Matt Taibbi: Book Review and Thoughts on Anti-Populism

Author and reporter Matt Taibbi writes a book review of The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by Thomas Frank. Mr. Taibbi talks about how Frank predicted our current culture war and declares that the left is unable to learn from their mistakes because they are deliberately blind to their mistakes, instead blaming their failures on racism and Christianity.

Thomas Frank is one of America’s more skillful writers, an expert practitioner of a genre one might call historical journalism – ironic, because no recent media figure has been more negatively affected by historical change. Frank became a star during a time of intense curiosity about the reasons behind our worsening culture war, and now publishes a terrific book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, at a time when people are mostly done thinking about what divides us, gearing up to fight instead.

Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas? in 2004, at the height of the George W. Bush presidency. The Iraq War was already looking like a disaster, but the Democratic Party was helpless to take advantage, a fact the opinion-shaping class on the coasts found puzzling. Blue-staters felt sure they’d conquered the electoral failure problem in the nineties, when a combination of Bill Clinton’s Arkansas twang, policy pandering (a middle-class tax cut!) and a heavy dose of unsubtle race politics (e.g. ending welfare “as we know it”) appeared to cut the heart out of the Republican “Southern strategy.”

Yet Clinton’s chosen successor Al Gore flopped, the party’s latest Kennedy wannabe, John Kerry, did worse, and by the mid-2000s, Bushian conservatism was culturally ascendant, despite obvious failures. Every gathering of self-described liberals back then devolved into the same sad-faced anthropological speculation about Republicans: “Why do they vote against their own interests?”

Frank, a Midwesterner and one of the last exemplars of a media tradition that saw staying in touch with the thinking of the general population as a virtue, was not puzzled. What’s the Matter with Kansas? was framed as an effort to answer that liberal cocktail-party conundrum – “How could anyone who’s ever worked for someone vote Republican?” was the version Frank described hearing – and the answer, at least on the surface, was appealing to coastal intellectuals.

Frank explained the Republican voter had thrown support to the Republicans’ pro-corporate economic message in exchange for solidarity on cultural issues, as part of what he called the “Great Backlash”:

While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues—summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art—which it then marries to pro-business economic policies.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? was about more than that, but for the chattering classes, this thesis was enough. What they heard was that the electorally self-harming white Republican voter from poor regions like the High Plains was motivated not by reason, but by racial animus and Christian superstition.

For a certain kind of blue-state media consumer, and especially for Democratic Party politicians, this was a huge relief, the political version of Sean’s hug-it-out message to Will Hunting:

A reader looking back at that book will note Frank also predicted political disasters that would later befall Democrats, and outlined the thesis of his current book The People, No, which will probably suffer financially for being pretty much the opposite of “All this shit, it’s not your fault.”

The Kansas title alone spoke to one of Frank’s central observations: while red state voters might frame objections in terms of issues like abortion or busing, in a broader sense the Republican voter is recoiling from urban liberal condescension.

That Democrats needed Thomas Frank to tell them what conservatives fifteen miles outside the cities were thinking was damning in itself. Even worse was the basically unbroken string of insults emanating from pop culture (including from magazines like Rolling Stone: I was very guilty of this) describing life between the cities as a prole horror peopled by obese, Bible-thumping dolts who couldn’t navigate a Thai menu and polished gun lockers instead of reading.

Republicans may have controlled government at the time, but when they turned on TV sets or looked up at movie screens, their voters felt accused of something just for living in little towns, raising kids, and visiting church on Sundays. What’s the matter, they were asking, with that?

As Frank and basically anyone who’d been to an antiwar meeting knew, actual liberals in the Bush era were “an assortment of complainers – for the most part impoverished complainers – who wield about as much influence over American politics as the cashier at Home Depot.” In those circles, the union member was still revered, and the villain in small towns was a GM or Cargill executive, whose assaults on factory workers and family farmers of all races were central to the story of America’s decline.

Still, by the Bush years something had gone terribly wrong, in liberalism’s effort to reach small-town America:

Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.

Frank ripped the political strategy of Clinton Democrats, who removed economic issues from their platform as they commenced accepting gobs of Wall Street money in a post-Mondale effort to compete with Republicans on fundraising. Gambling that working-class voters would keep voting blue because “Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues,” New Democrats stopped targeting blue-collar voters and switched rhetorical emphasis to “affluent, white collar professionals who are liberal on social issues.”

