Public Thinker: Thomas Frank on How Populism Can Save America

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“A relentless assault on received orthodoxies has the effect of making you unpopular with the people for whom those received orthodoxies are orthodox.”

Founding editor of The Baffler and author of prophetic classics like Listen, Liberal and What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank skewers received wisdom across the political spectrum. In his new book, The People, No, Frank reveals that the Democratic Party has tied itself in knots about a phantom of its own making: populism. The original Populists—19th-century agitators for working people’s interests—spawned a revolving cast of journalists, intellectuals, and business interests determined to paint them as villainous xenophobic masses. These anti-populists have made the name of the movement into a dirty word. Today’s anti-populists equate the broad multiracial coalition of social-justice activists that supported Bernie Sanders with a very different alliance that championed Donald Trump in 2016.

In this interview, Frank shows how this blinkered idea of populism grew so prominent, shares secrets from the founding of The Baffler, and reveals how the battle against Silicon Valley’s cool capitalism has been decades in the making.

CZ (Caitlin Zaloom): What have you been reading now that you are staying at home?


TF (Thomas Frank): World War II novels. I never get enough of them.


CZ: Why World War II? What about World War II is interesting to you?


TF: I’m interested in war because it’s history and it’s human conflict. World War II specifically, because it’s the great moment for our country, the war that made us who we are. We stopped fascism. We built the middle class. It’s always been seen as heroic, especially for the generation before mine.

I was born in 1965, and a lot of my friends’ parents had been in World War II or remembered it vividly. For my dad, who was in high school during the war, it was the great formative moment. Roosevelt’s voice on the radio and reading the newspaper every day. When I was a kid, the war was the older generation’s frame of reference; that’s what they talked about.

Right now, I’m going back through Norman Mailer’s classic novel The Naked and the Dead. I’ve read a lot of Mailer over the years, and it is astonishing. This is going to blow your mind: The Naked and the Dead is actually good!

Mailer had this one truly great novel, truly and without question great, and then he just went in a million directions afterward. He wrote a novel about Hollywood. He helped launch the Village Voice. He wrote about ancient Egypt. He became obsessed with the Kennedys and the CIA. So much of it was crap. But his World War II novel is worth reading. It’s really, really good.



CZ: Norman Mailer is an interesting figure. He used his novelist’s platform to launch himself into the world and to talk about whatever he wanted. That’s a claim about his right to speak.


TF: I don’t want to make him sound like too much of a heel because some of his political writing was really good. He wrote a great essay about John F. Kennedy’s nomination called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” and wrote a great description of the Democratic convention in Chicago in ’68. He was there when the police were beating up the protestors. I mean, nobody can touch this guy’s journalism. His account of that convention is superb.


CZ: Specific pieces that he wrote can be insightful—and we can still acknowledge how he could be an enormous heel.

I recently watched an exchange he had with Susan Sontag (featured in The 50-Year Argument, the documentary about the New York Review of Books). His misogyny is just completely on display.

It shows that the universe of who can be a critic now is much more open than it used to be. You used to have to be Norman Mailer, or at least to take on Norman Mailer, in order to even find the door into the critical world.


TF: The funny thing is that we all want to be critics now, and people go on Twitter and Facebook and everyone is able to do it. The credentialed gatekeeping is gone, probably for the better.


Storybook Plutocracy

By Thomas Frank

CZ: What writers influenced your criticism?


TF: The period of H. L. Mencken and the 1910s and 1920s. At that time, he was writing really insightful literary criticism while just about everyone else was cranking out this Victorian, flowery nonsense. Mencken was different. He was shocking to the sensibility of the time.

Mencken was politically pretty reactionary. His views on politics were not very original, but the way he framed his views was genius. He wrote a famous description of a speech by Warren Harding, which he said reminded him of “a string of wet sponges,” of “tattered washing on the line,” of “dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.”


CZ: Is that how you would describe your own style?


TF: Once upon a time, maybe.

