The author of Listen Liberal looks prescient in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory.
By Ryan Smith
March 22, 2017
Perhaps Thomas Frank should have added an exclamation mark to the title of his latest book. As it was, Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? largely fell on deaf ears when it was initially released in April 2016. Echoing arguments frequently made by Bernie Sanders during the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Frank’s pointed polemic attacked the Clintons, Rahm Emanuel, and the mainstream Democratic Party for abandoning America’s working people in favor of Wall Street and the professional classes. But the mainstream media and political commentators mostly shunned the book until after Election Day—when it suddenly looked prescient. On November 9, it was listed in the New York Times article “Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.”
The liberals, in other words, are listening now—even if it’s too late to avoid the horrors of a Trump presidency. Back on the road promoting the paperback edition, Frank will appear for a reading at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park on March 27. But despite the recent attention his analysis is getting, the onetime Chicagoan and cofounder of the Baffler isn’t necessarily more hopeful about the Democratic Party than he was a year ago.
When we spoke last year, there was a media silence around your book. How much has that changed?
The book has sold well, lots of people have read it, I get a lot of e-mails, and people talk about it all the time. But the national American media is still not interested, by and large. It’s weird because in other countries I’m on TV and radio all the time. I just came back from Australia and Scandinavia, and both places were very interested in it. The same is true in Canada and in the UK.
How do you explain the greater interest abroad?
They’re very worried about Trump overseas. In Australia they’re worried he might get them into a war. The other thing is that a lot of these countries think they’re going to have their own Trump one of these days. If you look at what’s happening to these left parties in Europe—they’re getting slaughtered. It’s happening all over the place.
What do you think blinded the Democrats and liberals to your critique?
That’s a good question. The Democrats had all these postmortems and “What went wrong?” inquiries, but they refuse to admit they did anything wrong. For a long time, these people denied that the working class was walking away from the Democratic Party. Now they see it’s plain and then switch to a new line of thinking: “Well, there’s nothing we can do to win those people back, because the only possible appeal is to become a more racist party, and we’re not interested in that.”
So they’re determined not to adopt left populism, which is what the Democratic Party used to do. The problem is that for the Clinton wing of the party, it’s essential to their identity that they turn their backs on that kind of politics. That’s who they are. They can’t go back now.
It also seems like a lot of Democrats have used the Russian hacking scandal and the alleged Putin-Trump ties to paper over flaws with their own party. It was like, “Putin hacked the election so why should we change?”
Yes, they’ve made plenty of excuses. And as far as excuses go, it’s pretty lame. The Comey intervention had a much bigger impact. And you know what had a bigger impact still, which they never talk about? The big increase in Obamacare premiums a few weeks before the election. I couldn’t believe that Barack Obama didn’t move heaven and earth to keep it from happening. Secondly, the [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. What the hell was Obama thinking pushing it right up until the end while poor Hillary was out there trying to distance herself from it? When you talk about blunders, those were worse than Russia—if it was Russia—stealing John Podesta’s e-mail.