Author Thomas Frank continues to ask what the matter is with Kansas (and the rest of us)

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Thomas Frank speaks at the KC Library. // Courtesy KC Public Library

Thomas Frank is best-known for What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, but his new book indicates that Kansas and the rest of the Midwest has often been part of what is right or can be right with the rest of the country as well. 

The former Wall Street Journal columnist and founder of the journal The Baffler was born here in Kansas City and has spent much of his career correcting how his pundit peers define the term populism. During Sunday morning talk shows, the talking heads will replay footage from Trump rallies and use the word, but Frank’s The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism explains that the populist movement of the 1890s and the labor struggles of the 1930s were based on a far different mentality. For example, populist leader Mary Elizabeth Lease advised farmers to raise more hell than corn, but she was also fond of Einstein’s theories.

The movement that started on a train to Topeka at the end of the 19th century may have attracted a lot of exploited farmers and may have scared East Coast elites, but their mindset was inclusive instead of exclusive. In addition, the farmers involved were pushing for free markets to sell their goods while the establishment Republicans were pushing for repressive tariffs. 

In addition, The People, No, which takes its title from poet Carl Sandburg’s 1936 book The People, Yes, devotes an entire chapter to Emmanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius, two Jewish socialists who moved to Girard, Kansas from Philadelphia and published the Little Blue Book series, which made the work of authors like Maxim Gorky and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger accessible to people who hadn’t gone to high school or didn’t have a lot of cash.

Thanks to COVID-19, Frank and I contacted each other by phone even though both of us were in Kansas City last month. Despite its negative title, The People, No is also a celebration of what happens when populism is properly understood.

If people get one thing from The People, No it’s that populism and violent fanaticism are two separate entities.

Yes, that’s right. There’s a lot of confusion about that, but by my definition, which is the American meaning of the word, populism is a mass movement, a multi-racial mass movement for economic democracy. And that’s not the same thing as, people wearing MAGA hats, you know?

Many of your books deal with how several economic and sociological experts have earned the mistrust of the general population, but in the new book, you also show that there is a history of populist intellectuals as well. Many of them were based here in Kansas. The town of Girard, for example, was the home of The Little Blue Books.

Isn’t that fascinating? That’s the key, in some ways, to understanding the whole thing, that you can have a movement that is both in love with learning and ideas, science, and enlightenment, and at the same time is very mistrustful of the professional class. 

That’s how this idea, this sort of whole problem of populism and intellectuals comes out of the last book that I wrote, Listen, Liberal!, which is about the problem of having a political party that is based on the professional class and on rule by the professional class. That is not populism, just so you know. It’s in some ways the opposite.

While many professional class experts have proven themselves not to be experts at all, if I’m going to get into a plane, I would like to have the pilot be somebody who’s been trained on how to operate it. I get the feeling omnipresent pundit and White House advisor Larry Kudlow wouldn’t last 10 seconds at the Chicago School of Economics.

You know, I went to the University of Chicago. 

I’ve written about Kudlow. I wrote about him a lot 20 years ago. He was a character in my book One Market Under God. He is a straight-up ideologue, very similar to them, but not he’s not a math guy. 

So, with Chicago, It’s mathematics. And the reason they do everything. By the way, when you talk about what’s wrong with intellectuals and with our intellectual life and with having ruled by experts, it’s because, as you said in the abstract, of course, you want experts to run things, right?

You want the pilot of the plane to know what they’re doing, so you take the economics discipline and let them run the economy, and what do they do? You know, it’s a disaster (laughs).

All the sort of reforms that have been proposed over the last 100 years, they opposed them, and they managed to fight them off. They’re wrong again and again and again, they never face the consequences of being wrong. There’s no accountability for these guys because they’re allowed to determine their own accountability. That’s the nature of the profession. And so, they define themselves as the experts, but their expertise is, as everyone can see, is catastrophic. It’s a kind of expertise that you want nothing to do with.

So anyhow, you know, I write these things as someone who went through that system who came out of that intellectual, not economics, but a higher ed, getting a Ph.D. A big part of this new book of mine is a historiography. It’s a history of historical discipline. It’s not something that gives you confidence in intellectual elites. 

You go back, and the key chapter here is the one about the consensus intellectuals in the 1950s, who decided to reinterpret populism for reasons entirely of their own because Richard Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in the American Life, The Age of Reform) had this sort of had this lifelong war with histories of the generation before his. 

So, he went on this wild reinterpretation of populism that described all democratic, working-class movements as authoritarian, threats to democracy. And that’s just wrong on the face of it. It’s wrong in the evidence, and it’s wrong in American history. As we can see, it’s wrong every day of our lives, and it captured the imagination of a certain class of people, the sort of intellectual elite of the day, who were then coming into power.