Mencken was outside the realm of the respectable. That’s what’s important. Toward the very end of his life he started writing for the New Yorker, but otherwise he was always on his own or writing for the Baltimore Sun, or for his own magazine, the American Mercury.

That was our model when we were doing The Baffler. I’ve got a whole set of American Mercurys that I got at a garage sale long ago in Chicago. My colleagues and I would just sit in our offices and read them. We tried to make our magazine physically look like it. The cover of our anthology, Commodify Your Dissent, is patterned after the American Mercury.

Actually, before the American Mercury, Mencken edited another magazine, called the Smart Set, which is a terrible name, but it had a sweet logo. And our logo for The Baffler, with the big “B,” was based on the Smart Set logo. So, it was a straight-up shout-out.


CZ: Critics often create venues to advance the kind of work that they want to see and that they want to write. Is that what The Baffler was for you?


TF: When I was starting The Baffler, that Mencken shock was what we aimed to achieve, that same kind of effect: to smash through the clichés and the received orthodoxies. And this received wisdom—this was in the 1990s—was ideas from the economic and political right and center.

Skewering received wisdom is not easy to do in mainstream publications. There’s a certain range of approved outrage, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about. And of course it turned out that a relentless assault on received orthodoxies has the effect of making you unpopular with the people for whom those received orthodoxies are orthodox.

Originally, though, our attitude was that it was fun. We didn’t really care. We were enjoying ourselves. We lived in the South Side of Chicago in Hyde Park. One of my colleagues used to always say the secret to happiness is low overhead. That was certainly the case in that neighborhood in those days.

CZ: What kind of world were you throwing The Baffler into? What did you want to take down and who did you want to buddy up with?


TF: There were other inspirations that were more recent. Spy Magazine, for example, which we thought was absolutely hysterical in the 1980s. The whole idea of Spy Magazine was to constantly assault celebrity culture, to ridicule celebrities. They would follow them around like a Hollywood magazine or a fan magazine, and do just the opposite: mock and deride everything these people did. So, invert the mission of a fan magazine: here are these people whom everyone loves, and we hate them so much.

The first time I saw a copy of Spy I was just blown away. I was at the University of Virginia when I was an undergrad. Friends would go up to New York for the weekend and they would come back with copies. I was just in love with it.

Incidentally, one of Spy’s favorite targets was Donald Trump. They just loved to go after the guy. They would prank him. It was as though, if they had to fill space in an issue, they would just come up with something mean to say about Donald Trump.


CZ: So that’s who you felt in league with. Who were your opponents?


TF: Well, that’s easy. When the world is going crazy for a bad idea it’s a target-rich environment. We used to do articles every issue going after Details magazine or Wired or whatever was the celebrated journalistic innovation of the day.

Our target in the early days was hip capitalism and the magazines that celebrated the merging of counterculture and capitalism. We just attacked that from every angle we could think of.

We also took music and indie rock really seriously, probably more seriously than they deserved to be taken. But now that I think about it, why not? It was as good a starting point as any other. It allowed us to get at something that was serious: the marriage of capital and coolness. It’s still going on, of course, to this day.


CZ: Like Silicon Valley culture, which your book The Conquest of Cool would have skewered if it existed then.


TF: Silicon Valley is intensely liberationist. That’s how they think of themselves. In practice, of course, they are the greatest monopolists the world has ever seen. By the way, the subtitle of Commodify Your Dissent is “The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age.” That was 1997, and already we were saying: this is just like the 1890s.

Monopolies were back. The incredible concentration of power, inequality, political corruption. It was all in your face. This was also the era of bank deregulation, telecom deregulation, welfare reform. The quote-unquote “new economy” was going like mad in the Clinton era.

CZ: Yes, that’s the time when the federal government abandoned the Glass-Steagall regulations, which had built a wall between commercial and investment banking.


TF: Yes. They would always say, “That’s a Depression-era law. It’s so old it can’t possibly be of use anymore.” Surprise, guess what’s going to happen?

