Donald Trump’s political success is “the greatest present threat to the prosperity and security of the United States,” Lawrence Summers wrote on Monday in the Washington Post.
Summers is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard as well as a former treasury secretary (under president Bill Clinton) and director of the National Economic Council (under President Barack Obama). He is vexed by Trump’s progress toward the Republican presidential nomination. Trump’s election as president, Summers wrote, would “risk grave damage to the American project.” It would “threaten our democracy.” The mere prospect of a Trump election win, even if the event itself never comes to pass, could “tip a fragile U.S. economy into recession.”
Perhaps it is possible to agree with much of Summers’ argument while noting the response it provoked. Journalists warn one another never to read online comment boards, infested as they are with five-alarm nutjobs. But what the heck. Sometimes the people have a point. The comments under Summers’ article were full of contempt—not for Trump but for Summers. “Hey look, another 1%’er coming out trying to protect the 1% ruling class,” one reader wrote. “Quintessential evidence why the elites are completely detached from reality,” another added. “More likely is the reality that the worst thing that did happen to the U.S. was the foundation of the Harvard Business School,” wrote a third.
Now, I’m going to go along with the Washington Post’s comment board only so far. Nothing Summers ever did justifies Trump’s casual thuggery, the constant menace of violence at his rallies, the blanket slurs against Hispanic immigrants, Muslims, women, journalists and on and on. But if the American polity has grown so palsied it is vulnerable to Trump’s limited charms, the best ideas of Summers and his associates have had something to do with it.
Between 2006 and 2008, Summers made $5 million at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Co. while picking up another $2.8 million in speaking fees from firms that included Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup. Shaw survived all right when the U.S. economy more or less imploded at the end of 2008. Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup did much worse. But both firms were rescued, to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars. The taxpayers themselves received no such rescue. Behold the fairness of what it pleases Summers to call “the American project.”
Summers then returned to the White House to help design many of Barack Obama’s economic policies. And while from the comfortable distance of Ottawa it’s easy enough for me to say they did a decent job, on the ground in the United States, the view is bleaker. Long-term unemployment spiked and remains high. Obstructionist Republicans in Congress—including some of the very people now running against Trump—ensured that Washington remained more or less broken as a vehicle for improving the lives of ordinary Americans, while continuing to function quite well as a deliverer of low taxes for the rich.
This helps explain why, according to a RAND Corporation large-sample Internet survey, Trump performs much better than his establishment rival Ted Cruz among likely GOP primary voters who agree that the rich should pay higher taxes and among those who think highly of labour unions. And RAND found that respondents were 86 per cent likelier to support Trump if they agreed with the statement that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” Today’s GOP exists to cut taxes for the wealthy; bust labour unions, to the extent there are any left; and ensure that nobody has any say in what the government does because Congress is dedicated to ensuring the government doesn’t do anything.
Across the West in recent years, rejection of the creaky status quo has been a dominant political theme. It helps explain weird new governments in Hungary and Poland; the very different populist brinksmanship of Greece’s Tsipras government; and the looming referendum on British membership of the EU. In Canada, it helps explain how Rob Ford became Toronto’s mayor. For decades Republicans have valued simplistic solutions, and here comes one now to reward them. “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory,” William F. Buckley once wrote, “than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” Lately, the Boston phone book has been doing pretty well by Trump. Harvard can only look on in horror.