"Thomas Frank on Fake Populism & Silicon Valley Fantasies | Useful Idiots"
Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper
Rolling Stone (November 7, 2020)
Matt Taibbi: "Welcome to Useful Idiots. I'm Matt Taibbi."
Katie Halper: "I'm Katie Halper."
Matt Taibbi: "A lot of stuff went on this week. We changed presidents, sort of. Right?
Kaiti Halper: "Technically. Kind of. Yeah. Did you watch [Joe Biden's] speech? His and Kamala's speech?
Matt Taibbi: "No."
Kaiti Halper: "It was so platitude free -- sorry! I wish it was platitude free. It was was platitude laden. It was chock full of platitudes. Is it normal to end with God Bless America and God Bless the Troops? It seems like a weird thing to end on."
Matt Taibbi: "Yeah. I need a minute. It's not like I'm missing Trump. Definitely not. It's also not over. That phenomenon has not passed. But I'm not terribly looking forward to the Biden/Harris Era in terms of, like, watching it. Do you know what I mean. I'm looking forward to it in terms of not having to think about politics so much."
Katie Halper: "But you can't fall into that 'Now we brunch" Thing."
Matt Taibbi: "Well, I can."
"I guess you can. But the danger in that and what a lot of people on the left are fearing -- even though most people on the left are glad Trump is gone -- I think there's a fear that, now that he's gone, we're not going to pay attention. And, of course, that happened a lot with Obama. He did some really crappy things.
Katie Halper: "You probably didn't. You probably paid attention to his droning and all his finance selling out."
Matt Taibbi: "I was on the finance stuff. So I got in trouble early for doing the whole thing about his inaction on Wall Street. You know. They're all the same to me, so I don't really care."
[1:45] Katie Halper: "What do you think we could -- Like, he [Biden] won't do the upward -- he won't do those tax cuts that Trump did? Those super upward transfers of wealth?
Matt Taibbi: "I'd be shocked if a lot of political capital was expended on reversing things like that quickly. ... So let's do what we always do and start with the four food groups: Democrats Suck, Republicans Suck, Isn't that Terrible? Isn't that Weird? What have we got for Democrats Suck this week?"
[2:18] Katie Halper: "Democrats Suck. No surprise. We have the Democrats punching left. Left punching. I just want to point out that a vast majority, twenty-plus something out of thirty of the races where candidates ran on Medicare for All won. OK? They won. Then we have people like Donna Shelaila, who lost, and she's trying to -- I mean, what is incredible -- I almost admire the gall of these "centrists" -- after losing -- after losing Donna Shelaila actually said that "moderates" won. I don't know why she didn't win then."
Matt Taibbi: "She pulled a McCaskill."
Katie Halper: "Yeah. McCaskill. Great authority as a loser on how to win elections. Also John Kasich. He really needs to shut up. He's done. Move out of the way. The Dems already gave you a speaking part at the DNC versus, like, AOC got two minutes or something. He stood at those crossroads. It should have been omitted at that point. It was such a bad ad. Do you remember when he [former Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich] was standing at a literal crossroads? It was a little on the nose."
Matt Taibbi: "I kind of admire that, actually. But, anyway, go ahead."
[3:40] Katie Halper: "In the same way I kind of admire the Donna Salaila thing. I mean, different and stupid. In general you don't want to show the exact thing you're mentioning. It's a bit much. He could have said: 'We're standing at a crossroads' without literally being at a crossroads. It's too much. It's too on the nose. You're hitting people over the head. But this guy is going on the news. He had one job to do: deliver his home state if Ohio to Biden. And he failed. So its not just, to be fair, of course I don't like him politically. He passed one of the most draconian anti-abortion bills, by the way, as Governor of Ohio. . . . He's just terrible. Absolutely terrible. The dangerous thing about him is he has this moderate disposition. He seems like a reasonable nice guy. But his policies are awful. So he's like the opposite of Trump in demeanor. As long as you're not Trump, the Dems are fine with you. Bill Kristol is welcome to the scene. David Frum. People who really urge the Dems -- they're not Dems, they're right wingers who were very much behind regime-changing Iraq. And thees people are embraced."
[5:18] Matt Taibbi: "All these people who were involved in the Russiagate stuff are going to be getting high, important posts. John Brennan is already making noise about how we have to invoke the 25th Amendment to prevent Trump from declassifying things. So he's back on the scene. My argument the whole time about why it was difficult to vote for Biden is because he's going to bring back all the worse people, especially from the national security side."
Katie Halper: "So they're punching left again. Reading from Common Dreams:
Hoping for big wins from election night, the possibility of winnng not just the presidency, but the Senate and increasing their majority in the House. While Biden has come out on top, the party's most optimistic outcome in the Senate would be a 50-50 split if they win both Georgie run-off seats, giving them a majority with the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Rather than gaining in the House, the Democrats lost several seats. In the wake of these disappointments, the right-wing of the party immediately blamed its left wing for the poor showing, airing their grievances in a private conference call amoung House Democrats that was leaked to reporters. In a write up call, the Washington Post [authors] quoted and paraphrased fourteen sources blaming those who, "endorsed far left positions," for Democarats losses. Counterbalanced by only four sources defending the left, all the progressive sources were named; half of the establishment sources were either quoted anonymously or presented as unspecified "moderates."
And in addition . . . James Clyburn said that Democrats had to stop running on Medicare For All, or defunding the police, or "socialized medicine." It's also worth noting that he has taken more money from the pharmaceutical industry in the past decade than any other member of the House or Senate.
