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Thomas Frank: Corporate Democrats Idolize FDR, but Hate His Policies and the Populists That Supported Him

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Thomas Frank: Corporate Democrats Idolize FDR, but Hate His Policies and the Populists That Supported Him

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Yves here. We’re behind on continuing with Paul Jay’s important discussion with Thomas Frank about his new book, The People, No, and the awfully open hatred in the press and contemporary politics for the views of ordinary people. Here Frank focuses on the misuse of FDR’s legacy.

Readers like Frank’s cheery tone and pleasant voice, so if you have time to listen, as opposed to read the transcript, it’s worth the extra time.

By Paul Jay. Originally published at TheAnalysis.news

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay, welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast.

This is part two of my discussion with Thomas Frank about his book, ‘The People, No’, I’ve got to get the inflection right on that to get the proper ridicule dripping off the lips of-

Thomas Frank

-So can I give it a shot, Paul? My daughter and I were actually working when I did the audiobook of this. We’re working on how to say the title. And here’s what I finally came up with, ‘The People, No’.

Paul Jay

And anyway, once again, joining me is Thomas Frank, who has just told us how to say the title of the book. And I assume everybody knows, but just in case, Thomas Frank is the author of many books, most notably, ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’, and he’s in Kansas as we speak, and ‘Listen, Liberal’, and his most recent book, he just told us how to say, ‘The People, No’, and I refuse to whine, even if it captures the full meaning of the title.

All right. So we left off part one, as we head into the 1920s, the populist movement has more or less fizzled out. It’s kind of split, some of the movement has kind of assimilated into democratic parties, some have gone into various socialist parties. And the 1920s is a period where everyone’s optimistic, capitalism seems to be just hunky-dory, lots of people are buying into the stock market and borrowing, and there’s the promise of wealth for everybody.

And then along comes The Great Crash in 1929, and we won’t get into exactly why all that happened, but not the least of which is the amount of speculation and leveraging, borrowing money to buy stocks and other issues, and then we headed into the Great Depression. So this now starts the beginning of— may not have been called the next version of the populist movement, but in substance, it’s very similar.

So talk about the development of the movement in the thirties and how influenced is, what was the populist movement coming out of areas like Kansas with the kind of socialist and communist movement that’s developing in some of the cities influenced by Marx, (Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that uses a materialist interpretation of historical development, better known as historical materialism, to understand class relations and social conflict as well as a dialectical perspective to view social transformation), and socialist movements all over the world? I guess there are separate strains, but they’re certainly very related to it.

Thomas Frank

Yeah. So to take a step back, a lot of populists, when the People’s Party fell apart after the 1896 election, a lot of them went into the Socialist Party. And in fact, Kansas had a big socialist contingent and so did Oklahoma, Oklahoma had the most socialist per capita of any state, which is hard to believe because Trump won every single county there.

Paul Jay

But West Virginia used to be something like that.

Thomas Frank

Exactly, the same story there. But, in the 1930s, the word populist was not used to describe the left-wing movements of the day, but it’s appropriate because, in my mind, they come out of the same tradition, the populist tradition, Franklin Roosevelt’s talks, like the populists used to, had a lot of ideas like they used to, and even more sort of important is the labor movement. So the populists had reached out to organized labor in the 1890s. Some unions signed up with them, but, by and large, their leadership did not because they didn’t believe in working, they didn’t believe in having a political party. And, you know, they thought they should work through the two main parties or something like that.

And by the 1930s, labor is very different. It’s really radical, it’s exploding in size, let’s put it that way. People are signing up for unions all over America and organized labor becomes the great force of the decade, the great social movement. So every bit as big and as powerful and as strong as the farmers, as the radical farmer movement had been in the 1890s, and there were also radical farmers in the 30s. There were a bunch of them, and in Minnesota, you had this thing called the Farmer-Labor Party. They still exist today, now, they’ve been folded into the Democratic Party, but this was their heyday. They elected a very radical governor of Minnesota. There were similar politicians, in all sorts of different parts of America, but basically this sort of populist dream of bringing together all these different working-class people, it succeeds in the 1930s and you have a very radical decade.

The culture of the decade is extremely populist. I’m thinking of the WPA mural, the Hollywood movies even, you know, made by people like Frank Capra, all of them were, and we mentioned Carl Sandburg in the last episode, sort of the great theme of the art of the 1930s was the nobility of the common man, the people. It went along with the left-wing politics of the period.

And so you finally did have a regulatory state and you finally had workers that were able to organize and the government started the income tax that began in earnest, and there is deficit spending and the government set up relief programs, they hired people to do public works. It was an amazing time, a time of great ferment.

So as we mentioned at the very start of the show, Paul, the book is a history of different sort of populist chapters in American life, but more importantly, it’s a history of anti-populism, of how people opposed the populist tradition, that’s much more interesting to me.

And what you see in the 30s is, in 1932, when Roosevelt was first elected, people really didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know what kind of president he would be, his platform looked pretty conventional. He did talk big about the New Deal, but nobody knew what he meant by that, by 1936, however, they did know and they knew what it consisted of, and it was, regulating banks, regulating big business, you know, all the things that I just mentioned.

And again, you had what I call a democracy scare when the members of the elite in America come together in this kind of iron-clad consensus against what they regard as the worst elements of society who are trying to take power and sort of inflicting taxation and regulation on their betters. And they talk this way very openly. And the groups I’m referring to in the 1930s, it’s very similar to 1896. So it’s newspaper publishers, of course, the Republican Party, of course, and then the sort of union of business interests that was called the American Liberty League. It’s the first of the great right-wing front groups, and they raised an extraordinary amount of money, they had more than a political party, more than the Republican Party, and spent it to bring Roosevelt down.