It was easy to be so-called prescient about this stuff. There was Larry Summers announcing the end of Glass-Steagall. There were all of these guys in Wired magazine writing about how great and liberating and prosperous this new era was. Or Fast Company and the New York Times Magazine telling us about how great it all was.

Our attitude was, their cheering almost certainly meant that the opposite was the case. Whenever the establishment comes together on something—saying this is so obviously true that there’s no reason to even look into the argument of the other side—that’s the time to look into what the other side is saying. To say: let’s study the history on this.


CZ: That’s the definition of what critics should do. But it can be difficult to figure out what to resist.


TF: These days the pressure to conform is so great. That’s one of the things that surprises me about where we are right now, the feeling from Twitter and Facebook that you have to get in line.

Back in 2016 I had just put out a book that was a critical history of the Democratic Party, Listen, Liberal. It had a chapter about Hillary Clinton and her place in the trajectory of the party’s evolution. Now, I would always make it clear that I was going to vote for Hillary Clinton regardless of her shortcomings. There was no way in hell I was going to vote for Donald Trump. Nevertheless, my critique came out at the same time Trump was hitting at the weak points of the Democratic Party.

And so people assumed I was some kind of Trump supporter because I was critical of Clinton. I figured at first they just didn’t understand journalism. We’re supposed to be critical of everyone, and I reserve the right to be critical even of people I moderately support. But that wasn’t it. It was a new understanding of journalism in which we’re all thought of as bloggers. We’re all cheering for one team or the other.

CZ: In your current book, The People, No, you go after journalists for misdiagnosing populism and promoting anti-populism. You also argue that there’s a class interest behind that position, that journalists’ and elite intellectuals’ rejection of working-class movements stems from their interest in protecting their status and influence.


TF: Yes. Exactly so. The Populist movement, the people who invented the word, were not Trumpists or protofascists or any of that. They were a typical left-wing farmer-labor party. But the word got redefined so that “populism” meant “the built-in danger of working-class movements.” It meant, “Working-class movements are racist, they are sexist, they are xenophobic, and they represent mob rule.” Populism was in this way redefined as the opposite of rule by the white-collar elite: something inherently dangerous that you must do everything in your power to avoid or suppress. This is what I call anti-populism.

Anti-populism is all around us these days, and if you know anything about the original Populist movement it can be quite shocking.

I went to graduate school to study Populism in 1988. I’m from Kansas, and Kansas was the number one Populist state. When I got to graduate school—in history at the University of Chicago—it turned out that lots of other people were also writing about Populism. It’s this romantic thing, this left-wing party that never took off. It had its moment and then failed and died. Historians are drawn to it, though; they write about it constantly. So, I decided to write about something else and I changed subjects. When the word started getting abused around the time when Trump got elected, I decided to dust that old research off and to go have some fun with it.


Populism, Right and Left

By Matt Wilde

CZ: What looked different to you now?


TF: Populism has long been targeted—from the 19th century to Trump—as a danger to the social order. This is what fascinates me now. Not so much the story of Populism, although that’s a great story, but the story of anti-populism, the people who hated and despised the movement, beginning with the big New York daily newspapers of the day.

Then I branched out, got into the humor magazines of the period, which absolutely despised Populism, just hated it. And these were fun to research because I don’t think too many people have used these in their studies of Populism before. The Library of Congress had one of them on microfilm—it was called Judge—but the microfilm was in black and white and it was not easy to read. I wound up buying them, just buying the physical magazines from somebody on eBay, and that way the cartoons are in full color; they’re absolutely beautiful.

Another thing these magazines were—these magazines that hated Populism and mocked it all the time—was extremely racist and anti-immigrant and antisemitic, viciously antisemitic. So, what does that tell you? There were occasional antisemites among the Populists, of course, but the broader culture was cruelly, viciously antisemitic. It’s just in your face with every page you turn. We’re talking about Republicans and Democrats here, the most refined and high-toned elements of society.

Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia historian who wrote the most famous anti-populist work of them all, must have known that. He accused the Populists of being antisemitic and anti-immigrant. Why didn’t he report about the much more obvious antisemitism and xenophobia of the New York elite? Surely he knew about it. Why didn’t he include that in his work?

CZ: What does Hofstadter concealing the ugly roots of anti-populism mean for today?


TF: All sorts of doors start opening once you figure this out and start digging in the anti-populist field. Hofstadter absolutely hated Populism and would return to attack the movement again and again in the course of his life. He most famously wrote a book that came out in ’55 called The Age of Reform, where he said the populists were anti-intellectual, that they were pathological, that they were paranoid, that they were in the grip of all these psychological maladies, and all because they were people on their way down, meaning because they were working class.

As I was digging into this anti-populist literature from the 1890s, I found that they employed the exact same critique that Hofstadter made in the ’50s. It all seemed very familiar.

Of course Hofstadter had much more subtle tools at his disposal. He had Adorno and The Authoritarian Personality; he had all the psychological jargon of the 1950s.

But the original anti-populists were no slouches either. The greatest intellectual of the day, William Graham Sumner, of Yale University, came after the Populists. So did leading economists. Hofstadter wrote a book that was partly about Sumner (Social Darwinism in American Thought). He knew about this. And yes, the anti-populists of the 1890s may have used the blunt awful methodologies of the time, but the accusation was the same: calling them anti-intellectual and continually pointing out that they were from the lower orders of society. The 19th-century anti-populists accused them of not being able to think about economic issues.

They called William Jennings Bryan a maniac. There was a psychologist who wrote about Bryan for the New York Times, declaring that he showed “evidence of a mind not entirely sound.” The reason the psychologist gave for this conclusion was that Bryan had theories about economics and yet he had not studied economics in college. Hofstadter simply updated this same critique, using language of the hyperrational 1950s.

In the 1930s, the song remains the same. This time the anti-populists attacked Roosevelt, the Labor Movement, and the New Deal, using the exact same line of analysis: the lower orders are out of control, the riffraff are delusional, they are anti-intellectual, and so on. Only this time anti-populism was jazzed up with the highbrow theory of the 1930s, by which I mean eugenics. It comes very close to fascism.


American Perceptions of Class

By Matt Wray

CZ: The justification of class distinctions and class hierarchies takes different forms at different moments.


TF: Exactly. The reasons for hierarchy change all the time, but the hierarchy itself must be preserved. And so leading lawyers of this period, corporation attorneys, the leading economists of the 1930s, backed by some of the richest families in America, like the du Ponts, they came together against FDR and the New Deal, and many of them justified it by talking about eugenics.

The ’30s also saw the rise of the first great right-wing front group, the American Liberty League. They were the main resistance to Roosevelt, and they were so well funded they had more money than the Republican Party itself. They were spending it in these extraordinary ways, on pamphlets and gatherings and radio broadcasts. Going out there and saying hierarchy is right, the rich deserve what they have, and how dare you attempt to overturn that. They actually thought they could beat Roosevelt by calling his voters inferior humans, deplorables, basically. They thought that was going to be a real winner, a successful strategy. And why not? It had worked in 1896.

Of course, this time it was a colossal misjudgment. Roosevelt proceeded to win in one of the greatest landslides of all time.


CZ: Much of The People, No is invested in attacking what Richard Hofstadter had to say, what Seymour Martin Lipset had to say, what Edward Shils had to say, all decades out. Why is it important for us to understand mid-century anti-populism among intellectuals?


TF: Because this is where the word got redefined. This is why we use the word “populism” the way we do. The consensus intellectuals of the ’50s plucked the term from 19th-century obscurity and redefined it. It is their redefinition that is still with us today.

Today you have this pedagogy called global populism studies. They have a group at Stanford. They’re all over Europe. And all of them use the definition of populism that Hofstadter and his colleagues came up with in the 1950s: that populism is a generic term for mass movements of working-class people that exhibit these certain pathologies. Populists are people who look to the past rather than to the future, so they don’t believe in progress. They’re paranoid. They believe in conspiracy theories. They are anti-intellectual; they don’t understand the modern economy; they don’t really understand any kind of complexity; they hate foreigners and people who are far away. They don’t understand the city.

