Thomas Frank is best known as the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which was a brilliant analysis of why working class people in America — and not only in Kansas — so often vote against their own class interests. A sequel to that book, Listen, Liberal was a powerful critique of the pro-corporate neoliberals who had taken over the Democratic Party. The two books taken together can be seen as making the case for the Bernie Sanders’ campaigns of 2016 and 2020.
Frank’s new book, which is about both populism and its critics, tackles head on the mis-labelling of politicians like Donald Trump as ‘populists’. Describing the history of populism from the early days of the People’s Party in the US through the 1930s New Deal, Frank identifies a strand of left-wing, anti-corporate, pro-democratic sentiment that should be known as ‘populism’.
By the time he reaches the 1960s it becomes clear who Frank’s heroes are — because they are mine as well. He quotes approvingly from Michael Harrington, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Rustin in particular is shown — correctly — as a visionary, with a clear strategy for social transformation, more relevant today than ever.
And Donald Trump? Just a charlatan millionaire, one in a long line of such characters who don’t deserve to be called populists.