[7:08] Matt Taibbi: "Look. In a way, the outcome that happened, it's almost like the ideal circumstances for the embedded Democrats. Because they can still complain about the progressive wing, especially in places like Florida [where] they can say that 'Bernie cost us Florida.'"
Katie Halper: "I think this undermines the idea that Bernie Sanders cost them the election, or cost them [that state] going Biden is that they voted overwhelmingly for a $15/hr minimum wage initiative [to take effect] by 2026. It passed by 22 points. It would have required 60% of the vote to pass, and it exceeded that. So it's a ballot initiative. So, again, all these left-punching Dems maybe want to look at that."
[8:11] Matt Taibbi: "But People are going to be fine with that. Watch. There is going to be very little media pushback to any of that. Nothing too surprising about that.
[8:20] "On Republicans Suck, the funnier aspect of this story will come after we get some photos of it, the Million MAGA March:
[Some stuff about these protests against the election results . . . organizers still don't have a permit]:"
. . .
[10:30] Matt Taibbi: "This has become like a religion to a lot of people. We just have to hope that it doesn't turn into violence. It's been kind of amazing that there hasn't been anything along those lines, yet. For all the predictions about all the unrest and boarding up of all the windows. So far, people have been pretty chill about the whole thing."
Katie Halper: "Why do you think that is?"
Matt Taibbi: "Why do I think that is: Because I think that the story about the potential for disorder was always probably overblown. It was probably something that was run by news organizations without a lot of evidence to support it."
Katie Halper: "Also, I think it was a useful thing for Trump to, like rachet it up, then the legal opposition to it doesn't seem as extreme. I don't know if we're going to get to this, but another Republican suck, big time, was Mike Pompeo saying he would assure the peaceful transition to a second Trump term."
Matt Taibbi: "I didn't even hear about that. Did he really do that? . . .[some comments by Katie Halper and a video clip from Democracy Now! and after watching video clip of Secretary Pompeo]: "Trump is going to leave office. It's over. There's going to be a lot of Sturm und Drang before we get there, but I don't expect any of it to be real or anybody to actually try to stay in power longer than they can. Absent some kind of court ruling, which I don't expect at all."
Katie Halper: "Unlike Bush, they don't have very skilled attorneys, either."
[13:29] Matt Taibbi: "That was the whole point. On election night, they're looking around trying to find somebody to intervene. And who's their front person? It's Rudi Giulliani, who's five million years old and looks like Nosferatu. It's not going to happen. It's already been decided. Even Fox News has pretty much bailed on Trump."
Katie Halper: "Yeah. Did you see the Laura Ingram thing where she was like: 'Donald Trump, if he steps down, will be so powerful.' His legacy will just be so powerful."
Matt Taibbi: "Like Christ himself, right?"
Katie Halper: "Right. She was like talking to him like a baby. She wasn't talking to him. She was talking to people in general. It was about Trump, but she was very clear that she was talking to Trump, indirectly."
[some back and forth chatter about who looks more like Nosferatu: Biden or Trump . . . and other observations about politicians posing as corpses]
". . . [snip] . . ."
[25:08] Katie Halper [introducing Thomas Frank and some of his better-known books]: "Welcome, Thomas. You wrote a pretty interesting piece which would be pretty helpful to the Dems, for the Guardian. And the thesis is basically: 'Yes, Trump is gone, but Trumpism isn't gone. And if the Democrats don't change direction, they will...' -- well, two things. One, the Democrats created Trumpism by shifting right, abandoning the working class, embracing meritocracy."
Matt Taibbi: "I like the phrase used: 'They embraced the high-minded white collar rectitude.'"
Thomas Frank: "That's a good word: 'rectitude.'"
Matt Taibbi: "Whenever you can get in 'rectitude,' you're always doing well."
Thomas Frank:"That's the world I live in, suburban Washington. People are just so fucking good. Just in the last couple of years I've gotten so sick of goodness. And it's funny because I always considered myself a pretty good person, a nice person who tried to teach my kids how to be good humans. But I'm so sick of goodness. It's like you overdose on it. Like with Obama we overdosed on hope. I've had enough. You know those yard signs, we've talked about these before. The yard signs that try to list all the liberal causes. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
Matt Taibbi: "I haven't seen those, no."
[26:50] Thomas Frank: "Oh, Come on. They list a whole lot of causes and each one is a different color so you can tell them apart. 'No Human Is Illegal' 'Women's Rights Are Human Rights' and they add lines to it all the time. Like 'Science Is Real,' or something like that. 'Water Is Life.' And I wrote about it in The People, No because they never mention labor. They list all these causes but never the essential one."
"It's like that overdose. I go around the suburban neighborhood and I used to take pictures in front of a McMansion, a really ostentatious, really garish house. And I'm just so sick of that. All the goodness in the world resides in these couple of little blocks of Bethesda, Maryland." Katie Halper: "It also doesn't win over anyone, right? It doesn't win over anyone who is not already with us."
[27:51] Thomas Frank: "It's not meant to, Katie. That's the thing. It's not politics like you and I think of politics. It's something else. It's politics like [M.T.: 'cultural signalling'] I am so awesome, And I'm so much better than everybody else. Also, complacency. These are very very wealthy people with these signs. This is the Democratic push. They're going to win over these affluent suburbs, you know? And these are very wealthy people -- and think about this historically -- a hundred years ago, or more than that, felt a certain amount of guilt and vulnerability for who they were. And they were always afraid that the class war was coming and they knew that they were ultimately in the wrong in a democracy where you try to marry into a European aristocracy like the Vanderbilts did, or whatever the hell it is that rich people were doing in the 1880s. They knew it rubbed the democratic sensibility the wrong way. It gnawed at their concscience.."
