Larry Summers's Anti-Trump Case In a Vacuum
By David Henderson
Recently, economist Larry Summers made his case against Donald Trump.
It has one main problem. Although Larry makes, in some ways, a powerful case, he makes it in a vacuum. The question is not whether Donald Trump should be president or no one should be president. Given that Larry is a Democrat and, as far as I know, has always supported Democrats for president, his likely choice for president is Hillary Clinton. But he very cleverly avoids even mentioning her name.
And that’s the main problem with his post. Many of his criticisms of Trump could also be levied against Clinton. In this, by the way, he is not alone.
What follows is my response to Larry’s main points.
Larry opens his case with his main claim:
The possible election of Donald Trump as president is the greatest present threat to the prosperity and security of the United States.
That could be true. But if he’s the greatest threat, that means that the threat must be greater than that from Hillary Clinton. Does Larry make that case? He doesn’t even try.
The problem is not with Trump’s policies, though they are wacky in the few areas where they are not indecipherable.
That’s overstated. His policies are often indecipherable and sometimes wacky, but not always. Try this one about Israel, from the Houston debate:
BLITZER: You said this about the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians — I’m quoting you now: “Let me be sort of a neutral guy. I don’t want to say whose fault it is, I don’t think it helps.”
BLITZER: Here’s the question. How do you remain neutral when the U.S. considers Israel to be America’s closest ally in the Middle East?
TRUMP: Well, first of all, I don’t think they do under President Obama because I think he’s treated Israel horribly, all right? I think he’s treated Israel horribly.
TRUMP: I was the grand marshall down 5th Avenue a number of years ago for the Israeli Day Parade, I have very close ties to Israel. I’ve received the Tree of Life Award and many of the greatest awards given by Israel.
As president, however, there’s nothing that I would rather do to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors generally. And I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy.
Now, I may not be successful in doing it. It’s probably the toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind. OK? But it doesn’t help if I start saying, “I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.” But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors, because I would love to do something with regard to negotiating peace, finally, for Israel and for their neighbors.
And I can’t do that as well — as a negotiator, I cannot do that as well if I’m taking big, big sides. With that being said, I am totally pro-Israel.
In U.S. presidential campaigns, pro-Israel is pro forma. But what was refreshing was his statement in the second last paragraph of the transcript excerpt above. Larry might disagree with it, but it’s not wacky.
Larry also claims that Trump “flirted with the Ku Klux Klan.” I do not think the word “flirted” means what he thinks it means. I find Trump’s hesitance on the KKK pretty awful, but it’s not flirting. By the way, few commentators have noted the package dealing in Jake Tapper’s question about David Duke and the KKK. Jake asked him if he would disavow them and whether he wanted their support. Those are two different questions. Were I to run, I would reject them and want their support. Remember that the goal is to raise funds and win votes. It would be sweet to get money from people you detest: you now have their money.
Time and again, he has claimed he will crush those who stand in his way; his promised rewrite of libel laws, permitting the punishment of the New York Times and The Washington Post for articles he does not like, will allow him to make good on this threat.
That is horrible. It sounds kind of like–Hillary Clinton. Has Larry heard of Citizens United? Does he know what it’s about? It’s about some people who got together and formed a corporation to finance a movie critical of–Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton has made clear her opposition to corporations not called the New York Times or the Washington Post that go after her. Indeed, she made opposition to the Citizens United decision a litmus test for Supreme Court appointees.
Trump’s rhetorical record on free speech is bad, no doubt. But he has never been within a city mile of political office until launching his unlikely bid for the presidency last June. Hillary Clinton was First Lady of Arkansas for 12 years, of the White House for another eight years (and was unusually active on policy in both roles), then a United States senator for eight years (during which she was runner-up for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination), secretary of state for four years, and now the odds-on favorite to be the next U.S. president. And during this long public career she has sponsored, co-sponsored, barnstormed for, advocated, suggested, and bragged about a series of specific laws whose texts and/or ideas were found to be at least partly unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
A non-comprehensive list would include: The 1996 Communications Decency Act (parts of which were struck down by the Supreme Court one year later on free speech grounds), the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 2009 on free speech grounds), the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010 on free speech grounds), and the 2005 Family Entertainment Protection Act (an almost exact replica of which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2011 on free-speech grounds). It’s almost as if there’s a pattern there!
Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated biographer, Robert Caro, has written that while “power doesn’t always corrupt…[it] always reveals.” What will a demagogue with a platform like Trump’s who ascends to the presidency do with control over the NSA, FBI and IRS? What commitment will he manifest to the rule of law?
It sounds awful. It is awful. And how well have we done with Bush and Obama? Moreover, does Larry see any irony in quoting Robert Caro, who showed what a power-hungry horrible man Lyndon Johnson was? Again, Trump is awful. So was LBJ. It’s not clear to me that Trump is worse than LBJ, admittedly a very low bar. But again this points out the problem with Larry’s piece: he evaluates Donald Trump in a vacuum. Is Trump worse than LBJ? Blank out. And, speaking of the IRS, is Trump worse than Lois Lerner’s employer, Barack Obama? Blank out.
Already Trump has proposed that protesters at his rallies “should have been roughed up.”
That’s awful. So would Larry oppose the law that allows federal government officials to rough up protesters at Donald Trump’s rallies and at Hillary Clinton’s rallies? And not just rough them up, but charge them with a crime carrying a prison sentence of up to 10 years? His former boss signed the law. How much, really, does Larry Summers favor free speech? Here’s his chance to speak out. Any bets about whether he will?
One shudders to think what President Huey Long would have done during the Depression, what President Joe McCarthy would have done at the height of the Cold War, or what President George Wallace would have done at the end of the turbulent 1960s.
One does shudder. But notice Larry’s choice of time periods. The Depression preceded World War II, when Huey Long’s political rival FDR threw over 100,000 innocent American residents into internment camps. Would Huey Long have been worse? I don’t know. But any attempt to put Trump into perspective, given how unprecedented Larry claims Trump is, should consider FDR’s fascistic wartime policy.
Even the possibility of Trump becoming president is dangerous. The economy is already growing at a sub-two percent rate in substantial part because of a lack of confidence in a weak world economy. A growing sense that a protectionist demagogue could soon become president of the United States would surely introduce great uncertainty at home and abroad. The resulting increase in risk premiums might well be enough to tip a fragile U.S. economy into recession. And a concern that the U.S. was becoming protectionists and isolationist could easily undermine confidence in many emerging markets and set off a financial crisis.
True re protectionism. Although if Larry means by “isolationist” someone who does not want to bomb people in other countries, the way Larry’s previous two President bosses have done, it’s hard to see how people in say, emerging Iran, would lose confidence in the U.S.
The U.S. and China are struggling over influence in Asia. It is hard to imagine something better for China than the U.S moving to adopt a policy of “truculent isolationism.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a central element in our rebalancing toward Asia, could collapse. Japan would have to take self-defense, rather than reliance on American security guarantees, more seriously. And others in Asia would inevitably tilt from a more erratic America towards a relatively steady China.
The U.S. government standing down in Asia would make China better off. And that’s bad for the United States why? I seem to recall someone thinking that when China is better off, the United States is worse off. Who was that? Oh, yes: Donald Trump.
And Japan, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, would have to take self-defense more seriously, and not rely on U.S. taxpayers. Oh my God!
The United States has always been governed by the authority of ideas, rather than the idea of authority.
Good one, Larry.