Thomas Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine and the author of books including What’s the Matter with Kansas?, The Wrecking Crew, and Pity the Billionaire. His latest book is Listen, Liberal.
Frank is not only an astute observer of politics, he is funny. He laughs a lot. But the laughter may be covering his distress over the state of politics in this country.
His role model, he says, is H.L. Mencken. “If there was an orthodoxy, the man was against it,“ he told me, and then added, “Christopher Lasch and Barbara Ehrenreich are the guiding geniuses of everything I’ve ever written.”
Long a thorn in the side of the Republicans, Frank does not spare the Democrats, particularly President Obama and the Clintons.
I spoke with Frank in Ottawa where he was a keynote speaker for the National Union of Public and General Employees, one of Canada’s biggest trade unions.
Q: You wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas? more than a decade ago, and now you say, “What I saw in Kansas then is now everywhere.” Explain what you mean.
Thomas Frank: It’s class anger expressed in self-destructive cultural ways. And the anger is reasonable: There are good reasons for working people to be really mad in America. But the way that their anger gets expressed politically, it’s often just a sort of lashing out, fury. Look what happened in Great Britain with the Brexit vote. This is an almost perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s everywhere. Of course, the entire Trump phenomenon, that’s what this is. Trump appeals to people whose lives have been ruined. He is the great human middle finger raised at those they think have ruined their lives.
Q: But the irony is that here’s a billionaire attracting working-class support.
Frank: Everything about Trump is ironic and paradoxical and self-injuring. He is in some ways the perfect embodiment of the Kansas thesis, because everything about him is so goddamn perverse. This is a man who is known to the public because he had a TV show where he fired people. That was what you watched for. How can a man who fires people for a living be a working-class hero? Everything about him is tasteless and monstrous and boastful.
Except he has put his finger on some real concerns. Like trade. Look, that is a genuine complaint and it’s a legitimate one, in my view. Of course, he has no plan. He says, “These trade deals are bad. I will write trade deals that are good.”
What does that even mean? It doesn’t mean anything. But the anger is there, the anger is real. Other than that, everything is wrong with him.
Q: What’s your take on Hillary Clinton?
Frank: My leftwing and liberal friends are trying to talk themselves into being hopeful about Hillary, and I’m probably going to vote for her this fall. I’m certainly not going to vote for Donald Trump. She will be a better President than her husband was. But at the same time, I think she’s squarely within the Bill Clinton, Barack Obama tradition, the sort of Democratic Leadership Council centrists. I don’t think we should expect anything really inspiring or unusual from her at all.
Q: You wouldn’t consider voting for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate?
Frank: I might. I like the idea of third parties. But the Nader experience back in 2000 taught me that the way the system is set up now, third parties can’t help but be spoilers. This is a big problem. And it’s structural. It’s not Nader’s fault and it’s not Nader’s supporters’ fault. The system is stupid.
I think right now the answer is to work within the Democratic Party. Really interesting things are happening in the Republican Party, and Lord knows where they’re going to end up. The party establishment despises Trump every bit as much as the Democratic Party establishment despised Bernie Sanders. Maybe Trump is going to just tear the whole thing apart.
Q: Talk about the Sanders campaign. Did it take you by surprise, the crowds, the enthusiasm, the young people attracted to this seventy-four-year-old Senator born in Brooklyn who says “idear”?
Frank: “I’m from a rural arear.” Of course it took me by surprise. It took everyone by surprise. Because this is a man who is regarded as a marginal figure. And he wins primary after primary after primary against a Clinton. How could this happen? It’s incredible. The Democratic establishment, the insiders of the party, every elected Democratic official was against this guy. Why is that?
There are a lot of reasons. First of all, they know who Hillary is. Hillary has probably been promising them things for years and years and years. If Hillary gets elected, everybody moves up a notch. If Sanders gets elected, it’s of no value to them, it means nothing. Everybody gets fired. It’s terrible.
Q: In 2008, Obama won by almost ten million votes. He had a massive mandate. Unlike Bush, eight years earlier, who probably was gifted a stolen election and governed as if he had a mandate. Why did Obama not capitalize on the opportunity he had?
