Money Changes Everything

In a perfect world, Citizens United would be overturned and American law would embrace the separation of billionaire and state. In an imperfect world, this appears to be the best one can hope for:

Boston hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman lavished more than $7 million on Republican candidates and political committees during the Obama administration, using his fortune to help underwrite a GOP takeover of the federal government.

But the rise of Donald Trump shocked and dismayed Klarman, as did the timid response from the Republican-controlled House and Senate, which have acquiesced rather than challenge the president’s erratic and divisive ways. So, in an astonishing flip, Klarman, at one point New England’s most generous donor to Republicans, is taking his money elsewhere: He’s heaping cash on Democrats.

He’s given roughly $222,000 since the 2016 election to 78 Democrats running for Congress, according to federal election data from 2017 and a preview of Klarman’s first-quarter donations provided to the Globe by a person familiar with his giving.

“The Republicans in Congress have failed to hold the president accountable and have abandoned their historic beliefs and values,” Klarman said in a prepared statement to the Globe, opening up for the first time about the reasons behind his change in political giving. “For the good of the country, the Democrats must take back one or both houses of Congress.”

Klarman said he’s financing his new political donations using his share of the $1.5 trillion tax cut Trump signed into law late last year.

“I received a tax cut I neither need nor want,” said Klarman, who Forbes estimates is worth $1.5 billion. “I’m choosing to invest it to fight the administration’s flawed policies and to elect Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives.”

It’s impossible to resist assigning a cynical partial motivation to this action; one can’t help wondering if Klarman is angling for a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award a year from now. One also can’t help asking Klarman why he didn’t realize the profound perversity of the Republican Party years ago. Then again, sometimes it takes a while before people who were apparently sound asleep when the GOP got grotesque hear the alarm bell, even if they never fully become “woke.”

It would be nice if this were a true moral reckoning, a moment when Klarman confronted in full the profound immorality of Republican politics, a time when Klarman apologized for having ever supported a party that has been laser-focused on dividing this country from the very moment Barry Goldwater rejected the 1964 Civil Rights Act, if not earlier. Not to be too snarky about it, but it seems that Klarman, at the very least, understands that one can’t spend or invest their money if one has been killed in a nuclear war. (Too bad his fellow Republican billionaires don’t grasp that common-sense concept.)

However, understandable cynicism notwithstanding, there is something to be said for doing the right thing even for the wrong reasons. Klarman may be a bit of a self-aggrandizer, but if he is now using his fortune in an effort to hold Trump accountable, so much the better, no?

Yes, it is very likely that the moment Trump is gone from the scene, Klarman will once again seek the right’s warm embrace. After all, he did donate to pro-Chris Christie and pro-Marco Rubio super PACs in 2016, and if the GOP nominates a Republican Presidential candidate in 2024 with a less primitive personality than the 2016 and 2020 nominee, one can envision Klarman returning to Republican folly (think of former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who became an “Obama Republican” in 2008 only to champion Mitt Romney in 2012). However, the need to hold Trump accountable is of such paramount importance that progressives wouldn’t be wrong to welcome Klarman as a temporary ally, particularly if he’s willing to use his money to focus on ensuring high anti-Trump turnout in November.

Right-wingers love to say that freedom isn’t free. Freedom from the tyranny of Trump will certainly cost a lot. Is it necessarily wrong to accept the assistance of an imperfect individual who’s nevertheless willing to bear some of that cost?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.