Unfortunately, Hofstadter was wrong about Populism. His theory about the Populist movement of the 1890s was crushingly refuted. Michael Paul Rogin, in his first book about McCarthy, wrote an absolutely devastating takedown of Hofstadter and those other intellectuals of the 1950s. Walter Nugent wrote another, going county by county across Kansas to prove that Populists weren’t anti-immigrant. Norman Pollack wrote another. There are probably hundreds more refuting Hofstadter’s take. But it doesn’t matter. His redefinition of Populism has kept on going.


Terminal Whiteness

By Bryant Simon

CZ: It’s fascinating that a debunked idea lives on. Why? Who does anti-populism work for?


TF: Hofstadter’s redefinition continues even though it’s empirically incorrect. It doesn’t matter. All sorts of bad ideas that are removed from reality continue on. Deregulating the banks in the 1990s, hip capitalism, the “new economy.” They continue because they are useful or flattering to a certain class of people.

But what makes anti-populism, this particular bad idea, work? It persists because it’s not just an attack on populism but also a manifesto for a social cohort—let’s call them the professional-managerial class—that Richard Hofstadter was part of and that the comfortable political scientists of today are also part of.

All of them share the idea of the intellectual in power. In Hofstadter’s day the university system was expanding by leaps and bounds. MBAs were running the corporation, not somebody who inherited it or somebody who had built it up himself. PhDs started running the departments in Washington. It was the 1950s, managerialism was dawning, and this class of people was coming into its own. And they needed a concept to describe what they were displacing. What was the opposite of them? Populists.

In their view, mass movements of working-class people were dysfunctional, were pathological, were what we must avoid. In a famous essay, Lipset called it “working-class authoritarianism.” It was dangerous stuff. And it didn’t matter if you pointed out examples that didn’t fit: look at the leaders of the CIO, look at the leaders of the United Auto Workers. They’re not authoritarian; they’re not racist. Well, that doesn’t matter, because we’ve done these personality tests of the rank and file that prove they harbor secret bad thoughts or whatever.

Fast-forward to today. The Democratic Party has now completed the circle. Just like Hofstadter and Lipset and all the rest, they have really turned their backs on working-class people and working-class movements and put their hopes in the meritocracy, in the professional-managerial elite. That is who will deliver progress and reform. Not the working class.

Just look at Obama’s cabinet or at Obama himself. Look at the Clintons. In both cases, authority arises from their attainments in school, their brilliance. All the Rhodes Scholars, the Nobel Prizes, the genius grants. That’s where they start their understanding of who should govern and what government should do.

Now we’re in this period where the wheels are coming off the idea of meritocratic reform.


The Oligarchs’ Charter

By Timothy K. Kuhner

CZ: We’re also seeing a revived class analysis, like with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, though.


TF: Yes, but class analysis has also become very distasteful to liberals. Look again at the sociology of it. The richest suburbs in America are slowly but surely flipping from red to blue, like Orange County, California. This was once one of the greatest strongholds of conservatism in America. In 2016 Hillary won there. Or the county I grew up in: Johnson County, Kansas. When I was growing up, there was no more Republican place in America, but it’s slowly but surely turning blue. There’s a good chance it’s going to go for Biden this year.


CZ: What about your own place in the universe of intellectuals? You’ve been a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, and currently at The Guardian. How do you see your own role within the elite intellectual sphere?


TF: I’m back to basically where I was when I started The Baffler, completely outside the conversation. My views have become extremely unpopular in this country. But I still believe, whoever said it, that “when everyone else zigs, that is the time to zag.”


Correction: March 11, 2021

Michael Paul Rogin’s last name was previously misspelled as “Rogan.”


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured image: Thomas Frank (early 2000s). Photograph courtesy of Thomas Frank