The move seemed smart. This was the go-go eighties, we were all Material Girls (for whom the boy with the cold hard cash was always Mr. Right), and as Frank put it, “What politician in this success-loving country really wants to be the voice of poor people?”

While Clinton Democrats were perfecting a new image of urban cool, opponents were honing a new approach:

Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters—their traditional base—the big brush-off…

The news media and Hollywood shifted accordingly. Working-class voices disappeared from the press and earnest movies like Norma Rae and The China Syndrome gave way to a new brand of upper-class messaging that reveled in imperious sneering and weird culture-war provocations:

In an America where the chief sources of one’s ideas about life’s possibilities are TV and the movies, it’s not hard to be convinced that we inhabit a liberal-dominated world: feminist cartoons for ten-year-olds are followed by commercials for nonconformist deodorants; entire families of movies are organized around some transcendent dick joke…

In Frank’s home state of Kansas, voters reacted by moving right as the triumvirate of news media, pop culture, and Democratic politics spoke to them less and less. “The state,” he wrote, “watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year.”

Perceiving correctly that there would be no natural brake on this phenomenon, since the executive set was able to pay itself more and more as the country grew more divided, Frank wondered, “Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?”

We have the answer to that now, don’t we?

When I was first sent out to cover the Donald Trump campaign years later, I assumed the editorial concept would be simple: mockery. New York’s infamous “short-fingered vulgarian” had taken over national headlines in the summer of 2015 with a foul-mouthed stream-of-consciousness rap, organized around an impossible Pharaonic wall project and scare tales about rape-happy Mexicans – the Diceman doing Pat Buchanan. If this was taking over the Republican Party, there wasn’t much to report. The enterprise was doomed, and journalism’s only mission was to make sure the silliest bits were captured before being buried under the sands of history.

Twenty minutes into my first Trump campaign event, I knew this was wrong, and was seized by a sinking feeling that really hasn’t left since. Trump in person sounded like he’d been convinced to run for president after reading What’s the Matter with Kansas? His stump act seemed tailored to take advantage of the gigantic market opportunity Democrats had created, and which Frank described. He ranted about immigrants, women, the disabled, and other groups, sure, but also about NAFTA, NATO, the TPP, big Pharma, military contracting, and a long list of other issues.

In 2016, it was clear only a few people in the lefty media world understood what Trump was up to, and why he was a real threat to win. Michael Moore was one, and Frank was another. I don’t think it’s a coincidence both were Midwesterners. Frank released his next book, Listen, Liberal, in May of 2016, just as Trump was seizing the nomination. It began with the following observation:

In the summer of 2014, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting all-time highs, a poll showed that nearly three-quarters of the American public thought the economy was still in recession—because for them, it was.

He noted that workers’ share of GDP hit the lowest levels in American history in 2011 and stayed there, as inequities stemming from the Obama “recovery” became a “quasi-permanent development.”

Most of the press lived in a different America, though, and saw Frank’s warning as annoying, repetitive whining. Cocky reviewers at places like the New York Times bemoaned the book’s “pessimistic note” and berated him for seeing the “uneven recovery” of the Obama years as “a tragedy rather than a triumph.” Listen to what? Hadn’t he read the latest polls? Didn’t he know the rout was on?

(It should be noted that new Times reviews of books this week by Robert Reich and Zephyr Teachout, under the familiar headline, “Why the Working Class Votes Against Its Economic Interests,” are similarly snooty in telling both to “temper their anti-corporate zeal” in this election year. Very little learning takes place at these institutions).

After Trump’s election in November 2016, the first instinct of everyone wandering amid the smoldering wreckage of Democratic Party politics should have been to look in all directions for anyone with an explanation for what the hell just happened.

Of course the opposite took place. Frank seemed to be put into deep-freeze after Listen, Liberal, largely I think because he was telling a truth no one wanted to hear about the difference between the way the New York Times saw America, and how, say, Iowans or Nebraskans saw it. Trump meanwhile constructed his argument for the presidency atop that difference, and is still doing it today.

Also: the word, “populism,” became a synonym for plague or menace. Post-Trump and post-Brexit, pundits tended to use the term in tandem with other epithets, e.g. the “populist threat.” For Frank, a liberal intellectual whose breathless admiration for the actual Populist movement of the 1890s had been a running theme across two decades, this must have stung.