[29:00] "But these modern day super-rich people are like 'we're not only richer than you. We're better than you. 'Conscience'? What do you mean. You're the ones. It's you people in the shitty parts of town. You're the ones who have to feel bad about yourselves. By the way, the last time I talked to you guys I was in Kansas City. And it's a very wealthy part of Kansas City. It's nothing compared to the two coasts, anymore, but when I was growing up it was a very wealthy area. And it went for Biden. It went Democratic for the first time since 1916. So, over a hundred years."
[29:47] Matt Taibbi: "Can we talk about this, because I got in a little bit of trouble after the election talking about the shift in who has what electorate now. Right? And it feels like the Trump voter -- to me it feels like the class difference is pretty apparent. That the Democrats have become, basically, the party of the professional class. They're an upscale, urban party."
[30:18] Thomas Frank: "There's no doubt about that."
Matt Taibbi:"But when you say that, though, they throw statistics back at you and say 'This is the income level of the person who voted for this party and the person who voted for that party."
Thomas Frank: "I'm here to explain that to you. That is something I have written about before. It was over ten years ago and it's been remarkably consistent. The Democrats, if you look at the income breakdown, they do very well with the very top income bracket and they do very well with the bottom bracket. That tends to be people who are very poor, who are unemployed, handicapped, or elderly, who don't have a stable source of income. Those tend to be pretty reliable Democratic voters. And then you've got the people at the very top. The people we're talking about in Bethesda, or Johnson County, Kanas, or whatever. The working class seems to be people in the middle. But, Matt, there's also differences by race and gender, which are becoming more or less severe, depending on how you look at it. Women are trending toward the Democratic party. And when Trump won in 2016, it was the white working class that really did it for him. And you see him making inroads with these other groups which I did not think he would be able to do. Making inroads with Latino and black working class people, which is surpising given what an asshole he is."
[32:00] "What do you think that's about?"
Thomas Frank: "A bunch of different things. One of them is certainly his immigration stance. And the oil thing. Do you remember those Texas counties along the Rio Grande where they are overwhelmingly latino. I don't know anybody who lives there but I've read news stories about it. These are places that produce a lot of oil and natural gas. And they were frightened by Biden saying he was going to crack down on fossil fuels or whatever. Which is to say that people have interests that are all over the map. You can just never generalize about people.
"To get us back to the article. I've been saying for years that Trump is a -- there is something wrong with him, in my opinion. I've never met him. I don't think his brain works right. I don't think I'm going out onto a limb here. There's something wrong with him. He's not a good politician. He's really bad at the sort of retail politics that a guy like Biden grew up doing. Trump sucks at it."
Katie Halper: "But isn't that a strength also? Doesn't that make him seem outside of politics as usual?"
[33:24] Thomas Frank: "Yes. But remember what he was doing in 2016. Insulting every group out there. What kind of idiot does that? He could have won a lot of those voters. And, instead, he calls Mexicans names. What kind of idiot runs for high offices and does that? That is so dumb."
Matt Taibbi: "Even in this last election cycle, with Covid. If he had not just said things like 'It's only killing old people.' He just gave away a whole constituency. If he hadn't done that. If it wasn't for that weakness of his which is embedded in his personality."
[34:09] Thomas Frank: "I've always said, look, the next Trump is not going to make these mistakes. The next Trump is the one to look out for. The danger lies in when you get a real politician who has just opportunistically snatched up the Trump agenda, like a Ted Cruz or someone like that. Someone like that is going to be hard to stop. What surprises me is that it has already started with Trump himself. I'm astonished at how well he did this year."
Matt Taibbi: "So I guess the question is: What happens with the Democratic party? Are they going to take this result and say, We got the White House back, we're on the right track. Is that what it's going to be?
[35:00] Thomas Frank: "They're going to do what they've always done. In my opinion. Which is, these are people whose complacency just bowles you over. They really don't think they have to serve any of their constituency. Now, I'm going to be real happy to have been proven wrong. You know, when Joe Biden comes in there and he's another Franklin Roosevelt and uses his magical Lyndon Johnson powers. He was in the Senate all those years, you know. He has those skills. When he's going to be able to sweet talk Mitch McConnell into getting his agenda passed. Then I will be so happy to be proven wrong."
[35:41]"So I wrote this article in The Guardian. About 'Biden Wins' and then sort of tongue in cheek offering advice to the Democrats, knowing, of course, that they will never do anything that I'm suggesting. It's just a way of framing an argument about Democrats. What I said was, we should take a cue, in this last year we've seen icon smashing and tearing down of statues. The Democrats could use a dose of that. I've spent a lot of time reading the history of the Democratic party. Reading all lthe Democratic Leadership Council magazines back in the '90s. I have a whole collection of them, memoirs, Gary Hart's, I have all this shit."
[36:43] Matt Taibbi: "That's got to be some hard reading."
