Rahm Emanuel, fresh off his last job as mayor of Chicago, immediately landed a position as a contributing editor at the Atlantic, the magazine announced this morning. Along with the announcement, the Atlantic published a new piece by its newest staffer, in its Ideas section: “It’s Time to Hold American Elites Accountable for Their Abuses.”
The millionaire former big-city mayor, member of Congress, Clinton administration advisor, investment banker, board member of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, and Obama White House chief of staff, newly hired by the magazine backed by the fortune of the late Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, was unsparing in his account of “a full-on middle-class revolt against the elites and the privileges they hoard.” This, he wrote—not “inequality and social justice”—is “the most important barrier standing between Democrats and the White House”:
Think of what’s happened over the past decade and a half. America endured a war sold on false premises, a bailout of bankers issuing entirely toxic debt, and a massive public effort to prop up auto executives who were building cars that weren’t selling. Is it any wonder so many middle-class taxpayers resent the elites? They’ve been forced to bail them out from their own mistakes time and time again—and yet the beneficiaries of that goodwill haven’t apologized, let alone taken responsibility. America’s middle class is Cinderella, and the nation’s elites are her evil stepsisters—only now it’s the stepsisters who get to marry the prince. It’s infuriating.
It is straightforward enough to note that Emanuel was intimately involved in every one of those events and their aftermath, and that the phrase “haven’t apologized” is the only appearance, in any form, of the words “apologize” or “sorry” in the piece. He arrived in Congress a few months too late to have voted for or against the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, which allowed an invasion that he rightly now describes as a debacle. “Middle-class families paid in both blood and treasure,” he wrote, “but the people who had made the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history never owned their failure.” Still, while that foreign policy failure was going on, Emanuel was a member and eventually leader of the opposition party, which had gained majority control of the House and full oversight powers by the end of the Bush administration. He moved on to the Obama administration, where he—
But it would be ridiculous for the Atlantic, a thriving forum for the robust discussions at the center of our mainstream political discourse, to have hired a powerful politician to write disingenuous essays denying the substance of his entire career. It would be a waste of the readers’ time and Laurene Powell Jobs’ money. It would, in this case, be a flagrant illustration of exactly the kind of arrogance and impunity that Emanuel wrote was responsible for the success of Donald Trump.
So the only alternative is to read Emanuel’s account of things as sincere, and to take his conclusions at face value. Here is how he described his view of the government response to the financial crisis, from the inside:
Washington wasn’t wrong to prevent a global financial meltdown. Obama was certainly right to save the domestic auto industry. But those decisions came at a real cost. After the Recovery Act had passed and the auto bailout was rolling, we had a fierce debate inside the White House about how to sequence our pushes for health care, climate change, and financial reform. As the White House chief of staff, I argued, unsuccessfully, that the American people needed the catharsis of seeing that the bankers who had gotten the country into this mess were being forced to take responsibility—that faith in government would plummet if we failed to deliver some “Old Testament justice.” Others feared that attacking Wall Street would undermine the recovery, and they won the day. Perhaps they were right on the economics. But the political implications were significant, and we’re still living with them today. The middle class believes even now that elites have license to make irresponsible decisions without paying a price.
By Rahm Emanuel’s telling, Rahm Emanuel had argued, directly to the president, that the credibility of our entire system of government depended on visibly punishing the people who had brought down the financial system. This argument failed, and the failure of that argument led us to the present crisis and the rampaging power of Donald Trump.
Why, though, did the argument fail? Again, it is fair, and necessary, to assume that Emanuel—a public-minded private citizen writing in the Atlantic‘s Ideas section—was telling the truth, as he understands it. He raised the possibility that a real reckoning may have been impossible because of structural forces, that the people who thought it would “undermine the recovery” could have been “right on the economics.”
If that were so, however, the impunity of the elites could not be the genuine problem with our politics. It would mean, instead, that the elite decision-makers were not really making decisions at all, but simply recognizing and following the limits of our existing economic order. Injustice and unaccountability would have to be essential features of our economy. And that can’t be the case, because Emanuel went on to write that “[t]he answer certainly isn’t socialism.”
Did Emanuel’s argument fail because his powers of persuasion weren’t good enough? Again, it’s impossible to square that premise with the existence of the piece: why would he believe he could persuade Democrats to “become the party of justice” and “demand accountability from bad actors” by writing an article in the Atlantic, when he already failed to persuade the most powerful Democrat in the country to do that same thing, face to face?
The answer is startling: Rahm Emanuel must have been trying to tell the readers of the Atlantic that Barack Obama was unpersuadable. If the system was not to blame, and if Emanuel was not to blame, who else is left? The story he laid out has to be the story of how Obama, through stubbornness or ignorance or malice, refused to do the right thing, leaving the American middle-class electorate feeling betrayed and believing that it had no choice but to turn to Trump. That would be a scathing indictment from one of Obama’s closest allies. But if that’s not what Emanuel was trying to say, then he was trying to say nothing at all.