He responded by plunging into a history of Populism that probably began as quaint nostalgia but quickly turned into something else: a portrait of anti-Populism. The People, No documents the furious elite propaganda response to bottom-up political movements that has recurred in uncannily similar fashion at key moments across nearly a century and a half of American history, and is firing with particular venom today.

The Populists were a third-party movement that popped into view in the late 1800s in response to the excesses of monopoly capitalism. It centered around regulation of railroads, currency reform, federal loans to farmers, and other issues. In a development that particularly frightened the very wealthy at the time, it sought and secured alliances with Black farmers. Proving the concept of breaking the political and economic monopoly of New York elites with sheer voter energy was almost more important than the individual issues.

A sort-of populist, William Jennings Bryan, became the Democratic nominee in 1896, only to be slaughtered by a mediocrity named William McKinley. The Republican was backed by mountains of corporate money and the dirty-pool genius of his campaign “generalissimo,” Mark Hanna (whose media-dominating, cash-gobbling wizardry in suppressing voter preference ironically made him the hero of Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove). Mountains of propaganda depicted populists as diseased demons, unshaven slayers of American virtue:

In many popular histories, including Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, the Populists are depicted as failures, crushed by almighty capital after selling out to make alliances with Democrats. But many of their ideas were implemented after the 1929 crash. Frank writes in detail how the same corporate messengers scrambled to defame Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 with an 1896-style anti-Populist attack.

F.D.R. himself was a genteel aristocrat, but battered as a Russian agent – one Chicago Tribune cartoon showed his hands covered with the “red jam of Moscow” – and his followers were described as a mob of “sentimentalists and demagogues” who wanted to “take away from the thrifty what the thrifty or their ancestors have accumulated.” His followers were “people of low mentality” who backed policies that were the “laughingstock of the leading monetary authorities of the world.” This campaign, which should sound familiar, failed over and over, as F.D.R. retained broad support and populism even became culturally dominant in the thirties and early forties, through the films of people like Orson Welles and Frank Capra.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the more effective version of anti-Populist messaging was developed, as Frank writes:

Now anti-populism was taken up by a new elite, a liberal elite that was led by a handful of thinkers at prestigious universities … In short, the highly educated learned to deplore working-class movements for their bigotry, their refusal of modernity, and their borderline madness.

The new conception of populism, as popularized by historians like Richard Hofstadter, pitted the common run of voters against a growing class of elite-educated managerial professionals, philosopher-kings who set correct policy for the ignorant masses.

The model of enlightened government for this new “technocratic” class of “consensus thinkers” was John Kennedy’s “Camelot” cabinet of Experts in Shirtsleeves, with Robert McNamara’s corporatized Pentagon their Shining Bureaucracy on a Hill. This vision of ideal democracy has dominated mainstream press discourse for almost seventy years.

Since the establishment of this template, Frank notes, “virtually everyone who writes on the subject agrees that populism is ‘anti-pluralist,’ by which they mean that it is racist or sexist or discriminatory in some way… Populism’s hatred for ‘the elite,’ meanwhile, is thought to be merely a fig leaf for this ugly intolerance.”

Trump and Bernie Sanders both got hit with every cliché described in Frank’s book. Both were depicted as xenophobic, bigoted, emotion-laden, resistant to modernity, susceptible to foreign influence, and captured by “unrealistic” ideas they lacked the expertise to implement.

At the conclusion of The People, No, Frank sums up the book’s obvious subtext, seeming almost to apologize for its implications:

My point here is not to suggest that Trump is a “very stable genius,” as he likes to say, or that he led a genuine populist insurgency; in my opinion, he isn’t and he didn’t. What I mean to show is that the message of anti-populism is the same as ever: the lower orders, it insists, are driven by irrationality, bigotry, authoritarianism, and hate; democracy is a problem because it gives such people a voice. The difference today is that enlightened liberals are the ones mouthing this age-old anti-populist catechism.

The People, No is more an endorsement of 1896-style populism as a political solution to our current dilemma than it is a diatribe against an arrogant political elite. The book reads this way in part because Frank is a cheery personality whose polemical style tends to accentuate the positive. In my hands this material would lead to a darker place faster — it’s infuriating, especially in what it says about the last four years of “consensus” propaganda, in particular the most recent iteration.

