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Thomas Frank on the elitism that crucified the Democrats

Journalist and author Thomas Frank points to international trade deals as wreaking havoc on middle America.
Journalist and author Thomas Frank points to international trade deals as wreaking havoc on middle America. Leigh Vogel
by John KehoeAmerican author and journalist Thomas Frank strides in carrying a notepad and in a huff as I greet him, seated at a cosy table at the Tabard Inn in Washington DC. He is about 10 minutes late for our lunch date and upset about the unreliable local metro system. “But hey, Kansas City doesn’t have a metro,” he says.

Frank is most renowned for writing What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a 2004 book about how working-class Americans outside the big cities act against their own economic interest by voting Republican, based on cultural grievances on gay rights, guns, abortion and patriotism.

In the 1970s, he grew up in the conservative suburbs of Kansas City, which straddles Missouri’s western edge and the state of Kansas near the Midwest.

But we’re here today to talk about his latest book, Listen, Liberal.

Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate for the Democrats, says Frank, who was a fan of the "democratic socialist" ...
Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate for the Democrats, says Frank, who was a fan of the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders. supplied

In many ways, the book exposes the plight of the forgotten working-class Americans who Donald Trump lured in his famous presidential election boilover in November. Published eight months before election day, the book assails the Democratic Party, particularly Bill and Hillary Clinton, claiming it abandoned the working-class roots in favour of the educated professional class. 

Frank, a former university Republican – as the son of a small-business owner – before switching to become a staunch liberal (which means politically left-of-centre in America), is aghast at Trump’s victory, even if he may be entitled to feel a little vindicated on foreseeing how it happened.

“It was very easy for me to understand Trump’s appeal. Democrats don’t understand the issue of inequality and they’re completely out of touch on working-class people. Hillary is the manifestation and personification of it.”

Unleashing more, he says Clinton – who he reluctantly voted for – was “tone deaf” by suggesting that supporting Trump was an act of bigotry and that America was already “great” because the official unemployment rate was low and sharemarket booming.

“The Trump supporters are looking at what’s happening to their communities and saying ‘we don’t see that’. The unemployment rate is low right now, people have jobs; the jobs just don’t pay very well.”

President-elect Donald Trump with son-in-law Jared Kushner. Despite his wealth and privilege, billionaire businessman ...
President-elect Donald Trump with son-in-law Jared Kushner. Despite his wealth and privilege, billionaire businessman Trump knew how to strike a chord with the working classes. Getty Images

Middle-class wages, allowing for inflation, have barely budged over the past three decades. One in six working-age men are not employed, mainly because they are not looking for a job.

Scourge of trade deals

Frank, who now lives around Bethesda on the outskirts of Washington DC, has recently returned from a trip to Missouri where he undertook field research for a column for The Guardian (he also writes for the American current affairs magazine Harper’s, and was founding editor of The Baffler) about why the regions there supported the New York billionaire Trump in droves.

The waiter asks if we would like a drink. Frank, who has work to do later, passes on the alcohol and opts for “plain old” drip coffee. Typically Australian, I ask if they serve espresso. Today, I am in luck.

President-elect Donald Trump on his post-election victory lap in Mobile, Alabama. His anti-trade-deals message was a ...
President-elect Donald Trump on his post-election victory lap in Mobile, Alabama. His anti-trade-deals message was a winner in the American South and Midwest. NYT

Frank laments how farmers no longer vote Democrat and notes that even the leftist president Harry Truman, who was in power 1945-53, was from Missouri. “What’s weird today is you have a prolonged crisis in agriculture in family farming,” he continues. Jimmy Carter was, he says, the last to “care”. “As it gets worse, people vote for a more conservative candidate.”

He’s sharply critical of the big food buyer “monopolies” for paying farmers a pittance for their produce, arguing the government should impose anti-competitive sanctions.

In line with Trump, he lashes the international trade deals that he claims have devastated rural and regional communities, particularly old manufacturing strongholds in the South and Midwest. “There used to be a lot of manufacturing in small towns and now it’s gone.”

I push back and argue that technology through automation – more so than trade – has eliminated American manufacturing jobs. It was a point Obama would echo a few days later in his presidential farewell speech, saying the “next wave of dislocation” would come from automation, not trade. Trump can’t stop those powerful forces. Frank acknowledges robots taking jobs, but is adamant that, to date, trade deals have been the bigger culprit.

Thomas Frank: "Globalisation means you get what you want and I hit the road. I called bullshit on all that."
Thomas Frank: “Globalisation means you get what you want and I hit the road. I called bullshit on all that.” Leigh Vogel

Hope and disillusionment

The waiter reapproaches.

Having already eyed the farm-to-table cuisine on the menu, I quickly order the grilled hanger steak, medium rare, imagining the mashed potatoes, broccoli and demi-glace listed on the menu. Frank is planning to eat steak for dinner. He peruses the shrimp grits (“are you serious?”) and pork chops before settling on the seared trout combined with the caesar salad. He declines oysters when I suggest a starter, saying they are “too messy”.