Frank: That’s the $64,000 question. I tried to answer it in Listen, Liberal. I came up with a bunch of answers. One is the love of consensus. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had this deep, profound craving for consensus. This comes directly out of the worldview of the professional class, where they distrust politics, they distrust democracy. They know that the answers can always be found by experts. So you have Bill Clinton reaching out to Newt Gingrich to strike a deal on Social Security, because they know what the answer is. And then you have Barack Obama, who wanted to get a “grand bargain” with the Republicans.
The country was at a turning point in 2008, and we thought we made the turn, we thought we had done it. The country was rejoicing like we had elected another Roosevelt. And we just kept going down the same path. Now here we are, eight years later, the hope and the idealism are gone and there is this sort of extreme cynicism.
You have two of the most unpopular presidential candidates of all time, if not the most unpopular. The middle class is shrinking, which is a shocking statistic. Wages have gone nowhere. The recovery from the recession—all the gains have been concentrated in the pockets of a very small percentage of the population. The idea of widely shared prosperity is just a bitter joke.
Q: Much of the public’s cynicism about the political process was illuminated by the bank bailouts and the fact that the Obama Administration consciously chose not to go after any of the criminals, giving them a get-out-of-jail-free pass.
Frank: Historians, if they’re honest, are going to be mulling that over for 100 years. Why did he act the way he did on the banks? That was the critical issue before the nation at the time and to this day, and it really wasn’t properly resolved. He switched the debate to Obamacare. You can say good things about Barack Obama, but the way he dealt with Wall Street is to his lasting discredit. He did not do what needed to be done when every sign was telling him to do it and the public expected him to do it. Hell, the bankers expected him to do it. And he didn’t do it.
Q: One of the things that the Clinton Democrats focus on, and Obama as well, is meritocracy.
Frank: This is what they believe in. Hillary says it in her campaign. She says it in every speech. We have to tear down the barriers that stop talented people from rising. OK, agreed, we do. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s meritocracy: the idea that the talented need to rise and need to be on top.
What the Democratic Party used to stand for was something different. That even if you weren’t talented, even if you weren’t awesome, even if you didn’t go to a good college, you still deserve to have a chance. That’s very different.
Look at Barack Obama. He brings in people with the highest credentials, and they continue the policies of the Bush administration, at least in regard to the banks, basically unchanged. So you have this crowd of dumb shits replaced by the crowd of geniuses, and they do the same goddamn thing. There’s no change, there’s no difference.
Meritocracy is a fatuous idea that is wrong in 100 different ways, but the way that it’s wrongest is when you talk about it as a solution to inequality. This is not a way of solving inequality; this is a way of rationalizing inequality.
Q: And there’s no solidarity in meritocracy.
Frank: It’s the opposite idea. Meritocracy is every man for himself or every woman for herself. This is the great historical battle that is behind everything that I’ve written my entire career. The old Democratic Party and the labor movement—the left, as we understand it in broad historical terms—was about solidarity. We are in this together. Yes, we want good things, but we want other people to have those same good things, too.
What Clintonism is about, or Obamaism, or the Democratic Party nowadays is about, is tearing down the barriers so the talented can win, can get their McMansions, can get their nice cars, so that the good things in life go to the right people, the people who deserve them. That’s as far as they will go. And that is a radically different idea from that of the Democratic Party I grew up with.
Q: You said in Seattle recently that “in four years’ time there will be a Trump that’s better at being Trump.” Explain what you mean by that.
Frank: Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump. By every standard metric, she’s going to win. Hillary Clinton is President for four years. All the problems that we have just been describing are going to continue and probably get worse. It’s seven years after the recovery began. The business cycle is overdue. Interest rates are still close to zero. What kind of recovery is this? The middle class is shrinking in a recovery? That is bogus, this is terrible. This is going to continue for four years.