The book’s concept also reflects the Sovietish reality of post-Trump media, which is now dotted with so many perilous taboos that it sometimes seems there’s no way to get audiences to see certain truths except indirectly, or via metaphor. The average blue-state media consumer by 2020 has ingested so much propaganda about Trump (and Sanders, for that matter) that he or she will be almost immune to the damning narratives in this book. Protesting, “But Trump is a racist,” they won’t see the real point – that these furious propaganda campaigns that have been repeated almost word for word dating back to the 1890s are aimed at voters, not politicians.

In the eighties and nineties, TV producers and newspaper editors established the ironclad rule of never showing audiences pictures of urban poverty, unless it was being chased by cops. In the 2010s the press began to cartoonize the “white working class” in a distantly similar way.

This began before Trump. As Bernie Sanders told Rolling Stone after the 2016 election, when the small-town American saw himself or herself on TV, it was always “a caricature. Some idiot. Or maybe some criminal, some white working-class guy who has just stabbed three people.” These caricatures drove a lot of voters toward Trump, especially when he began telling enormous crowds that the lying media was full of liars who lied about everything.

After 2016 it became axiomatic that the Trump voter, or the Leave voter, was – without exception now – a crazed, racist monster. As detailed here multiple times, ruminations on Republican voter behaviors became not merely uninteresting to pundits after November 2016, but actively taboo. By 2020, the official answer to What’s the Matter with Kansas? was Kansas is a White Supremacist Project and Can Go Fuck Itself.

Frank in 2004 wrote about how confused Midwestern voters were, watching TV images of the beautiful people of the time. Movie stars and hedge-funders donned ribbons in support of animals or the “underprivileged,” while spending huge sums on pictures of Jesus covered in ants or on crucifix-shaped popsicles that supposedly were comments on “fanaticism and violence.” This, while factory towns were basically being moved en masse to China.

Imagine the reaction in these places now, to editorials in the New York Times instructing white liberals to cut off their relatives (by text, incidentally) until they donate to Black Lives Matter, or a CNN tweet instructing “individuals with a cervix” to start getting cancer screens at age 25, or to widespread denunciations of Mount Rushmore as a “monument of two slaveholders” when visited by Trump, after those same outlets praised its “majesty” just four years earlier.

These stories are as incomprehensible to Middle America as the pictures of MAGA fanatics going maskless and dying of Covid-19 to own the libs are to blue-state audiences. Yet both groups are bombarded with images of their opposite extremes, with predictable results: we all hate each other.

It’s no accident that the consensus press pumping out these messages spent the last four years denouncing Sanders – whose campaign was a polite promise to restore New Deal values for everyone, Republicans included – as far too radical for America.

Once Sanders was out of the way, those same news outlets embraced a significantly more radical ideology, one that swore a lot, described everyone to the right of Ibram Kendi as a white supremacist, and told small business owners they should put up with their stores being smashed for the cause of progress.

The history outlined in The People, No predicts this. America’s financial and political establishment has always been most terrified of an inclusive underclass movement. So it evangelizes a bizarre transgressive politics that tells white conservatives to fuck themselves and embraces a leftist sub-theology that preaches class as a racist canard. Same old game, same old goal: keep people divided. The only cost to the “consensus thinkers” who will likely re-take the White House under Joe Biden is, they will have to join Nike and Bank of America in flying a “Black Lives Matter” banner above a conference room or two as they re-take their seats at the controls of the S.S. Neoliberalism.

Frank was never a David Broder type, preaching airy centrism and celebrating phony “bipartisanship.” Instead his books, which filled a vacuum created by the disappearance/expulsion of working-class writers like Mike Royko or Studs Terkel, said conservative Middle America was worth understanding, and there was overlap between its concerns and those of the frustrated, oft-impoverished complainers who were the Democrats’ base.

Frank insisted there was both a danger in ignoring those shared concerns, and a huge potential benefit in addressing them. Fifteen years ago, that was an acceptable topic for elite discussion. In the Trump era it’s heresy, and even an eloquently-argued warning like The People, No will likely be denounced, as too much like paying attention to deplorables.

Note: Katie Halper and I have interviewed Thomas Frank for Useful Idiots, an episode that will be released Friday, August 7