Thomas Frank: "I used to do it with the conservatives, too. Like I have Richard Viguerie's Magazine. Like I've got a hundred copies of it from the '80s. It's difficult to stand, but somebody's got to do it. If you're going to write a history of these people, you've got to do it. So my idea is the Democrats should take a page from this year of iconoclasm, and smash their own heroes. And take their own heroes to task. And look at their own past and see where they've gone wrong. But they're never in a million years going to do it. All of this iconoclasm flows only in one direction. Towards somebody else, right? But they need to look in the mirror and examine their own past as well. And the first thing they're going to discover when they do that is that, basically, the faction that controls the Democratic party now, this sort of Clinton faction, the "centrists," what's left of the Democratic Party Leadership Council:"
[37:58] "These people [DNC] basically set the table for Trumpism. This is what made Trumpism possible. I mean, when we were kids, the idea that the Republican party would go around calling itself a Worker’s Party, that’s nuts. That would have been contrary, like ‘You’re on the wrong planet, Mr. You’re in the wrong country.’ And they do it now with total impunity. They do it not only with impunity, but with success. They get votes this way. I was just talking to a guy from Japan. He comes over every couple of years to see how America, he's very curious about America. And he was saying, in Japan, working class people vote for the more Left of the parties. Because that’s what they do everywhere in the world. That’s normal. Here we’ve been on this different thing. This experiment. This thirty year experiment. Where the Democrats said: “We don’t want to be that party anymore.” By the way, and they said this openly in that Democratic Leadership Council literature from the 80’s and the Gary Hart memoirs. All those books that they put out. I should pull them off the shelf so I could show off, if you guys are actually interested in this crap. The Neo-Liberals. "Exciting new trend in politics." "Reinventing government." This was going to be the manual for the incoming Clinton administration."
Matt Taibbi: "So, it's like 'running government like a business'? That sort of thing?"
Thomas Frank: "Yes. Exactly This is Democrats. This is Democrats, mind you, not Republicans."
[39:50] Matt Taibbi: “It's the foundation now of our whole -- They’ve now brought the Bill Kristols and David Frums back into the fold, right? And now the transformation is kind of complete. This like the latest version of Robocop that’s got all the kinks out. They’ve gone back to what they wanted to be all along, which is a national-security focused, sort of arch-capitalist, professional-class party.”
[40:21] Thomas Frank: “This is happening before our eyes. And just a reminder for your viewers who tend to be younger people who understand computers. People like me get our information from books and shit. The Democratic party used to be -- when we were kids -- was very very very closely identified with organized labor. They were joined at the hip. That’s who funded the party. That’s who voted for the party. That’s what they were all about. And then in the 80s and 90s the sort of “big thinkers” of the Democratic party decided that’s not who they wanted to be anymore. They wanted to reach out to different constituencies.”
[41:06] Matt Taibbi: "Now why did they do that, though? Because they’ll tell you it’s because they got beat so badly in ‘84."
Thomas Frank: “Yeah, but that’s not a good enough reason. I mean, this has been thirty years now. They’ll also say it was because they got beat in ‘72 and got beat in ‘80. But in fact, in all of these elections, the guy who got beat – I mean, Jimmy Carter was one of these ‘New Democrats’ a proto-New Democrat, a proto-Neoliberal. George McGovern – I’m sorry to say, was also one of those -- whom I really admire, the only place he won was Massachussetts. It was an early experiment with Turn Your Backs on Organized Labor. It was in the middle of this Democratic Party civil war. Labor didn’t endorse him. The AFL/CIO didn’t endorse McGovern. And McGovern did really well among the highly educated. An early sort of taste of where they are today. It was an early experimental run. And it’s odd because McGovern really was a good guy.”
Katie Halper: “Was he a neoliberal?”
[42:18] Matt Taibbi: “He was anti-war, but he wasn’t a Labor guy."
. . . [43:45] Thomas Frank: “The problem is identifying with the winners and not the working-class.”
[45:10] Thomas Frank: [the Clinton-flattering literature] would say: “What are Clinton’s greatest achievements? There are five of them: NAFTA, Bank Deregulation, Welfare Reform, the Crime Bill of ‘94, and the Balanced Budget. All five of these sucked, now that you look back at them. All five of them are disasters. All five of them are Reaganism, by the way. All five of them were inherited from Republicans. Basically Clinton got the Reagan agenda done when Reagan couldn’t do it.”
[45:45] Katie Halper: “And how much of this was donor driven?”
Thomas Frank: “At the time Republicans were still massively out-raising Democrats. The tables have turned now. But Clinton is the one who famously, it was under Clinton that Wall Street started to change sides. Again, when Reagan was president Wall Street was the most Republican constituency in America. Big banks, finance, you know. But under Clinton, they started to change sides. This, too, was a cause of celebration, there’s a whole book about how wonderful this is. Clinton marks the end of the trend that began with William Jennings Bryan. Remember when we talked about this before? Bryan is when the Democratic party shifts to the left. He gets up there and denounces the gold standard, banks and all that. That’s when the Democratic party becomes noticeably more to the left than the Republicans. And that lasted up until Bill Clinton who ends that. He’s the end of that. And he reaches out to Wall Street. Deregulates these guys. At the same that he cracks down on poor people,with the Crime Bill of ‘94. Especially black poor people.”
