Few political authors can rival Thomas Frank for his uncanny foresight in identifying and illuminating trends before their full impact is felt.
His most famous book — “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” — published in 2004, was prescient in foreshadowing the rise of Donald Trump populism.
In that book, Frank explained the ascent of ultraconservative politics in a state that had been politically moderate and home to an agrarian populism.
Frank, a self-described liberal, explored why working-class Kansans would inexplicably support a far-right agenda contrary to their economic self-interest on wages and social benefits and instead heap tax cuts on the wealthy. He blamed the Democratic Party for being overly cozy with economic elites, abandoning the sort of blue-collar populism required to engage that sector of Kansas voters. That mistake, he said, along with a sneering attitude toward blue-collar social values, paved the way.
Then last year, he published a book that could have served as a bright red warning light to Hillary Clinton titled “Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?”
He painstakingly described how the Democratic Party still neglects the economic interests of working-class people and instead is dominated by liberal professionals more focused on social issues. “A simple and damning assessment,” opined a Washington Post reviewer. The New York Times Sunday magazine published a Q&A with the author six months before the election headlined: “Thomas Frank Thinks Hillary Should Woo the Working Class.”
In an afterword to the 2017 paperback edition of the book after Trump’s victory, Frank began simply, “And then came the deluge.”
It is against that backdrop that I talked with Frank this week in advance of his book promotion appearance in downtown Madison next week at A Room of One’s Own bookstore.
I began by describing Wisconsin politics this decade: a governor who abandoned the state’s center-right to center-left political tradition, attacked public employee unions as his signature issue, continued to leverage statewide resentment of elites in Madison and minorities in Milwaukee, and ultimately pursued traditional, trickle-down GOP policies.
“Welcome to Kansas,” Frank replied.
He elaborated: “Scott Walker is a textbook case of the kind of conservative that I wrote about in ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ Now, ‘Listen Liberal’ is the other side of the coin. The question is why can’t the Democratic Party beat these guys? Why does the country keep moving farther and farther to the right?”
If Wisconsin reflects themes in those two books, it also shows up in another of his books, he said, the one titled “The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Destroyed Government, Enriched Themselves and Beggared the Nation.”
He pointed to Walker’s attack on unions: “That’s very typical of the right. They play the game much better than the Democrats do. One of the things that you find them doing again and again and again in different places is they figure out what props up the local Democratic Party and then they destroy it.
“They either destroy the institution or they destroy the method by which it funds the Democratic Party. There’s a slogan they used to have back in the ’70s — ‘Defund the Left.’ And that’s what Scott Walker is doing. They’re doing this nationally as well. They’ve been going after organized labor for years because unions donate to the Democratic Party.”
Frank added, “They figured out they could use the state to actually attack their opponents, invent various issues and reasons for doing it, but use the state to structurally injure their opponents. That’s Scott Walker.”
He then pivoted to critiquing Democrats: “They have completely lost their ability to speak to a huge part of the population in a state like yours. I was just in Missouri, rural Missouri, where Trump was winning formerly Democratic counties by 70 percent. This is crazy. And it’s only possible because Democrats are so distant; they’ve gone so far away from the old populist message.
“You used to have a politician in Wisconsin, a guy named Bob LaFollette. You probably know about this guy, right?” he chuckled in reference to the state’s progressive icon.
The Republicans steal populist language and the Democratic Party “has persuaded itself that it doesn’t need to be like that,” Frank said, adding some on the left are uneasy “dwelling on economic grievances.”
Look, he said, it’s been 12 years since his book on Kansas. “They really have no excuse … they were warned, let’s put it that way. And shortly after that book came out, Democrats, as advised by the political science community, decided that in fact it wasn’t happening. Working-class voters were not deserting the Democratic Party. There was nothing for them to worry about.
“If you look at them now, they’re still coming up with reasons to take no action. They do it all the time. You open up the paper every day and they figured out a new reason that they don’t need to do anything differently.”
But, I interjected, what about the racial politics that boosted Trump? “We all know Trump won the white-sheet set,” he answered. “The racist fringe element, yeah, they went for Trump, but you can’t win a national election with that message. There’s something else.
“A lot of people voted for Barack Obama and then turned around and voted for Trump and you’re like ‘whoa.’ A lot voted for him in spite of the bigotry and the sexism.”
Yet Frank sees signs of hope.
“There’s this mobilization like I’ve never seen before, such as the Women’s March. That’s a wonderful thing. People are very alarmed and I think that’s a really healthy development. He’s a frightening president. He’s a frightening man. I myself wake up every day, I’m in a good mood, and then I’ll be reminded somehow that Donald Trump is in the White House.”
For 2020, Frank sees U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren as an ideal Democratic candidate, one who can speak to economic anxiety from a progressive point of view the way Bernie Sanders did in 2016: “She would be very successful at reaching out to the sort of alienated working-class guy we were talking about.”
So, I ask, you see someone like Warren leading a potential common cause among those women and the scientists who are marching and this working-class constituency?
“There could be one,” he contended. “There isn’t one now, but there could be one. Something like that has to happen. Trumpism is not going away” whatever happens with Trump.
“The Republicans have figured out how to win and they’re going to stick with it, and so the Democrats have to come up with a way to confront it.”
Hard to argue with that.
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