They reinterpreted populism to themselves as a class. It has very little to do with the historical reality of populism. That was absolutely fascinating to me once I realized that. I came out of this part where I wanted to go back and look at my earlier writing. 

I used to really admire Richard Hofstadter. He was one of my heroes. And now I go back and try to try to understand how he got something so very, very wrong. And this story is fascinating, and his wrong interpretation swept the world and is today the interpretation that you hear everywhere. You open up The New York Times and The Washington Post. That’s the interpretation, the one that was massively mistaken.

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Thomas Frank speaks at the KC Library. // Courtesy KC Public Library

There was something The New York Times got right recently. They made a video of a man here in Kansas City who worked at a McDonald’s, and he gets to some of the points you’re dealing with. He said, OK you want me to make you food? But what if I don’t feel good that day? That is a legitimate question because as a typical Midwestern, he and I have always been trained that if your nose is running the Boston Marathon, you’re still going to work. He needs time off, because right now he’s a biohazard.

We’re all saying, we’ve got to obey what the (medical) experts are telling us. Absolutely correct. We do. We have to wear masks. We have to do whatever is necessary to stamp this thing out. 

At the same time, just to put experts in charge is not good enough. Workers have to have power. I keep coming back to the same message, and it’s the message of the Little Blue Books. Yes. Expertise, yes. Learning, yes, enlightenment. But at the same time, democracy. You’ve got to have both.

That’s the message of populism, that that expertise and learning have to be in the hands of ordinary people. 

This is what populist movements are ultimately all about, that ordinary people have a certain genius as well. It’s funny that we have to learn this lesson all over again. But I think back to the culture, the books and the movies of the 1930s, and that’s always the message, the Carl Sandburg stuff that I refer to is that there’s a genius in ordinary people. 

And as you mentioned, the Little Blue Books from right here in Kansas, where he said that the you know what he was about, what the little Blue Book project was all about was opening the doors of personality to everyone, which is a funny way of putting it, but also kind of a brilliant way of putting it.

Everyone should have access to genius. You know, it should not be reserved for this tiny clique of people, who are certifying one another and all know each other from Harvard or whatever the hell it is.

That’s populism. I think you know it’s so profoundly in the American grain. It’s strange to me that we have lost it. We’ve just lost track of it, you know?

Yeah. And, you know, I think a lot about Orson Welles because I’m a film geek. I’ve studied him more than is good for my mental health. When he did Shakespeare booklets with his teacher, Roger Hill, they were called Everybody’s Shakespeare

I love Orson Welles, and, yes, he called it the “People’s Theatre.” He was very much involved in this kind of culture, that sort of 1930s popular front culture. 

Two things about Citizen Kane: Whenever people equate populism with demagoguery, I think of that movie. It’s a movie about a demagogue, which was an obsession in the 1930s. It’s a movie about a demagogue that nevertheless celebrates populism and celebrates organized labor. Nowadays, we think you can’t do both of those things. It’s Donald Trump’s favorite movie. He loves this movie about a demagogue.

They had this problem in the 30s with these right-wing demagogues like Father Coughlin who sounded like they were on the left and cared about ordinary people but were in fact, proto-fascists. People saw that coming, but they didn’t think that discredited worker’s movements themselves. That would never have occurred to them. There was a bright, shining line between William Randolph Hearst (the model for Citizen Kane) and the AFL-CIO. Today, we can’t see that. 

To get back to Father Coughlin, he never referred to himself as a populist. This is a totally, latter-day interpretation. But he did use the phrase “social justice” all the time. I wonder with all of these people who use the phrase “social justice warriors,” do they have any idea of the background they are linking themselves to? Of course, not because what he meant by that was this kind of really, really insulting anti-Semitism.


The People, No cover. // Via publisher.

In The People, No, you point out that demagogues exploit legitimate needs that are completely being sidestepped. For example, I’m from a town near Osawatomie, and they don’t even have a grocery store anymore.

That’s John Brown Country down there. You put your finger on something that’s been really painful for me, and that is in 2016 I pointed out that a lot of these people who are voting for Trump have legitimate grievances. I mean, non-racist, non-scapegoat. They had real grievances. A lot of them, of course, were motivated by racism and by other really bad ideas.

But lots of them are from places like what you just described. And you know, their lives and their communities have gone through the meat grinder.

That turned out to not be a very good career move to make to say that. Let’s put it that way.

And yet it seems so obvious on the face of it. That doesn’t mean that I thought Trump was a good guy or that I fell for his bullshit or anything like that. I still thought he was an asshole then and I think he’s an asshole now, but I think he’s much worse. I can’t believe he’s in the Oval Office. I just can’t believe it. 

