Thomas Frank On How Populism Can Save AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: Democratic Party, populism, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump
Founding editor of The Baffler and author of prophetic classics like Listen, Liberal and What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank skewers received wisdom across the political spectrum. In his new book, The People, No, Frank reveals that the Democratic Party has tied itself in knots about a phantom of its own making: populism. The original Populists—19th-century agitators for working people’s interests—spawned a revolving cast of journalists, intellectuals, and business interests determined to paint them as villainous xenophobic masses. These anti-populists have made the name of the movement into a dirty word. Today’s anti-populists equate the broad multiracial coalition of social-justice activists that supported Bernie Sanders with a very different alliance that championed Donald Trump in 2016.
In this interview, Frank shows how this blinkered idea of populism grew so prominent, shares secrets from the founding of The Baffler, and reveals how the battle against Silicon Valley’s cool capitalism has been decades in the making.
CZ (Caitlin Zaloom): What have you been reading now that you are staying at home?
TF (Thomas Frank): World War II novels. I never get enough of them.
CZ: Why World War II? What about World War II is interesting to you?
TF: I’m interested in war because it’s history and it’s human conflict. World War II specifically, because it’s the great moment for our country, the war that made us who we are. We stopped fascism. We built the middle class. It’s always been seen as heroic, especially for the generation before mine.
I was born in 1965, and a lot of my friends’ parents had been in World War II or remembered it vividly. For my dad, who was in high school during the war, it was the great formative moment. Roosevelt’s voice on the radio and reading the newspaper every day. When I was a kid, the war was the older generation’s frame of reference; that’s what they talked about.
Right now, I’m going back through Norman Mailer’s classic novel The Naked and the Dead. I’ve read a lot of Mailer over the years, and it is astonishing. This is going to blow your mind: The Naked and the Dead is actually good!
Mailer had this one truly great novel, truly and without question great, and then he just went in a million directions afterward. He wrote a novel about Hollywood. He helped launch the Village Voice. He wrote about ancient Egypt. He became obsessed with the Kennedys and the CIA. So much of it was crap. But his World War II novel is worth reading. It’s really, really good.
CZ: In your current book, The People, No, you go after journalists for misdiagnosing populism and promoting anti-populism. You also argue that there’s a class interest behind that position, that journalists’ and elite intellectuals’ rejection of working-class movements stems from their interest in protecting their status and influence.
TF: Yes. Exactly so. The Populist movement, the people who invented the word, were not Trumpists or protofascists or any of that. They were a typical left-wing farmer-labor party. But the word got redefined so that “populism” meant “the built-in danger of working-class movements.” It meant, “Working-class movements are racist, they are sexist, they are xenophobic, and they represent mob rule.” Populism was in this way redefined as the opposite of rule by the white-collar elite: something inherently dangerous that you must do everything in your power to avoid or suppress. This is what I call anti-populism.
Anti-populism is all around us these days, and if you know anything about the original Populist movement it can be quite shocking.
I went to graduate school to study Populism in 1988. I’m from Kansas, and Kansas was the number one Populist state. When I got to graduate school—in history at the University of Chicago—it turned out that lots of other people were also writing about Populism. It’s this romantic thing, this left-wing party that never took off. It had its moment and then failed and died. Historians are drawn to it, though; they write about it constantly. So, I decided to write about something else and I changed subjects. When the word started getting abused around the time when Trump got elected, I decided to dust that old research off and to go have some fun with it.
CZ: What looked different to you now?
TF: Populism has long been targeted—from the 19th century to Trump—as a danger to the social order. This is what fascinates me now. Not so much the story of Populism, although that’s a great story, but the story of anti-populism, the people who hated and despised the movement, beginning with the big New York daily newspapers of the day.
Then I branched out, got into the humor magazines of the period, which absolutely despised Populism, just hated it. And these were fun to research because I don’t think too many people have used these in their studies of Populism before. The Library of Congress had one of them on microfilm—it was called Judge—but the microfilm was in black and white and it was not easy to read. I wound up buying them, just buying the physical magazines from somebody on eBay, and that way the cartoons are in full color; they’re absolutely beautiful.
Another thing these magazines were—these magazines that hated Populism and mocked it all the time—was extremely racist and anti-immigrant and antisemitic, viciously antisemitic. So, what does that tell you? There were occasional antisemites among the Populists, of course, but the broader culture was cruelly, viciously antisemitic. It’s just in your face with every page you turn. We’re talking about Republicans and Democrats here, the most refined and high-toned elements of society.
Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia historian who wrote the most famous anti-populist work of them all, must have known that. He accused the Populists of being antisemitic and anti-immigrant. Why didn’t he report about the much more obvious antisemitism and xenophobia of the New York elite? Surely he knew about it. Why didn’t he include that in his work?
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