“So these two things go hand in hand. Liberation for finance and discipline for working people. This is Democrats who did this. Republicans tried, but Clinton went much further than the Republicans did. And that began the shift. What I say in the [Guardian] article is that if you want to know how it’s possible for Donald Trump to win these working class areas and to win these sort of hard-done-by cities, the places in Ohio and Pennsylvania that are just ruined, and they’re voting for a Republican, if you want to understand why that’s happening, you have to go back and look at what the Democrats did. And if you want to do something about it, if you want to stop Trumpism, and we can talk about this in moment – Biden’s number one agenda item has to be the pandemic. But number two agenda item has to be stopping Trumpism. This has to stop. And if you want to stop it, there’s only one way. And that is you have to somehow break his grip on that constituency. That formerly Democratic constituency. And that, actually, would not be that hard. It really wouldn’t.”
. . .
[49:13] “the Democrats can’t win without the South. But that’s wrong because they didn’t understand that California would flip eventually. But we’re getting into the weeds here.
“The real turning point is the Vietnam War. Bussing was big in some places, like Boston, that was huge. What’s that great book about the bussing? Common Ground? By Anthony Lucas. That was important. And I wrote about this in What’s The Matter With Kansas? The culture war issues are hugely important. And I don’t think the Democrats can go back on that."
[49:59] “I don’t think Democrats should bid for the bigot vote. By the way, that’s one of the things that Bill Clinton did. When you talk about why we need to cancel New Democrats. That’s what the Crime Bill was. That’s what Welfare Reform was. That was a bid for the bigot vote. That was the centrist faction of the Democratic party that did that. And now these are the same people who tell you they’re all like WOKE and shit. But these are the guys who did this.”
Katie Halper: “They’re WOKE in discourse to distract from being unWOKE in policy.”
Thomas Frank: “To distract from what they actually did twenty years ago. Welfare Reform. That was a monstrous deed. That was cruel. And that’s the only New Deal program that’s been completely overturned. What’s the term? It doesn’t exist anymore. And that was Bill Clinton’s big bid for the bigot vote.”
. . .
Katie Halper: “. . . separate economic issues from racial justice issues as if they’re mutually exclusive instead of actually quite related. Right?”
Thomas Frank: “Yes. But what we’re talking about is:
[51:19] “Can those people be won back? And I think the answer is obviously yes. Because people do, ultimately, vote their economic interests if there’s a real option on the table and it’s clear. Clearly understood. Everyone knows what the stakes are. And it’s especially possible if they’re members of a union. There’s this effect that unions have. Just by being a member and getting a newsletter. The obvious thing you do if you’re Biden and you want to stop Trumpism, make it easy to join a union again. Let that happen all over America. And don’t do shit like Prop 22 in California. I write about this all the time. I wrote a story for The Guardian a couple of years ago where I went to Walt Disney’s hometown north of Kansas City in Missouri, and it’s like all small towns in Missouri. And then I went to the County Seat of the county it’s located in. You know, it’s a disaster. You walk down their main street and everything is boarded up. And their local newspaper’s gone. And people are really, really struggling in these places. And what’s the Democrats, what do the Democrats say to them? Because Rahm Emanuel said it just the other day. 'Those jobs aren’t coming back.'"
[52:45] “Which is like, (a) you just lost their vote. Nice going. And, (b) it’s wrong. Flat wrong. There’s all sorts of things that you can do to make those places have an economy again. It burns me up that they don’t even try. There so lost in this Silicon Valley fantasy of theirs. This “new economy” fantasy of theirs that they can’t imagine a hundred million people in the country that they want to rule are suffering. And they’re like ‘There’s nothing we can do about that.’ What kind of politician says that? Just blows them off?”
[53:24] Katie Halper: “What are the ulterior motives for that? How is this in their own self-interest?”
Thomas Frank: “They don’t want to do anything for those people. They’re not interested in that. They’re interested in these other things. These are not particularly brilliant people we’re talking about here. Like Obama was a great speaker. I thought he was a brilliant guy. But I don’t think these are particularly creative, bold thinkers. This is something that someone who votes for Democrats, a liberal person watching the Republicans in office push the boundaries on everything. On Trump shattering norms. Signing those executive orders. And look what he’s doing right now. Pushing the boundaries on the transition. We’ll talk about that later, for sure. They’re constantly coming up with some new way of challenging the system. And the Democrats don’t do that. They’re utterly complacent. Bottom line is: it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out what you have to do get the rural economy of this country going again. It’s really not that tough. I mean, you smash the agricultural monopolies, to begin with. You go after the other monopolies in these towns. Walmart has put every main street in Kansas and Missouri out of business. You make them not do that anymore.”
Katie Halper: “Isn’t it part of your thesis in Listen Liberal that Obama is smart. Isn’t it your thesis that Not only that, but that this is a very self-interested approach, right? It’s not that they need to abandon, like, the narrative is that Republicans don’t let them do things. But they don’t want to do these things. Right?”
Thomas Frank: It’s not that they’re – in their world view, these people are ultimately to blame for their own fate. The whole shift to the white-collar professional class is much bigger than just winning elections in fancy suburbs. This is how they understand themselves. It’s how they understand the world. They look at other white-collar professionals and they say these people deserve what they have. They went to good schools. They did well. They got high SAT scores. They got a great Grade Point Average. Whatever the hell it is. And they deserve what they have. But these people, farmers, people in small towns or blue-collar workers somewhere, they didn’t do those things. They didn’t work hard in school. They didn’t follow this career trajectory that signifies merit. And so their fate is something that they deserve. In a way. And at the same time, and this is the other side of the coin when they’re going to these Wall Street guys that gave us the global financial crisis and refusing to prosecute them. Because these are great guys. These are the Best and the Brightest. You don’t prosecute those people. You give them another chance.”
