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Rahm Emanuel’s Deficit of Self-Awareness

The former Chicago mayor and newly minted pundit is right about why the middle class is so mad, but he's oblivious to his own elitism.

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Rahm Emanuel has identified an alarming problem in American politics. He may as well have found it by staring into a mirror.

The explanation for President Donald Trump’s dismaying rise, he argues in The Atlantic on Tuesday, is that economic and political elites have engineered a society that pampers themselves while punishing working people. “The elite get all the breaks and are shown all the shortcuts,” Emanuel, an elite, writes in the nation’s leading journal of elite opinion. “In the meantime, ordinary people are forced to pay full freight.”

It’s an interesting premise, considering the same could very well be said of the past eight years of life in Chicago under Emanuel’s rule. But his two terms as mayor, which concluded on Monday, go without mention. The only time he appears in the article is as the heroic Obama underling who was tragically ignored after the financial meltdown: “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.”

The implication is that Democrats today ignore Emanuel’s advice at their own peril. But the bluster he postures as insight contains very few calories. He puts his finger on “the most important, least understood, and underappreciated political dynamic of our era: a full-on middle-class revolt against the elites and the privileges they hoard. For all the focus on inequality and social justice, this middle-class revolt is the most important barrier standing between Democrats and the White House. They can’t afford to ignore it.”

This supposedly “underappreciated” revolt has been at the center of the political conversation for many years now. Since Trump’s rise, reporters from elite media organizations have been shipped out to the hinterlands to embed with these new enemies of the elite, to figure out what exactly had happened to America.

Emanuel was one of those things that had happened.

As mayor, he doubled the fees Chicagoans pay for basic water and sewer service, financing a necessary overhaul of city water infrastructure on the backs of working families. He jacked up fines for missing the deadline to renew a city parking sticker on your car, and thousands of paycheck-to-paycheck drivers wound up in bankruptcy as a result. He wielded the city’s perverse “tax increment financing” system to shovel huge sums of public dollars to private investors for projects that often displaced the “ordinary people” of his city, accelerating a two-decade residential exodus for black Chicagoans. He closed half the mental health clinics in his city while spending lavishly to build things geared for the well-to-do. And he shuttered the city’s environmental inspections office, after which lead levels in city drinking water spiked.

Now, having largely failed to become the great statesman he set out to become after disembarking from the Obama administration, Emanuel is keen to lay out a politics of do as I say, not as I do. “The middle-class believes even now that elites have license to make irresponsible decisions without paying a price,” writes the man whose approximately $12 million fortune spiked by half a million bucks in 2017 alone, thanks to passive investment income from markets that rebounded from the Great Recession far faster than Main Street ever did.

Emanuel’s solution to this problem is vague. “Democrats need to become the party of justice,” he writes. “They need to demand accountability from bad actors—and point out where Republicans would give them a pass.” They should be more shy about opposing Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric, he insinuates, to duck out of an “issue [that] paints Democrats as champions of constituencies that aren’t following the rules.” Democrats also “should be the party standing up for middle-class interests and values.” But he’s clear about what he doesn’t want. “The answer certainly isn’t socialism,” he writes. “They don’t need to castigate entire industries.”

Tuesday’s column may well be a loose roadmap for Rahm’s political return: Say as little as possible about his tenure running the nation’s third-largest city, and bang the old drums that once made him a hands-in-the-dirt figure to liberal-minded students of Washington power. But even if he doesn’t obtain a new post within the party, it looks like he will get the chance to issue advice without ever acknowledging that he is precisely the villain he identifies as having shaped America’s decline: an unaccountable elite to whom working-class rules don’t apply.

The piece is Emanuel’s eighth for The Atlantic this year, but his first piece since being named a contributing editor at the magazine. He also joined ABC News on Tuesday as a contributor. He is now a professional pundit, one presumably paid more handsomely than most of the accomplished journalists around him (and if not, there’s always that ever-swelling nest egg). So the Democrats can expect more free advice that’s deprived of self-awareness or careful editing, like the following from Tuesday’s column:

“Democrats need to be the ones demanding that those who fall short, no matter how privileged, be made to answer for their own decisions. Every one of us should have to live by the same moral and ethical codes. The nation’s elite shouldn’t have any special license to take the easy way out.”

Emanuel is taking exactly such license. It’s nice work if you can get it—which you can’t.