justin had business dealings with Donald Trump and his family. An exchange recorded at last year’s State of the Union address (Trump: “Say hello to your boy . . . special guy”; Kennedy: “Your kids have been very nice to him”) revealed that Kennedy’s son, an executive at Deutsche Bank, had worked on the Trump family’s real estate loan portfolio.
Conspiracy theories abounded: Did Kennedy retire in return for some unspecified favor proffered to Trump by his son? Or: Was Deutsche Bank (where Justin Kennedy stopped working in 2009) about to be swept up in Robert Mueller’s investigation, with the young Kennedy’s name popping up to embarrass the eminent justice?
People seemed surprised that the children of powerful people know each other and often work together, but they shouldn’t be. Justin Kennedy and the Trumps are all members of the American nomenklatura.
Nomenklatura (from the Latin “nomenclatura,” or list of names) was a familiar concept in the former Soviet Union, where the Communist Party maintained a list of political and economic jobs — there was no private sector — to be filled by properly vetted candidates. The party kept a separate list of possible candidates for those jobs, men and women who attended the right schools and who exhibited correct behavior vis-a-vis the Stalinist and post-Stalinist states.
If you belonged to an unfavored class, your name would never appear on the candidates list. But just as it was hard to get on the list, you had to work hard to get dropped, too. Bureaucrats’ families could generally count on staying on the inside for several generations. The children of military brass, media eminentoes, or state planners were eligible to go to top schools, with a helpful dollop of careerist favoritism greasing their paths to the upper echelons of Soviet society.
Critics in the so-called Free World denounced the nomenklatura system as symptomatic of the sclerotic social organization that brought Soviet-style socialism to its knees in 74 years, a pretty brief run in the scheme of things. In recent years, the phrase “American nomenklatura” has entered our vocabulary, as we realize how power elites in the United States perpetuate themselves, often to the detriment of our collective interests.
How do you get into the American nomenklatura? Being born into it would be a good start, as Justin Kennedy and Donald Trump, Jr. can attest. Attending a top-tier college can’t hurt. Bill Clinton, from Hope, Ark., found his way to Georgetown University and Yale Law School. Now his grandchildren and, someday, their grandchildren are inside the magic circle, if they choose to remain there.
Another, less appreciated entry point: fraternities. In a Bloomberg column, Naomi Riley illustrated the “Fraternity Paradox: Lower GPA, Higher Incomes.” She quoted a study which concluded that “the formation of social capital that takes place in fraternities is much more than sufficient to overcome the loss of human capital from reduced studying, as reflected in poorer grades.”
Most American leadership roles seem to be filled from a very small pool. In 2004, for instance, the two presidential candidates, George Bush and John Kerry, not only attended the same college – Yale – but were also members of the same secret society, Skull and Bones. Every member of the current Supreme Court (as well as nominee Brett Kavanaugh) attended either of two law schools, Harvard or Yale . (Ruth Bader Ginsburg started at Harvard and finished at Columbia.)
When White House staff secretary Rob Porter lost his job in a domestic-abuse scandal earlier this year, it went more or less unnoticed that his father, Roger Porter, had served as a high-level staff assistant in two previous White Houses. So these are hereditary posts? If you are part of the nomenklatura, the answer is yes.
A hidebound regime bent on self-replication, recycling the same cast of characters through positions of power? Wasn’t July 4 just last week? Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.