[56:48] Katie Halper: “Don’t they also reap material benefits, though. Can you talk about that? It’s not just ideology, right? They actually get things out of this.
Thomas Frank: “Of course. It’s always better to be that party that identifies with the wealthy than the party that identifies with labor. Do you remember when Harry Truman retired. Harry Truman was the last president who didn’t go to college. When Harry Truman finished being President, he went back home to Independence Missouri, which is a suburb of Kansas City. He didn’t have a pension. He didn’t have a source of income and he wasn’t rich. He moved back in with his mother in law. And the reporters followed him and said to him, ‘Mr President, what was the first thing you did when you got home? He said, ‘I carried the suitcases up to the attic.’ And they did eventually set up a system of pensions for ex-presidents, just because of him, because he didn’t have a source of income.”
[57:50 “He eventually started the Truman Library, first of the presidential libraries, and it’s one storey. And I think it cost about a million and a half dollars that he managed to raise. OK. What does the Barack Obama library cost? That gives you a taste an idea why it’s better to be the party of Wall Street and the not the CIO. Or look at Bill Clinton’s library which is incredibly extravagant. The Bushes both have fancy libraries.”
Matt Taibbi: “The Trump library is going to be interesting. It’s going to be opulent. But it won’t have any books in it.”
Katie Halper: “Bush’s favorite book is Harry the Hungry Caterpillar. That’s what he said when asked. So, I wonder if he has a bunch of those copies and some artwork of his.”
Thomas Frank: “The Clinton Library is very heavy on text. It’s all this white-collar sensibility in your face. They have paper records that you can look up Bill Clinton’s whereabouts at every moment, every minute of his time as president. It fills all of these shelves. You can see where he was. They’re worth visiting, but they’re total – I don’t want to change the subject too much here – but they’re just propaganda edifices. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Matt Taibbi: “Taking your thesis that the people know that you wrote, can’t you say that what they pulled off is actually pretty impressive. They threaded the needle. The D’s. They snuffed out the Sanders movement AND they snuck past Trump back into the White House at a moment when there’s widespread discontent. Isn’t this exactly what their whole business model is designed to pull off?
[1:00:14] Thomas Frank: “Yeah. They got their perfect guy into the White House. I thought that the Clinton faction was going to choose Harris. I was surprised when they settled on Biden who I thought was old and infirm, or who appeared to be so. But they got their guy in. And in some ways, he’s perfect for them. He’s a continuation of everything I’ve been describing. This is a guy who, ironically, was one of the authors of the Crime Bill of 1994. Weird thing to be running that guy for president in the great year of Black Lives Matter. Kind of a strange move. But, ultimately, I think they got incredibly lucky this year. Had it not been for Covid, I don’t think Biden would have beat him. Trump is an idiot. But Trump had a roaring economy. And, ultimately, that’s what people vote on. You take that away. You’ve got everyone couped up indoors with a universal pandemic, and this guy has no clue how to deal with it. And has trouble showing empathy. So, Trump, he lost it. And Biden got extremely lucky. But then, so many elections are decided that way. Some last-minute thing in the last six months. Politics is not a hard and fast thing. Who knows? Maybe Biden will be Franklin Roosevelt or get in touch with his inner Lyndon Johnson and get this amazing progressive program through Congress. Sneak it right by Mitch McConnell. Right. But I doubt it.”
Katie Halper: “. . . his inner LBJ that he’s been hiding for seventy years."
Thomas Frank: “But that’s the thing. I’ve written about this before. There are all these progressives who like him. Do you know this? There are all these progressives here in Washington who think he’s a really great guy. And it’s exactly what you just said. He’s been hiding it all this time. And now that he gets to be his own man and fill his own administration, look out world. Here comes the greatest progressive. Bernie Sanders himself said this."
Matt Taibbi: “Yeah. Well Bernie likes him.”
Katie Halper: “Yeah. Bernie likes him and wanted him to get elected over Trump. It was a terrible thing for the primary.”
Matt Taibbi: “So what happens with populism going forward? Obviously, there are some Republicans, whether its cynicism or whatever, they at least see the potential in that direction. Right? We saw Josh Hawley on the night of the election saying the Republicans’ future is as a working-class party.”
[1:03:14] Thomas Frank: There’s no doubt about that. I mean, look, if the Democrats don’t stop them, of course they’re going to go that way. But the whole genius of being a workers’ party is that Trump was pretty much only able to win white working class votes in 2016. He did a little better in 2020 with other categories. But a smart right-wing populist, a smart guy who’s doing this phony populist game, would easily reach out to all these other working-class voters and would probably do pretty well. And it wouldn’t take much. . . ."
“Just don’t make Trumpian mistakes. The thing is that Trumpism is dynamic. Trumpism in the right hands is going to be really goddamn hard to stop. And that’s what Biden has to be looking at. I guarantee you he’s not, though. It’s a funny thing. I write these articles. It’s like a heuristic. It’s a way of making an argument. I know he’s not thinking about this. He’s not going to pull together a blue ribbon panel: What should we do about Trumpism? Of course he’s not going to do that. They’re just going to do what they always do.”
Katie Halper: “What would have to happen for him to do that?"
Thomas Frank: “How about a huge defeat in the 2022 mid-terms? Look. On the other hand maybe Biden will deliver a roaring economy and all this will be forgotten and the next Republican will be someone like Bob Dole. You know? And the Ds will just roll on and on and we don’t have anything to worry about. Andy, anyway, I’m not going to write about politics anymore. This is the last, my last election.”
