Calling Out Thomas Frank

DR Tucker does progressivism a great service in calling out Thomas Frank.

Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? as well as the founder of The Baffler. He has made a career out of blasting the kind of Democratic Party that emerged post-1968 in which liberals profess concern for rights, cultural issues, and the environment, but stop far short of calling for true economic equality. Frank wrote a piece for The Guardian recently in which he claimed the neoliberal order that emerged after George McGovern got stomped is the seedbed for Donald Trump’s species of nationalism. Frank wrote:

We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.

DR Tucker was having none of it. Fact is, he said, there are a lot of racists out there who are attracted to Trump’s message. Class has nothing to do with it.

Trump’s crazed cheerleaders would be supporting malevolence against Mexicans and Muslims even in times of abundant prosperity. Was Pat Buchanan primarily tapping into “economic anxiety” in his second run for the Presidency twenty years ago, during the thriving Clinton years? Of course not—he was tapping into the same raw racism and pathetic prejudice that powered his first White House campaign in 1992.

I think DR does progressivism a great service, because Frank’s way of thinking has become dominant among a certain faction of white progressive that is deeply informed by socialism but not in thrall to it. This kind of progressive tends to focus on money and class as first principles, believing that racism is symptomatic of an underlying problem. Trump is a natural consequence of exploitation and wealth extraction, Frank believes, and elite liberals are complicit. The problem is that Frank’s argument rests on the assumption that race and class can be disentangled. DR, who is black, and a former Republican, is naturally skeptical of that claim.

Democrats bear no responsibility for the strength of the Trump campaign. Progressives bear no responsibility for the strength of the Trump campaign. Hate bears all responsibility for the strength of the Trump campaign—and Frank’s failure to fully acknowledge that reality is morally irresponsible.

Indeed, if Frank’s claim is correct, that the ugliness of Trumpism is the consequence of blind economic forces rather than all-too-human bigotry, how do we explain the booming post-war years in the United States, in which wealth and prosperity were widely distributed but white supremacy nakedly evident?

But I think there’s another reason Frank is wrong. And in underscoring this reason, I invite all manner of criticism, especially the charge of elitism. Frank and other white progressives informed by socialism but not in thrall to it have a problem. They possess an abundant populist faith in the power of the people.

The people are, of course, the true sovereign in a representative democracy. The people are central to our principles, republican form of government, and ability to hold accountable those in power. But “the people” do little that’s progressive.

Progress has nearly always come from a dedicated minority with limited resources pursuing a narrowly defined agenda. Take abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, labor rights, gay rights. The winners of these battles were elites in their respective worlds determined to work within an existing political order.

Frank and others pine for the day when America witnesses a genuine working class revolt that blows up the system. That’s great, but then what? Oh, the people will figure it out. And it seems they have.

They figured out they like Trump.

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John Stoehr

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