Last year, Thomas Frank—who skyrocketed to fame by trying to define what was the matter with Kansas—published a book called Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. Scolding the Democratic Party for its closeness to financial elites, Frank’s book offered an explanation of some of the trends that would lead to Donald Trump’s election later that year. The question, then, is how Trump has been able, even with falling poll numbers, to hold on to so many of the voters he won, considering that his closeness to Wall Street and plutocratic style of governing go well beyond anything that could previously have been imagined.
To discuss Trump’s first months in office, and what it means for the future of the left, I spoke by phone with Frank recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether the media is partially to blame for Trump’s ability to swindle voters, if the Democrats have made any progress in the past six months, and whether Trump’s popularity is set to fall even further.
Isaac Chotiner: I wanted to get your thoughts on Trump’s success last year, given that, it seems to me, he has been following through with none of the economic populism but all of the racism.
Thomas Frank: Yes, that seems to be correct. There are probably some exceptions, but I can’t think of what they are right now. Do you remember one of the things he promised was to bring back Glass-Steagall? Do you remember this?
It’s almost comical. They’ve made zero effort to do that.
You also probably remember he was preaching things like reining in prescription drug prices—that doing that would be a big part of any health care changes.
Yup. He hasn’t done anything.
So then why hasn’t his support evaporated more than it has?
I wonder about this myself all the time. Of course, we’re only six months in. It takes people a while to give up on the guy. But one of the things is how he keeps his sort of symbolic war with the elites going and that’s this war with the press that is going on.
Yeah, you wrote a column for the Guardian about how the media was failing in its own war on Trump.
Remember, this is something that goes back to Nixon. Nixon is Trump’s hero, of course. The idea of the liberal media, the media elite. It has always been part of the right-wing way of looking at the world. With Trump, it has become the central issue. And, by the way, it goes both ways. The media seems to be, as far as I can tell, really enjoying it too. This is a moment of great fulfillment for them.
OK but what would be an alternative way for the media to act?
There’s a lack of imagination. It’s just constant. I’m talking about the op-ed pages specifically here, but this sort of direct frontal assault denunciation constantly. I’ve got the New York Times from two days ago here, from the 31st, and these are some of the headlines on the op-ed page. “Satan in a Sunday Hat,” “Who Ate Republicans’ Brains?,” and “Trump Goes Rogue.” It’s just this sort of direct frontal assault over-the-top denunciation.
There are a lot of bad things that are happening.
That is for sure. A lot of this is me being tired of it as a consumer, as somebody that reads the Washington Post and the New York Times every day. I’m exhausted. Of course there’s no choice. They have to keep doing it. He’s still president. This has been going on for a very long time. But the other thing is that there’s no wit or cleverness or strategy to it.
I think the mistake some of the people on the left made about the election result is that they sort of assumed that the reason Trump voters disliked the elites and the reason they disliked the elites were similar. I worry about that when people start saying, “Well, the New York Times is too critical of Trump,” and then assume, “This is why people hate the media.” I think people hate the media for all sorts of cultural and deep-seated reasons.
It’s not that they’re too critical of Trump. It’s that they’re critical of Trump in a certain way. People do hate the media. Everybody hates their hometown newspaper. This is something that I learned many years ago.
When I started my career, it was the 1990s, and the thing that really astonished me at the time was the groupthink about the new economy. I wrote a whole book about this. I don’t know if you remember it, not many people do. It was called One Market Under God, and I basically wrote it with CNBC on all the time, reading the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. It was about the sort of unanimity, that was astonishing to me at the time, unanimity of the media about the promise of the new economy. And then of course it all fell apart and the wheels came off. And then the second one was the Iraq war, and the consensus about the Iraq war.
Basically, I distrust consensus of nearly every kind. Then you had another one, a consensus in a different direction, which is nobody covering the housing bubble and the sort of epic, the layers of misconduct that allowed that to take place. Then the last example was in the last election. I was, just a little while ago, just for my own for fun, reading op-eds in the New York Times and various other publications from before the election and their confidence in Hillary Clinton’s victory was—they were absolutely certain she was going to win and they express it in this kind of contemptuous way. They were so absolutely convinced of Hillary Clinton’s—how would I put it? Like saintliness.
You think the media was obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s saintliness last year?
I’m talking about the opinion writers.
Yeah, and I do think they were. I think they got themselves into a dangerous place. By the way, I say this as a Hillary voter. I think they got themselves into a dangerous place where they couldn’t see the sort of looming dangers.
Let’s turn to the Democrats then. First, let me just ask you, how do you think the party has done in the first six months of the Trump administration resisting him and developing a positive message?
Well, not so great. Are you referring to the “Better Deal”?
Well, I mean, the slogan stuff is stupid, so more broadly.
Generally speaking, I would say they held together better than I thought they would on health care. I thought that Trump would conceivably be able to peel some of them away and he didn’t. He wasn’t able to and that’s great. The “Better Deal” stuff … most of it is pretty lukewarm. But I think it’s very significant for two reasons. First of all, I don’t know if you saw this interview with Chuck Schumer where … it was in the Washington Post. He’s talking to Ed O’Keefe and David Weigel and he says this. He says, “When you lose …” This is Chuck Schumer. He says, “When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things—Comey, Russia—you blame yourself.”
That is fascinating. That shows that there really are new thoughts going through their heads. I’m very excited about that. Then if you look at the proposal itself, most of it is warmed-over Clinton-era stuff. But there’s one thing in here that I think is really significant and really meaningful and I’m really excited to see the Democrats embrace it, and that’s the anti-monopoly, antitrust agenda. This is huge. That is the Democratic Party turning their back on a consensus issue of 30 years standing. It’s very impressive to me because I’m one of these guys … you know. You’ve read my stuff. I’m one of these guys that blames monopolies, the sort of coming together of these enormously powerful companies, I blame that for a lot of what’s gone wrong in this country for ordinary working people for the last 30 years, especially when you’re talking about farm country, small-town America, that sort of thing. These people are really in the grip of monopolies. I think that’s something that, if the Democrats were to play it right, that could be very powerful and that could go a long way towards reversing this. OK, sorry, I’ll shut up.
I agree on that. But in terms of the political question there’s this sense, I think, on the left that Democrats need to have a very populist, pro-worker agenda to win back these Trump voters. But there’s a logical inconsistency if Trump himself is pursuing the opposite of that and holding onto these voters.
Well, give it time. Like I said, there’s still this kind of populist sham battle, this stage show, the war with the media. I don’t know how long that can satisfy people.
I guess the disturbing analysis of what’s going on is that the reason that he’s always seen as a populist and on the side of white working-class people is because he is affirmatively not on the side of nonwhite people, and so that will always give him cachet to appear to be a populist fighting for the working-class white majority.
Racist does not equal working class. These two things are separate categories.
I didn’t say racist equals working class. That’s not what I’m trying to say.
That’s what it sounded like. And you know, Isaac, that is a stereotype of long standing.
Well, the majority of white working-class people in this country just voted for a racist. I can’t look into their hearts, but they did.
Look, I agree with that and it’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. It’s awful. What can I say? The question is always to what degree they voted for Trump because of his bigotry or flip it on its head, to what degree did they vote for him despite his bigotry? And I don’t know the answer to that.