Katie Halper: “Really? What are you going to move into?”
. . . [stuff about sports with Matt Taibbi] . . .
[1:06] Part of your book, your latest book, The People, No, argues that populism is not right-wing. And I think that we see a lot of discourse about right wing populism and people identifying that way. So what is that? Is it a co-opting of it? A hijacking of it? A kind of dishonest appeal to the working class that actually isn’t reflected in policy?"
[1:07:02] Thomas Frank: “I’d say – I was thinking about this today. I was watching TV the last couple of days and I saw an article by Neal Ferguson in the Washington Post where he used the word in this grotesquely incorrect way. Academics often do. It’s like the Pizza-gate of the intellectual elite. It’s like this myth that they’ve invented, that they all believe and that you can’t tell them differently, and that’s what populism is, and a lot of it is just plain wrong. Populism was not racist demagoguery. It was something else. I’ve been on your show and we’ve talked about that in some detail, and the word got flipped. There’s a whole myth that’s attached to the word now. The word implies that working-class people are never suitable for democracy. They’ll always vote for racist demagogues. And the people you have to have in charge are, guess who? Yes, that’s right, the white-collar professional class. Because they always do everything right for you. The elites are great and they run things fantastic. And the Best and the Brightest guys in the room. That’s the myth that word basically encompasses. I’m really proud of The People Know, but I can’t make a dent in that usage. I just can’t do it."
[1:08:52] “In What’s the Matter with Kansas it was all about fake populism. There is this sense that Trump and Reagan before him and George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich and all of these guys were fake populists. Pretending to care about working people and most importantly, pretending to hate the elite. Reagan, he talked about this all the time. Nixon. Pat Buchanan. They all talked about this. How much they hated the elite. And who did they mean by The Elite? The TV anchor man, you know? News media. Hollywood, you know. They hated the elite At the same time these guys were doing the bidding of the Koch Brothers."
[1:09:37] Katie Halper: “t’s funny that Pat Buchanan would always appear on The McLaughlin Group."
Thomas Frank: But he had this sort of proto-Trump. Trump steals a lot of his message and his mannerisms from Pat Buchanan, but if you remember that TV show, Buchanan was the guy who always had this gruff, sort of Trumpism before Trump, kind of vulgar, talked like a tough guy and this kind of thing. And its an act. It’s a ‘worker-ist’ act, that these people did and do. It’s not a co-incidence that Ronald Reagan is the only union president elected President of the United States: The Screen Actors Guild. But Reagan knew that language. Reagan knew how to fake it, that 1930s language, that Frank Capra stuff. And he did a great job faking it.”
[1:10:33] Matt Taibbi: “Isn’t this incarnation of Republicans in the Trump era, though, aren’t they – it feels to me that they’re a little bit more willing to go in the direction – so Buchanan’s was – his big concrete nod to populism was protectionism, right?”.
Thomas Frank: But the ‘Pops’ weren’t protectionist. This is the thing that drives me . . . You an argue about that, but I just saw in this newspaper article in the Post the other day, where it said, all populists are protectionists. The guy was listing populists. He doesn’t list any actual populists but he does list William Jennings Bryan. But, dood, William Jennings Bryan was a huge Free-Trader. All Farmers are. Farmers are always free traders. It’s like, where’s the act-checker, the fucking pinocchios for this article, you know? It’s like they can say anything they want about history.”
“Matt, you’re on to something. Because you can make the argument that NAFTA and these other things are not really free trade. If you ever look into it, NAFTA is 2000 pages long. If you were going to say that tariffs between the US and Mexico are now zero, you can do that in a single paragraph. NAFTA is 2,000 pages long because it protects all of this American investment in Mexico. And it protects Big Pharma. And it protects Hollywood. And it protects intellectual property rights. And it sets up these tribunals to make sure that the Mexican government, and in fact the US government, can’t regulate businesses. It’s this super national thing. That’s not Free Trade. It’s something else. And I’m perfectly comfortable being a populist and saying that NAFTA sucks. That NAFTA is a disaster. Those two things are fine. They go together perfectly well in my mind. So, yeah, there’s contradictions all over the place.”
Katie Halper: “But labels aside, classification aside, what is protectionism combined with xenophobia, bigotry, or Holocaust Denial [low key in the case of Pat Buchanan] . . ."
[1:12:52] Thomas Frank: “That’s fascism. I don’t know about Free Trade, where fascists stood on trade. I have no idea, actually."
Katie Halper: “But Buchanan is anti-NAFTA, right? I’m not defending these people.”
Thomas Frank: “Buchanan was the proto-Trump, to force that issue into the popular – or was it Ross Perot? I think it was Perot, actually. So Perot was going after NAFTA right when it happened. That was ‘92. And then he had that famous debate with Al Gore in ‘93-’94, right when they passed NAFTA, and Gore taunted him for being a protectionist. I mean this debate is so dishonest in so many ways. It’s funny because Ross Perot almost turned out to be exactly right about NAFTA. And Buchanan’s just an opportunist who had an issue. Do you remember Buchanan’s slogan when he ran in ‘96? ‘America First.’ Trump stole his slogan. Trump stole everything from this guy. Buchanan, by the way, was very happy with the results last week. He thinks the Rs are perfectly positioned to continue. Well, it’s his party now. They basically, completely come around to his speech at their convention in 1992 when he was talking about the Culture War. And then his stuff in ‘96. They’ve come around completely to Buchananism. Except for the Holocaust Denial stuff.”
