The Agony and Aghastitude: Thomas Frank on Our Rendezvous With Oblivion

I suspect that for a lot of prosperous liberals, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. For them, there’s an alternative to political victory: a utopia of scolding. Who needs to win elections when you can personally reestablish the rightful social order every day on Twitter and Facebook? When you can scold, and scold, and scold, and scold. That’s their future, and it’s a satisfying one: a finger wagging in some deplorable’s face, forever. – Thomas Frank, writing in the April 2018 edition of Harper’s magazine.

One of our funniest essayists, Kansas native, author of The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Listen, Liberal; Wall Street Journal and Harper’s magazine columnist; founder of The Baffler magazine, Thomas Frank, is in the Bay Area to discuss his latest book, Rendezvous with Oblivion, today and tomorrow. Tickets for this evening’s benefit for KPFA are still available. Thursday’s event at the Book Passage in Corte Madera is free and open to the public.

Critics toss around all kinds of adjectives about Frank’s books – prescient, insightful, brilliant; but he’s also damned funny.

Molly Ivins described him as a “heartland populist” and What’s the Matter with Kansas? as “hilariously funny”, comparing him favorably with Mark Twain. I must admit being partial to the Spanish language edition’s title, ¿Que Pasa con Kansas? Read on below for more on his new book and several excerpts from previous work for The Guardian, Harper’s and The Nation. – RR


Thomas Frank Speaking Events

Wednesday, July 11, 2018, 7:30 pm
St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Avenue, Berkeley
Entry $12:

Thursday, July 12, 2018, 7:00pm
Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera


Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society

About the book

Courtesy of the Book Passage website

What does a middle-class democracy look like when it comes apart? When, after forty years of economic triumph, America’s winners persuade themselves that they owe nothing to the rest of the country?

With his sharp eye for detail, Thomas Frank takes us on a wide-ranging tour through present-day America, showing us a society in the late stages of disintegration and describing the worlds of both the winners and the losers–the sprawling mansion districts as well as the lives of fast-food workers.

Rendezvous with Oblivion is a collection of interlocking essays examining how inequality has manifested itself in our cities, in our jobs, in the way we travel–and of course in our politics, where in 2016, millions of anxious ordinary people rallied to the presidential campaign of a billionaire who meant them no good.

These accounts of folly and exploitation are here brought together in a single volume unified by Frank’s distinctive voice, sardonic wit, and anti-orthodox perspective. They capture a society where every status signifier is hollow, where the allure of mobility is just another con game, and where rebellion too often yields nothing.

For those who despair of the future of our country and of reason itself, Rendezvous with Oblivion is a booster shot of energy, reality, and moral outrage.

Thomas Frank is the author of Listen, LiberalPity the BillionaireThe Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter with Kansas? A former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harper’s, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and writes regularly for The Guardian. He lives outside Washington, D.C.


Four More Years: The Trump reelection nightmare and how we can stop it

By Thomas Frank, Harper’s April 2018. Mr. Fish artwork added by RR.

The liberal rank and file are more energized than they have been for years. Political novices are signing up to run for office across the country. Democrats are well ahead in nearly any poll you care to mention. But still, I give them only a fair-to-middling chance of ultimately defeating him.

Why? Because you go into political combat with the party you have, not the party you wish you had. And the Democratic Party we have today is not particularly well suited to the essential task of beating Donald Trump.

It is true that the Democrats’ fighting instincts have been aroused by the ascendancy of Trump, and this is a healthy thing. Fewer and fewer American liberals worship at the shrine of bipartisanship, as they have done for most of the past few decades. Instead, they are outraged. They are horrified at what has happened. Descriptions of Republican misgovernance that were formerly considered extreme are now taken for granted.2 That a quality person like Hillary Clinton, who prepared to be president all her life, should be bested by this vulgar, racist ignoramus — it is unthinkable. It is unacceptable.

I understand this reaction. I have felt it myself. But it has led the Democrats into a trap familiar to anyone with experience of left-wing politics: the party’s own high regard for itself has come to eclipse every other concern. Among the authorized opinion leaders of liberalism, for example, the task of deploring and denouncing the would-be dictator has crowded out the equally important task of assessing where the Democratic Party went wrong. Indeed, the two projects appear to them to be contradictory — they find it impossible to flagellate Trump one day and examine themselves the next. Of the two, it is introspection that must hit the bricks. And it is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened — a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.

This is unfortunate, because what happened in 2016 deserves to be taken seriously. This country of 320 million people was swept by a tidal wave of populist rage. Alongside the ugly eruption of bigotry there swirled perfectly natural concerns about deindustrialization, oligarchy, the power of big banks, bad trade deals, and the long-term abandonment of working-class concerns by the Democrats. I am condensing many strands here, of course, but what is important is that for all its awfulness, there were elements of the 2016 revolt that liberals ought to heed.