But just to point out that, some of the things he was saying resonated for a good reason. It was the same with Barack Obama in 2008. And it was our folly as liberals to not get that. And since then we have locked ourselves into this stupid war where we imagine that we liberals are on the side of learning and enlightenment, and everybody else is just about is about public stupidity. It’s the worst self-defeating culture war you can imagine. There’s no winning hand to this if that’s how you define the issues.

I said all that stuff about people have a right to be pissed off at the system. I went out and voted for Hillary Clinton. So, there you go (laughs). But I was like, Trump is making a lot of these inroads, but she’s going to be a much better president for those people. Mentally I knew that. Then I could also understand why people were going the other way. And I thought that was important to try to understand that, but no, apparently not. 

The guy’s a scoundrel. He’s so bad. He’s an abomination character in every way imaginable. And it’s still stunning to me that he was able to pull off. 

As we just said, you know, you should have been able to see it coming a mile away. The American way of life is collapsing for all sorts of people and all sorts of towns and cities all over America. It’s been happening for a long time, and people are desperate. They are desperate. 

Here comes a demagogue, a charlatan, a mountebank. Yes, they’re going to fall for that, and it’s easy to see why. And I hate it. But that’s what happened.

This brings me to the second to last chapter of the book. In some ways, we liberals are doing exactly the wrong thing. Even when our intentions are good and noble, we don’t focus on movement building. We focus on excluding and purging and on kicking out. And as Lawrence Goodwyn says, in building a movement culture requires an ideological patience. You have to be patient with people who are not as enlightened as you. If you want to build a mass movement or if you want to get great things done, you have to practice ideological patience. We’re doing the opposite of that today. That’s not a recipe for building a movement. That’s a recipe for being the purest of them all so you can lord of the ruins of democracy. 

In the early portions of the book, you pointed out that most of what the populists were campaigning for when we’re starting on their way onboard the trains to Topeka was economic issues. Generally, religion took a back seat, or they tended to stay clear of a lot of culture war issues.

They had to. Populism had a lot of very religious people, of course, in the rank and file, but also a lot of people who what they used to call like the village Infidel or the village atheist. So, if you go back and look at their newspapers, they were big fans of people like Robert Ingersoll, who was a very famous atheist. They were big fans of a lot of this stuff, and then you have something like William Jennings Bryan, who obviously was a very sort of Sunday school kind of guy. 

They had a very evangelical style, and they used a lot of evangelical phrases. They had to steer clear of (culture war) to keep their coalition together, and at the end, they didn’t keep their coalition together, so it didn’t matter. It was the same with Prohibition, which was the big culture war issue of the day.

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Thomas Frank speaks at the KC Library. // Courtesy KC Public Library

Your book forces us to look at Bryan in a different light because he’s known for embarrassing himself during Scopes Monkey Trial, but his stands on certain issues were remarkably forward-thinking. When Kirk Douglas played a character based on him in Inherit the Wind, he demanded that Bryan not be portrayed simply as a fool because it didn’t reflect what he was actually like.

[Bryan] came to a very sad end. It’s funny how the end of his life overshadows his very magnificent and very brave performance in [the] 1896 [presidential campaign]. In 1900, he ran for president again, and his issue was, in addition to free silver, was imperialism. He was anti-imperialist. If we can’t go back and honor the one guy who got it right, who said we shouldn’t be an empire because it’s contrary to our nature as a democracy and attacked McKinley for trying to build an empire in the Philippines and elsewhere. He got endless shit from the East Coast media for those stands. Goddamn! That guy was right. It is such a shame that today he’s known to we enlightened people only as the fool from that movie who stood up against the theory of evolution. 

Do you think that in some ways, because we’ve seen some fragility because of COVID-19, labor issues are getting more attention?

Yes, this is the kind of situation where you could have wildcat strikes and you can have labor organizing, and it could catch fire. Yes, that is totally the answer. I don’t know if that’s actually happening. We don’t have a lot of reports from out in the country. 

The other really hopeful thing: Look at Black Lives Matter. This is an enormous popular movement. I mean, look at the crowds in the streets in these cities, By the way, that is either a populist movement or a proto-populous movement, depending on the particulars of it. 

It’s very close to taking the next step, which is going into issues of the workplace and economic issues, generally. It could very easily take that next step tomorrow. And then you would have a genuine populist sort of uprising on your hands, and it would be awesome. And I hope that happens. 

You know, on the other hand, there is this effort underway by the corporate world to sort of capture the righteousness of that movement for themselves. We know all about this, right? Woke capitalism. That’s what sort of under the surface right now. And I hope it works out the way I just suggested. I would love to see that happen. Hell, yes. It could happen.

The People, No is available now wherever books are sold.


Categories: Culture