In four years, you’re going to have another Trump, or you’re going to have Trump himself, having figured out how to play the game. You don’t run for President by insulting everyone. If you have a guy who is doing what Trump is doing but doesn’t gratuitously insult Mexicans or make insane comments about Muslims, or say all the mean things that he has said about other groups. Then, this is something to contend with. And you’re going to see that four years from now. Hopefully, you will see another Bernie Sanders.
Q: Your observations in Listen, Liberal, about New York, including your visit to the Clinton Foundation, are lacerating. You call them “great spectacles of virtue, where good causes are funded, compassion is radiated and absorbed.”
Frank: That’s what the Clinton Foundation is. The kind of liberalism of the rich that I’m describing is in love with the idea of its own virtue. This is very, very important, and not just in a personal sense. It’s a commodity that can be exchanged. So the Clinton Foundation, as we’ve all been finding out, takes in these donations from really unsavory people and then funds some very good causes. It’s a kind of global virtue exchange, in which people’s sins are forgiven. It’s like in the Middle Ages, when you could buy forgiveness for your sins.
Hillary did this gathering on International Women’s Day I attended at a theater in New York. Hillary Clinton and Melinda Gates were the emcees—the next President and the richest woman in the world. And there’s this cast of all of these women from the Third World who are struggling and succeeding. Everybody was applauding and talking about how wonderful everybody else was. You had some CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, a female head of state from an Eastern European country, a bunch of very high-ranking women. And then these people from the very bottom of the global pyramid.
It struck me that there was a group missing here—working-class American women. Someone in between these people like the Davos types and the people at the very bottom of the world pyramid. They were just completely missing from this picture. It was fascinating.
Q: I think you had a lot of fun writing Listen, Liberal. You took a field trip to Martha’s Vineyard. What did you discover?
Frank: The Clintons love Martha’s Vineyard. They go there every summer. When I was growing up in Kansas City, I never even heard of it. It’s an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It has beautiful beaches, the ocean is gorgeous. And the beaches are private. They’re private right down into the water, so you can’t come onto the beach from a boat. It’s theirs.
That is the ideal place for the kind of Democrat that I’m describing, where they get to relax among people from the high end of the knowledge industries, people from Wall Street, people from big pharma, people from the entertainment industry. They’re very much at home. That’s really who they are. If you really to want understand who these people are, it’s Martha’s Vineyard.
Q: In terms of Clinton’s foreign policy, where do you see that going?
Frank: Hillary was very proud of what she did with Libya. That anybody could be proud of having wrecked that country the way it has been so thoroughly destroyed, that is horrible.
Anyhow, as President? She will make a good President in some ways. Lord, the woman has been around Washington forever. She knows how to get things done. She’ll have all the Clinton team and the Obama team ready to help her. But the big question is, what will she want to get done, what will she try to get done? On foreign policy I think you can expect a certain saber rattling and a hard-nosed sort of thing.
It doesn’t matter anymore, but Trump is alternately to her left and to her right—not alternately, at the same time—criticizing her for being too hawkish and then talking about how he’ll be even tougher and blow even more stuff up. So I don’t really get it. We’re in a strange time.
Q: People are turned off by the choices they’re given every four years. Pick your poison: arsenic or cyanide. How are we going to get around that?
Frank: The system has to be changed. And, look, the solutions that I usually come up with are impossible. Let’s go out and we’ll organize unions all over the place. Well, we know that’s off the table these days. It really is hard to do. But Sanders has shown us a way to work within the Democratic Party.
And I’ll tell you something else. I haven’t thought about this in years, but a big part of What’s the Matter with Kansas? was about these working-class conservatives—people with no money and no power, who took over the local Republican Party. They did it by working really hard and organizing their neighbors and going door to door and doing all the things that you learn in civics class that you’re supposed to do in a democracy.
By God, they did it. They’ve done terrible things to that state. [Republican Governor] Sam Brownback is a product of their efforts. But the way that they took over that party from the sort of rich, country-club set that used to run it, that’s kind of inspiring. There’s no reason that our kind of people couldn’t do exactly the same thing.
David Barsamian is director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, CO. His last interview in The Progressive was with Saru Jayaraman.