The Tabard Inn opened in 1922 and is now composed of three late-Victorian townhouses linked with internal passages. Featuring a bar and lounge on the ground level, it’s a favourite haunt for journalists and progressive political types. On a cold winter’s day, we’re seated upstairs at a table with a neat white tablecloth and overlooking the outside patio that is popular in summer. Vines crawl over the outdoor fence while back inside carved wooden tulips hang on the wall.

President Barack Obama making his presidential farewell speech in Chicago. Frank believes it was Obama's centrism, his ...
President Barack Obama making his presidential farewell speech in Chicago. Frank believes it was Obama’s centrism, his compromises on the healthcare plan and failure to take on Wall Street that are the disappointments of his presidency. AP

Frank came in for an Obama inauguration party in 2008. “I was so happy when he won,” he says.

How does he feel now? “The hope has curdled.”

Obama was his state senator when Frank lived in Illinois: “You’d go to house parties in Hyde Park and he’d walk into the room and people loved this man. People would say, ‘He’s going to be president some day. He’s so smart and handsome and such a good talker.'”

As our meals arrive, we digress and Frank mentions he’s flying to Australia in late February for the Perth and Adelaide writers festivals, promoting Listen, Liberal (Scribe). His two children, aged 15 and 12, would like to go but he’ll be flying solo.

I remind him that the Liberal Party in Australia is our conservative party, something he’s loosely aware of. Frank is “very excited” about seeing Perth, having missed it on a past trip to Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. I talk up the world-class West Australian beaches, warm weather and Margaret River winery area. Alas his schedule is too tight. He might have time to visit the Barossa Valley near Adelaide instead for a drop of wine.

Fierce critic of globalisation

The photographer arrives. “Oh shit, I should get the hair spray out like Donald Trump,” Frank muses, patting his hair to one side. His son repeatedly teased him during the campaign that “when Donald Trump wins …” He then lost a bet to his son; if Trump won, Frank was supposed to have to style his hair like the celebrity TV star turned President-elect.

I tell him how throughout the election I arrived in the Washington office on mornings and regularly remarked to the office administration lady, Rachel, “one day closer to president Trump”. It was tongue-in-cheek at the time, but turned out to be true.

Thomas Frank's latest book <i>Listen, Liberal</i> is an excoriating look at how the Democratic Party lost touch with its ...
Thomas Frank’s latest book Listen, Liberal is an excoriating look at how the Democratic Party lost touch with its core support of the working classes. It is published by Scribe, $29.99.

“You guys need to learn. It’s gonna come there [Australia] too,” Frank chuckles, referring to the Trump and anti-globalisation phenomenon that has struck Britain with Brexit and is engulfing election races in France and the Netherlands. I mention the resurrection of a nationalist Pauline Hanson in Queensland, who he has not heard of.

“It’s happening all over the world,” he says. “This is freaky what’s going on.”

Frank blames globalisation.

“In America, globalisation means you get what you want and I hit the road. I called bullshit on all that.”

So does he identify with Trump’s blistering message? “His message on trade, yes.

“Trump scares me in all sorts of ways, but I really liked what he did to Carrier,” he says, alluding to the US airconditioning manufacturer which Trump bullied and negotiated with to remain in the United States instead of shifting 800 jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

Frank also adds that “TPP is gone, that’s good”. It’s a reference to the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that Trump has vowed to tear up as soon as he becomes president.

Out in the ‘real’ America

Rudely, I’ve already finished my lunch and he has barely taken a bite of his. As other diners chat noisily in the background, I mention that Australia is unhappy about TPP failing because it means the US will be less engaged in Asia, creating space for a rising China to fill the void.

Frank asks where Australians like to visit in the US. I list the usual tourist hotspots of New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles.

“Lame,” he quips. Instead, they should head to see the “real” America in Kansas City, Chicago and St Louis. During the primary and general elections, I ventured to states including Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio and then took a Greyhound through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

I tell him getting out into the small communities held some of the best American memories for me, meeting the Trump, Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters. Frank tells me he spent Christmas with his extended family from the Midwest, some of whom voted for Trump.

“They meant well by it,” he says, sheepishly. “What’s more remarkable is the liberals in my family wouldn’t vote for Hillary.”

But Frank is not finished with his anti-trade tirade and frustration with the Clintons. “Hillary was uniquely weak facing Trump because of his emphasis on trade deals. This [Trump’s win] is payback for [Bill Clinton’s] NAFTA,” he says, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement president Clinton signed with Mexico and Canada.

Trump throughout the campaign railed against NAFTA, blaming the Clintons for manufacturing-plant closures and jobs being shipped over the border to lower-cost Mexico. Helping him win the old “rust belt” states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trump threatened to impose 35 per cent tariffs on Mexican imports.

The ‘winner’ caused a wipeout

Frank laments that the Democrats didn’t run Vice-President Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders for the presidency instead. “Biden wouldn’t have been beaten in Michigan or Pennsylvania,” he argues.