Katie Halper: “How much can you be a populist or even a protectionist if you don’t support labor movements?”
[1:14:45] Thomas Frank: “By the way, Buchanan calls himself a populist. He’s one of these guys who embraces that term. He doesn’t have any right to call himself that. But he does it anyway because he knows it has a noble history and the word sounds good and that kind of thing
Katie Halper: “It’s anti-elite.”
In the ‘60s and 70s when it there was a kind of revival of it, that it was a good thing and you wanted to be on board with it. [shows badge] This is the last left wing politician to call himself a populist. It’s Fred Harris. He was a senator from Oklahoma who ran for President in ‘76 on this proto-Bernie Sanders platform. His plan was to run on very small campaign donations. So his supporters held bake sales. He went around the country in a Winnebago and he would stay in people’s houses and sleep on their couch and stuff. There are these hilarious photos of him in ‘76 making his campaign phone calls from a gas station pay phone. He’s got a roll of dimes, whatever. A really great guy. I interviewed him for the book. He’s still around.
[1:16:07] Matt Taibbi: “I guess the last question from me, the reason Buchanan is probably happy is because the way forward for Republicans, I’m sure what they’re thinking is just keep the Trumpian formula and add a thing or two, like an infrastructure employment program. It doesn’t have to be big.”
Thomas Frank: “ The most important thing is what they have to subtract. Stop being racist."
Matt Taibbi: “Well, that, too."
Thomas Frank: “You know, Trump, I think he vaguely understood that he had rubbed people the wrong way. But his heart wasn’t in it. He could have really dinged Biden for the ‘94 Crime Bill. He really could have hurt him. He doesn’t know how to do it. His heart isn’t in it. He’s just – he brought it up at the debate, remember, I had a bet with you guys – and it was like he was just saying words. It didn’t mean anything. He hadn’t embraced it. He hadn’t thought about it. He hadn’t thought it through. And a real politician could have really parked that, really driven that home. And punished Biden for that.
Katie Halper: “But he condemned Biden for not being law-and-order-ish enough in the same sentence. But that’s Trumpism at its best because he doesn’t have to have any ideology. He just points out, he’s an opportunist who points out inconsistencies in others. And it doesn’t even matter, the ideology doesn’t even matter.”
Thomas Frank: “That’s right. And he doesn’t even have an ideology. Just an opportunist. Just a guy who likes to see his face on TV. You guys are going to be looking back on this twenty years from now. Which one was the most important President. Was it Obama or was it Trump? I mean, Obama was obviously better at the job. Was elected by non-controversial majorities.”
Matt Taibbi: “The proof of concept that you can get elected doing what Trump did was so far beyond what had ever happened before that it’s going to open the door for things . . .”
Thomas Frank: “I always think of Obama’s lost opportunity. Not to be a Trump. But to be an FDR. Which he had in his hands in 2009 when he’s going up against Wall Street banks and the world is behind him. At the time, everybody loved this guy. Could have had whatever he wanted. Instead he used his gifts, his real powers, to rescue the norms. And that’s the Democratic Party. That’s the tragedy of Barack Obama and the tragedy of the Democrats. With Biden, who the hell knows? Wouldn’t it be funny if Biden actually cared about this stuff?”
Katie Halper: “He wouldn’t be Biden.”
Thomas Frank: “That’s right. He wouldn’t be president today.”
Matt Taibbi: “What do you think is going to be their major policy priority?”
Thomas Frank: “It’s got to be Covid. He’s already said it’s got to be Covid. They’ve got a whole list of things that they’re going to do. I’m not holding my breath. It doesn’t look like – unless there’s a miracle in Georgia – it doesn’t look like the Democrats are going to get the Senate.
“We’re going right back to 2014. Remember Matt? Green Lantern-ism. Do you think that the President can just do things? He’s not magical, you know. It’ll be time for me to dust off all those essays I wrote that Obama could do without Congress. But it’s sad to start your presidency that way. With Biden. But that stinks because he’s not a strong leader. He’s starting with a weak hand to begin with, without a real mandate. That sucks. Unless the economy really takes off, the Republicans are going to come right back at him in the mid-terms. So I’m not hugely optimistic. It would be nice if that article I wrote in the Guardian at least sparked some kind of pushback, or some sort of historical re-evaluation – let’s put it that way – of the days of the neoliberals and the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Democrats and all that high-minded bullshit from the 1990s that has really led us into this terrible impasse. If only the Democrats would even acknowledge that it has led us into this impasse. But, no. For them, that’s the Golden Age, right. Clintonism. That when we were deregulating banks and telecoms and putting people in jail. That’s the golden age."
"The happy news is that at least The Imbecile is out of there. At least the asshole has to go down to Mara Lago and start his TV show. Which Trump family member is going to run in 2024? We should play another drinking game about this. I mean, it’s too early, but will it be Trump himself? Will it be Ivanka? Don, Jr?"
Matt Taibbi: “I think it’s Trump himself."
Thomas Frank: “He’ll be 78, though.”
Matt Taibbi: “So? Biden’s 78, isn’t he?"
Thomas Frank: “I mean, Trump is remarkably vigorous for his age. For having just had Covid."
Katie Halper: “He’s no Bernie, though. He leans really hard onto the podium. It’s very funny.”
. . . [chatter about Nosferatu and Vampire likenesses] . . .