But most leading Democrats can’t seem to see any of that. They don’t know what to make of Trump and his supporters, so violently does Trumpism transgress the professional norms to which they are accustomed. It is distasteful to them that they should be required to learn anything from a clown like the current president — that they should have to change in any way to accommodate his preposterous views. And so they cast about for leaders who might allow them to prevail without doing anything differently: a celebrity who might communicate better, a politician who might turn out the base more effectively. They devour articles about Trump voters who have had a change of heart and now beg forgiveness for their sins. They chide other liberals whom they regard as insufficiently enthusiastic about the Democratic Party. Above all, they dream of a deus ex machina, a super-prosecutor who will bring down justice like fire and reverse the unfortunate results of 2016 without anyone having to change their talking points in the slightest.

The price of going down this path is that it encourages passivity and delusions of righteousness. Their job, Democrats think, is to wait for Trump to be led out of the Oval Office in flex-cuffs while they stand by anathematizing him and his supporters. They don’t need to convince anyone. They need only let their virtue shine bright for all to see.

Now, this is a morally satisfying position, and it might even work. Maybe some prosecutor has really and truly got the goods on this scoundrel. Maybe the outpouring of anti-Trump feeling will suffice to defeat him: being against him may be all that voters require from a candidate in the midterm congressional contests.

On the other hand, in the vast catalogue of social posturing, there are few more repugnant sights than rich people congratulating themselves for being righteous. In particular, it is a terrible way to win back the blue-collar white voters who were responsible, even more than were the Russians, for Trump’s win. For insight into the thinking of this cohort, I turned to Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which canvasses working-class neighborhoods around the country. Karen Nussbaum, the organization’s executive director, was blunt about it: “If Democrats just want to keep piling on Trump, that will be the way to get Trump reelected.” Resisting the president’s agenda is important, of course, but when Working America canvassers knock on doors, she added, they never point the finger at Trump voters. “We don’t say, ‘Aren’t you sorry you voted for him?’ That’s the last thing you should talk about with them.”

The real concerns of these voters, Nussbaum told me, are such bedrock matters as jobs, wages, schools, Social Security — the very things Trump made such a loud display of pretending to care about in 2016. The Democrats, of course, did their pretending in the other direction that year. They identified themselves with globalization, with trade agreements, with Silicon Valley, addressing the public as complacent representatives of this triumphant economic order. It was an old line of patter, the philosophy of the Nineties, reiterated mechanically at a time when no one believed it anymore.

Yes, the Democrats also promised to “break barriers” so that the talented could rise regardless of race or gender. The system itself, however, was judged to be in excellent health. As President Obama put it just before the election, “The economic progress we’re making is undeniable.” Or, as Hillary Clinton liked to say, “America never stopped being great.”

It was exactly the wrong message for an enormous part of the population. Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster who understood the Trump phenomenon better than many others, told me recently that the Democrats’ mistake was “selling progress at a time of growing, record inequality, stark pain, and financial struggle.” Even when the Democrats could see the obvious shortcomings of such an approach, they felt they couldn’t change. “How do I talk about their pain without sounding like I’m criticizing President Obama and his economy?” Hillary Clinton asked Greenberg during the campaign, according to a 2017 essay he wrote for The American Prospect. “I just can’t do that.”

That dilemma persists to this day. How do Democrats change course without sounding like they’re criticizing Obama or the Clintons — or, by extension, the neoliberal fantasy that has sustained the party since the Nineties? The answer is that they can’t, and so they don’t. They would rather sit back and expect Robert Mueller to rescue them. They would rather count on demographic change to give them a majority somewhere down the road. So they “do nothing and wait for the other side to implode,” observed Bill Curry, a former adviser to President Clinton who has emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s strongest internal critics. “That’s been their strategy for most of my adult life. Well, how’s that been working out?”

Curry continued his critique. The party, he said, desperately needs to get over its infatuation with its glorious past: “The mistakes of the Democratic Party are the mistakes of Obama and Clinton. Taking responsibility for those mistakes means holding them accountable. And so many people have such deep, positive feelings for Obama and the Clintons that they can’t bear to have that conversation.” His conclusion was as blunt as what I heard from so many others: “Trump wins by the Democrats not changing.”

This sounds dreadful to me, but I suspect that for a lot of prosperous liberals, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. For them, there’s an alternative to political victory: a utopia of scolding. Who needs to win elections when you can personally reestablish the rightful social order every day on Twitter and Facebook? When you can scold, and scold, and scold, and scold. That’s their future, and it’s a satisfying one: a finger wagging in some deplorable’s face, forever.