I suggest Biden probably may have beaten Trump because of his white, working-class background but I cast doubt on whether a socialist such as Sanders could have won. Frank remains “sure” Sanders would have won. He voted for Clinton, but preferred Sanders and backed the 75-year-old Senator in the Democratic primaries.

He says the party chose Clinton because the Clintons have been making promises to Democratic operatives for decades and supporters would be promoted if the former secretary of state was crowned president.

He ridicules the left-leaning US media, including The New York Times and MSNBC, for failing to look beyond Clinton’s imposing resume as secretary of state, senator and first lady to see her deep flaws. “They loved her,” he says in despair.

And he laments the electoral “wipeout”. While Clinton won about 2.8 million more votes, she lost the 50-state electoral college; Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, fill a crucial Supreme Court vacancy, rule most state legislatures and state governorships. The electoral map is a sea of conservative red.

“The irony that really gets me is the faction that led them into this catastrophe was the ‘winning faction’, the Clintons,” Frank says, arguing that the Democrats became a party of the affluent, white-collar professional class such as Silicon Valley technologists, Wall Street bankers, lawyers, doctors and journalists who focused too heavily on culture wars and social issues such as gay and gender rights, euthanasia and racial equality.

Trump’s amazing Teflon factor

“I don’t disagree with that stuff. But they have abandoned the other side of liberalism that they’re supposed to be,” Frank says. “Republicans answer to the business elite, Democrats answer to the professional elite and then the working class fit in where they can. With Trump, the working class found somewhere else to go.

“The Republicans do a better job of speaking to them in visceral terms. Look at the way Trump talks,” he says of the brash billionaire. “A lot of this is how you present yourself and talk, which is hard for modern Democrats,” he says, pointing to Hillary and Al Gore.

Frank is amazed how Trump absorbed so many controversies that would have sunk any other candidate, such as the 2005 recording of him boasting of forcing himself on women, calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers”, disparaging a US-born judge presiding over his Trump University fraud trial as “Mexican”, ridiculing women, mocking a disabled reporter and disparaging the parents of an American Muslim soldier killed on duty in Iraq.

“One of those things would kill an ordinary candidacy, but this guy kept going.”

Frank, like me, attended the campaign rallies and saw the passion for Trump, but ultimately believed the polls that said Hillary would win.

“How much can anecdote ‘trump’ statistic?” I pose, reciting my own experience of white, working-class men who said they were lifelong Democrats but voting for Trump.

As the Democrats struggle with an identity crisis, Frank believes they should move harder to the left by bashing the banks, opposing trade agreements and slugging the rich with higher taxes as promoted by Sanders and Massachusetts Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren. “What Warren is selling is very popular.”

I suggest that liberalism has been rejected by Americans and doubling down on a stronger dose of it could be the wrong move.

“What’s being rejected is centrism – Clintonism and Obamaism,” he responds. Frank believes that, beginning in the 1990s, the Clintons moved the party closer to the political centre and not far enough to the left on economic issues such as income inequality, trade and taking on Wall Street. President Bill Clinton brokered deals with Republicans, he says, on cutting government welfare. 

However, other observers would dispute Frank’s claim about Hillary and Obama being too centrist. Conservative critics claim the outgoing president loved big government on healthcare and climate change, and that the former first lady shifted to the left of her husband during the campaign.

‘Somehow he [Obama] conspired to lose’

Obama doesn’t escape Frank’s wrath either. He says Obama compromised too much by opting for Republican Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan, rather than publicly funded universal healthcare instead of mandated private insurance.

He also says that Obama proposed cutting social security in return for tax increases for the rich in a grand “fiscal bargain” that ultimately failed, that Obama backed trade deals and he didn’t strengthen the unions by much.

“Obama has always had the passion for centrism, which sat alongside what appeared to be liberalism.”

So how do you assess his presidency? I ask. “He’s been an excellent president in symbolic terms because he was the first black president and an inspiring figure. But in policy terms, this guy came in being dealt four aces in a crisis with both houses of Congress and a massive popular mandate.

“Somehow he conspired to lose.”

He also insists Obama should have broken up the banks and jailed bank executives for their role in fuelling the 2008 financial crisis. 

Frank has finally finished his meal an hour into our conversation. I inquire if he’s up for dessert or a wine. “No, I’ve got work to do,” he says, in typical American tradition. A second coffee is ordered.

As for the Trump era with billionaires in his cabinet, Frank says it will be “10 times worse”.

“The horrible joke is: look who’s coming in to run the government now.”

Still, he’s hopeful Democrats will work with Trump on his infrastructure spending plan for roads, rail, bridges and airports to rebuild America, like president Dwight Eisenhower, who built the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

“Infrastructure spending would be really good for working people and the economy. That’s what Obama should have done.”

Obama did try, but Republicans blocked his major infrastructure spending package during the recession.

After paying the bill, we head out via the lounge with Japanese artwork, past the bar and downstairs to a picture of Obama hanging near the exit.

“What a tragedy,” Frank despairs, as he bids me farewell.

Thomas Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? ($29.99) published by Scribe. He will be appearing at Perth Writers Festival and Adelaide Writers Week.

Original article here

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