Thomas Frank has done good work in the past, and he might in the future. But something about Barack Obama seems to have completely broken him as an analyst. Barack Obama has compiled what is, at worst, the fourth most progressive set of legislative achievements of any president in American history — despite the party having effective control of Congress for less than a year — and overall the Democratic Party is moving to the left by any possible metric. This doesn’t, needless to say, make the Obama/Reid/Pelosi Democrats beyond criticism. But Frank has spent years arguing as if it was not only still 1996 but as if they were moving to the right. Nothing — not the fact that Obama has a far more progressive set of accomplishments than Clinton or Carter, not the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, not Hillary Clinton running on arguably the most progressive platform the party ever has — can give him even the slightest pause. In Frankworld, the Democrats are following up two terms of the Lieberman administration with an Al From/Zell Miller ticket running on DLC position papers. The classic expression of this view was his Salon interview with Steiniac Cornel West, in which the two didn’t merely agree that Barack Obama had accomplished nothing and refused to fight the Republicans on any issue but preemptively asserted that everyone on the American left agreed with them. He’s got a narrative, and he’s deeply committed to it although it’s transparently wrong, and doesn’t even consider the possibility that anyone could disagree with him. It’s very strange.
He does see one party moving to the left, though — the Republican Party. Is this insane? Yes. But his reaction to the Republican convention was that Hillary Clinton was DOOMED because Trump was going to win the liberal votes Clinton was ignoring. No, really:
The Republicans were trying to win the support of people like me! Not tactfully or convincingly or successfully, of course: they don’t know the language of liberalism and wouldn’t speak it if they did; and most of the liberals I know will never be swayed anyway. But they were trying nevertheless.
Donald Trump’s many overtures to supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders were just the beginning. He also deliberately echoed the language of Franklin Roosevelt, he denounced “big business” (not once but several times), and certain of his less bloodthirsty foreign policy proposals almost remind one of George McGovern’s campaign theme: “Come home, America.”
If you see 4 days of Trump’s Republican Party and its cynical, content-free, and oh white supremacist gestures to populism and think “George McGovern,” I really don’t know what to tell you. I mean, have you notice that the tea party has spent 8 years superficially denouncing “big business,” and the policy outgrowth of that is “cut capital gains taxes, repeal Dodd-Frank, try to nullify the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and eliminate the estate tax.” Frank has become the ultimate mark for the Republican scams he used to eviscerate so effectively. “Ivanka Trump promised something that sounded like universal day care.” The candidate’s daughter seems to favor something that no Republican of any influence supports and appears nowhere in the party platform? Yeah, I’m sure Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will get right on that! The Republican Party’s calls to deregulate Wall Street come with some gestures to reinstating Glass-Steagall? They want to “break up Wall Street”! Can Frank really think this sale to Harriet and Blah Blah Nyborg is going to stick? Has he seem how they were living? How can he delude himself?
Two weeks after he saw a wave of liberal defections to Trump, he’s upset that it’s not happening:
And so ends the great populist uprising of our time
Wait, we’re talking about Donald Trump? Are you shitting me? Look, even on trade he’s just saying he’ll “renegotiate” agreements. He’s not going to be hiring Erik to do the negotiating. And other than trade there’s nothing remotely “populist” in any progressive sense about the Trump campaign.
Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about how the Trump phenomenon had reconfigured the conventional geometry of the two-party system. Trump was riding high in the polls at that moment, and there was reason to believe that his criticism of trade deals – one of several Trumpian causes long associated with the populist left – might play havoc with the Democrats’ happy centrist plans.
1)There was not, in fact, any reason to think that was happening, and 2)the Democratic plans are not “centirst” unless you’re using a metric other than the American political spectrum. I will even grant that on trade, the elite Democrats haven’t moved much to the left. But, really, this isn’t the only issue in the world. Expanding the minimum wage, expanding Social Security, protecting the expansion of Medicaid — this stuff matters! Frank doesn’t cite any other Trumpian cause associated with the “populist left” because there isn’t one (unless he’s talking about the racism of many 19th century populists.)
Now let us ponder the opposite scenario. In the intervening two weeks, Trump has destroyed himself more efficiently than any opposition campaign could ever have done. First, he heaped mounds of insults on the family of a US soldier killed in Iraq, then prominent journalists raised doubts about his mental state, and then (as if to confirm his doubters) he dropped a strong hint that gun enthusiasts might take action against Hillary Clinton should she appoint supreme court justices not to his liking.
His chances, as measured in the polls, went almost overnight from fairly decent to utter crap.
Yes, nobody could possibly have anticipated that Donald Trump would be a terrible candidate and run a terrible campaign. Just comes completely out of nowhere. But what concerns me is the palpable disappointment Frank seems to feel about the collapse of Trump. What person on the left could possibly be rooting for him to do well? Does Frank go on to praise Brexit? I think you know the answer.
And just as he has invented a fictional left-wing Donald Trump, he’s invented a fictional Hillary Clinton who’s running on a right-wing platform. “Headlines show Clinton triangulating to the right.” (Which ones?) “In her big speech in Michigan on Thursday she cast herself as the candidate who could bring bickering groups together and win policy victories through really comprehensive convenings.” Well, yes, of course, all politicians stay stuff like this — so what? But using this speech as evidence for Clinton’s pivot to the right is, to be generous, tendentious. Inter alia, the speech called for:
- Massive new infrastructure development
- Increasing the federal minimum wage
- Ppposition to the TPP
- Expanding Social Security
- Attacked Trump’s tax credit for child care as a giveaway to the affluent, drawing a contrast with her much more progressive program.
- Attacked Trump’s tax cuts for the rich while advocating tax increases
- Strengthening unions
You can argue about how strongly committed she is to these views, but if you can’t ignore them if you’re assessing the direction of her campaign. The claim that she’s moving to the right is simply false. And the double standards he uses to evaluate Republican and Democratic politicians is absolutely embarrassing. The Republican candidate’s daughter makes a stray, unrepresentative gesture to a policy proposal? A MAJOR SHIFT TO THE LEFT! The Democratic candidate actually advances a series of progressive proposals? WHY DOES SHE HATE THE LEFT?
Things will change between now and November, of course. But what seems most plausible from the current standpoint is a landslide for Clinton, and with it the triumph of complacent neoliberal orthodoxy. She will have won her great victory, not as a champion of working people’s concerns, but as the greatest moderate of them all, as the leader of a stately campaign of sanity and national unity. The populist challenge of the past eight years, whether led by Trump or by Sanders, will have been beaten back resoundingly. Centrism will reign triumphant over the Democratic party for years to come.
Leaving aside the fact that his characterization of the Clinton campaign as “neoliberal” is the latest example of the word becoming a slur devoid of any actual content, Frank’s argument that it would be good for reform politics for Clinton to win narrowly or lose is ridiculous. The rare periods of progressive change in the United States have always been followed by what were, in context, big wins. If you want Clinton to govern to the left, you want her to win big. This is obvious. The idea that Trump getting trounced is bad for the American left makes no sense. But it’s the logical culmination of Frank’s alternate political universe, one that has long since abandoned any connection with reality.