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What Liberals Have Gotten Wrong About Main Street USA

Democrats should take voters’ concerns seriously rather than blowing them off, says Thomas Frank.

A USA flag hangs in the window of a vacant building in downtown Keyser, West Virginia. Author Thomas Frank asserts that liberals tend to assume small towns have always been on the decline, that nothing can be done for them — and that isn't so.

Part of the Series

Journalist and author Thomas Frank has articulated in his work how far the Democratic Party and the liberal elite have strayed from the working class and the promise of the New Deal. His new book, Rendezvous With Oblivion: Reports From a Sinking Society, continues those themes along with additional evidence that democracy in the United States is at serious risk. In this interview, Frank discusses the conditions that Donald Trump’s presidency possible and why he thinks Trump could win another term.

Mark Karlin: Why do you state in your introduction that “the con game is our national pastime”?

Thomas Frank: Because fraud is everywhere these days, from the millionaires who designed mortgage-backed securities to the small-time rip-off artist who just phoned your elderly parents. Many years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Age of Enron” in which I argued that the 2001 collapse of that fantastically fraudulent energy concern was emblematic of the historical period we were entering. Well, the age of Enron is still going strong today. Donald Trump is its ultimate personification, of course, but having such a man as president is only possible after so many other trusted institutions have been exposed as being entirely predatory.

How does the McMansion “track the larger debate about inequality”?

Suburban architecture is a sort of barometer of the country’s big social change since the 1980s. The statistics tell us that houses have grown bigger in the US as the conservative agenda (tax cuts, de-unionization, etc.) has been enacted over the years; this is not surprising. What’s interesting is the way critics keep expecting the trend toward [these] houses to reverse itself every time there’s a recession or a Democrat gets elected president. And it never happens. The will to hugeness always recovers, McMansions from the present come to [overshadow] McMansions from the 1980s, the ornament grows ever more ludicrous. Finally, in the 2008 financial crisis, our lust for the giant house became the driver of economic change rather than just a reflection of it. So, I tried to reverse the script. You’ll see.

What have liberals got wrong about “Main Street USA”?

“Main Street USA” is the name of Walt Disney’s small-town utopia, which we’re all familiar with from our visits to Disneyland: barbershop quartets, ice-cream sodas, gingerbread Victoriana, and so on. What people don’t know is that Disney’s utopia was based on a real town in north central Missouri called Marceline, which is where he grew up. After the 2016 election, lots of people wondered why rural and small-town America had gone so heavily for Trump, and so I visited Marceline and the area around it in order to answer the question. What liberals tend to assume is that small towns in the Midwest have always been on the decline, that nothing can be done for them and that they’re “MAGA”-friendly by nature. What I point out is that this is not so; that hard times are not inevitable, and that Democrats could put this awful trend into reverse were they to take these people’s problems seriously rather than blowing them off.

Why do you assert that journalists, particularly in Washington, DC, always identify “upward”?

I was trying to understand the hostility of The Washington Post’s opinion pages to the Bernie Sanders presidential bid in 2016. I didn’t think Sanders was all that scary, and yet The Post’s pundits despised him almost unanimously, hitting him from every possible angle, never giving him the benefit of the doubt, and so on. It’s not liberal bias that explains this attitude, I decided, but a kind of consensus ideology in which professional expertise is thought to be faultless and those who question it are automatically suspect. I concluded that pundits at the top of the heap (which is to say, at The Washington Post) identify with professional expertise because they see themselves as peers of those professionals. The irony, of course, is that newspapers as an industry are dying, and yet pundits never seem to understand that they aren’t really members of this exalted species until it’s too late.

Why does the Democratic Party have such a problem relating to the concerns of the working class?

Because that’s not really who they are any more. Like those DC pundits described above, they identify with the white-collar professional class. The party’s leadership faction has been in the grip of a post-industrial fantasy since the 1980s; they came to identify with Wall Street in the 1990s and with Silicon Valley during Obama’s presidency. Of course, there is still lots of residual liberalism in the party, and there are plenty of working-class people and unions who still support Democrats, but by and large, the party’s leadership doesn’t get it. They see their future in the prosperous suburbs and among the winners—as Hillary Clinton herself put it a little while ago — “the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”

You predict that Trump has a decent chance at being re-elected in 2020. How so?

I think he is, ironically, positioned to reap the rewards of Janet Yellen’s roaring economy. Unless Trump screws things up with interest-rate hikes or a trade war—or unless some other unforeseen disaster strikes—the economy will continue to grow and unemployment to shrink. If this goes on much longer, working people will gain bargaining power and wages will start to grow, a fairly rare occurrence nowadays. And if that happens, I predict that people will forgive Trump’s awful policies and asinine remarks and decide that he’s OK, just as they did with Bill Clinton in a comparable period in the late 1990s. Now, Trump doesn’t really deserve the credit for the booming economy, but that won’t stop him from taking it. And this scenario could very well come to pass.

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