Read the entire piece by Thomas Frank at the Harper’s website.


The hysteria over Russian bots has reached new levels

February 23, 2018 in The Guardian.

The grand total for all political ad spending in the 2016 election cycle, according to Advertising Age, was $9.8bn. The ads allegedly produced by inmates of a Russian troll farm, which have made up this week’s ration of horror and panic in the halls of the American punditburo, cost about $100,000 to place on Facebook.

A few months ago, when I first described those Russian ads in this space, I invited readers to laugh at them. They were “low-budget stuff, ugly, loud and stupid”, I wrote. They interested me because they cast the paranoid right, instead of the left, as dupes of a foreign power. And yet, I wrote, the American commentariat had largely overlooked them.

Now that Robert Mueller’s office has indicted the Russian actors who are allegedly behind the ads, however, all that has changed. American pundits have gone from zero to 60 on this matter in no time at all – from ignoring the Facebook posts to outright hysteria over them.

What the Russian trolls allegedly did was “an act of war … a sneak attack using 21st-century methods”, wrote the columnist Karen Tumulty. “Our democracy is in serious danger,” declared America’s star thought-leader Thomas Friedman on Sunday, raging against the weakling Trump for not getting tough with these trolls and their sponsors. “Protecting our democracy obviously concerns Trump not at all,” agreed columnist Eugene Robinson on Tuesday.

The ads themselves are now thought to have been the product of highly advanced political intelligence. So effective were the troll-works, wrote Robert Kuttner on Monday, that we can say Trump “literally became president in a Russia-sponsored coup d’etat”.

For thoughts on the finely tuned calculations behind this propaganda campaign, the Washington Post on Saturday turned to Brian Fallon, a former Hillary Clinton press secretary, who referred to the alleged Russian effort as follows: “It seems like the creative instincts and the sophistication exceeds a lot of the US political operatives who do this for a living.”

Of what, specifically, did this sophistication consist? In what startling insights was this creativity made manifest? “Fallon said it was stunning to realize that the Russians understood how Trump was trying to woo disaffected [Bernie] Sanders supporters …”

The Post added a few suspicious examples of its own. The Russian trolls figured out that battleground states were important. And: they tried to enlist disgruntled blue-collar voters in what the paper called the “rust belt”.

Okay, stop here. Since when is it a marker of political sophistication to know that some states are more persuadable than others? Or to understand that blue-collar voters are an important demographic these days?

If you’re one of those people who frets about our democracy being in serious danger, I contend that the above passages from the Post’s report should push your panic meter deep into the red.

This is the reason why: we have here a former spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, one of the best-funded, most consummately professional efforts of all time, and he thinks it was an act of off-the-hook perceptiveness to figure out that Trump was aiming for disgruntled Sanders voters. Even after Trump himself openly said that’s what he was trying to do.

For a veteran politico to be stunned by this unremarkable fact, one of two things has to be true: either Democratic “political operatives” are incredibly bad at what they do, or else they are feigning amazement in order to get themselves off the hook for the lousy job they did in 2016. They themselves blew millions and came up empty, but to this handful of bargain-basement Russian trolls they ascribe all manner of ability. Clinton’s glittering Jedi army was simply powerless against them.

It is worth noting that the indictment itself, as the deputy US attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, said on Friday, declines to attribute any actual election results to the Russian ads. It is also important to acknowledge that I believe Mueller’s indictment is probably correct in its particulars. Everyone can see that we are living in an age of rampant propaganda, that conspiracy theories have never travelled faster. But no thanks to a new cold war.

Yes, go after the Russian trolls. Prosecute them for their alleged crimes. Punish Putin if he tried to jack with us. But understand that this sort of operation is not going away.

Its extremely modest price tag guarantees it, as does the liberals’ determination to exaggerate its giant-slaying powers. This is rightwing populism’s next wave, and in an oligarchic world, every American plutocrat will soon be fielding his or her own perfectly legal troll army. Those of us who believe in democracy need to stop panicking and start thinking bigger: of how rightwing populism can be undone forever.

From the archives, here’s Frank writing on the Enron debacle for the April 8, 2002 edition of The Nation magazine, Shocked! Shocked! Enronian Myths Exposed, in which he concludes, “Amid a frenzy of New Economy exuberance we came to believe that the rules had been somehow suspended. That only if we left markets free to do their special thing would we ever achieve real economic democracy. In life Enron was hailed as the great exemplar of this bankrupt idea; so it should be in death as well.”

Read the full piece in PDF.

  1 comment for “The Agony and Aghastitude: Thomas Frank on Our Rendezvous With Oblivion

Reply to the Rooster

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.