And just like 1896, went on the warpath against him in this incredible way. And I, again, have a lot of fun in the book quoting and giving illustrations of what their war on Roosevelt looked like, it’s very funny, but again there’s a reason historians don’t write about this stuff, it’s revolting, there’s a lot of scientific racism that’s bound up in the war on Roosevelt, because, as I said, it’s a democracy scare. So it’s not just that they’re angry at Roosevelt, they perceive that the deplorables are coming to get them. You know, it’s the whole sort of bottom half of society is trying to get above its station, is trying to order its betters around.

Paul Jay

There’s a section of the U.S. elites that were very pro-Hitler, starting, of course, with Henry Ford who was a sort of well-known one. It was given the equivalent of the Iron Cross by Hitler.

Thomas Frank

Wait, isn’t that Lindbergh?

Paul Jay

No, no. Henry Ford. Ford used to send Hitler, I think it was $500,000 every year on his birthday (in today’s dollars).

Thomas Frank

Oh, my God.

Paul Jay

And Hitler actually credited Ford with inspiring his anti-Semitism and opening his eyes to the threat of the Jews

Thomas Frank

Really?

Paul Jay

Oh yeah, Hitler was a big fan of Ford and vice versa.

Thomas Frank

I was surprised at how much fascism there was in the United States in the 30s. William Randolph Hearst ran newspaper columns by Göring, I didn’t know that. I mean, there were all sorts of little local fascist groups that were set up to break strikes, that sort of thing.

Paul Jay

General Motors was arming Hitler. When Hitler invaded Poland, he was doing it in vehicles made by GM.

Thomas Frank

What really got me, Paul, is reading through the sort of barrage of hate directed at Roosevelt, and it’s like I say, it’s almost exactly analogous to what they did to William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and I was reading through it. You know, the Internet is such a wonderful thing, Paul, you can do this research without going to the archives or to the library, right, but you don’t have to spend every waking hour there anymore, you can do so much of it over the Internet. I was able to read all of these pamphlets issued by the American Liberty League, many of which were transcriptions of radio speeches and the red-baiting of Roosevelt is just incredible. And as I mentioned before, the eugenics, I was so surprised at how many times these antagonists of the New Deal, and these are prestigious men, these are leading economists, leading lawyers, leading captains of industry, came back to eugenics as a way of describing what they were trying to say, which is that the ruling class rules because they are better people.

Paul Jay

So FDR does not try to have, quote-unquote, bipartisan politics because of this populous support, he fights his enemies, he does not try to compromise with these other sections of the elites, which is kind of in itself fascinating. And then he picks—

Thomas Frank

They do offer the olive branch to him very early on. The elites say you know, go back on the gold standard, stop encouraging workers to organize, this is what the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the big corporate front groups, said to him. And he and his associates basically laughed it off. They’re like, ‘no way, no way are we doing that’, and so then the war was on, yes, and he did not compromise.

This is one of the most extraordinary things about Roosevelt, he fought them very forthrightly and was really upfront about it, gave prime time radio speeches about what he saw happening. ‘We have taken the power away from this country’s dynastic rulers and they want their power back’, and he said this to the American people, and it rang true. I mean, they could see that that was the case in their own lives.

Paul Jay

And he advocated something that, frankly, even Bernie Sanders didn’t advocate, although I’m sure he supports, Roosevelt advocated public ownership, though. He talked about the electrical utilities.

Thomas Frank

Yes.

Paul Jay

And if they can’t service the population with effective and reasonably priced electricity, then they should be taken over and turned into publicly owned utilities, and you can extend that principle.

Thomas Frank

Yes, he did say that, and that’s the famous, what’s the law called, PUHCA (Public Utility Holding Company Act ), I’m trying to remember what it stands for. It finally got repealed and or mostly got repealed of one of the big deregulatory measures a couple of decades ago.

Paul Jay

You once said something to me in one of the interviews we did earlier, “that the liberal elites that run the Democratic Party, the aristocracy of the Democratic Party, it’s not that they don’t like the left of the party, Bernie Sanders and such, they hate it,” you said, I’m quoting you.

Thomas Frank

They just despise them, yeah.

Paul Jay

And I think it’s really interesting that they idealize or idolize FDR, but they despise the actual policies he advocated and the people that supported him.

Thomas Frank

That is exactly right they like him because he was a winner, and look, he is the reason you have a Democratic Party today. It all goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. So they admire him because he was a master politician. I was reading one of the biographies of him, they said you could take a map of America and draw a line across it, and every county that the line went through, Roosevelt could tell you who it voted for, who is in charge in that county, what the issues were that the people there cared about, etc. So he was an excellent, preternaturally good politician. And, yeah, if it wasn’t for him the Democratic Party would not really exist today. So they have to admire him. But, yeah, you’re exactly right, they hate and despise the kind of people that supported him and that made up his administration, and that we’re doing things in the 1930s that made this country a middle class.

You know, Paul all my conversations with you, we come back to the ironies of American history. The success of the New Deal gives you, in turn, the great middle class, suddenly blue-collar workers are paid, not suddenly but you give the New Deal a couple of decades to work, and by the 1960s, blue-collar workers are being paid. They’re middle-class citizens and they have a house in the suburbs and they have two cars and etc., and a lot of them become Republicans. I’m sorry, that’s too much, I bit off too much there. I want to go back to the 30s, I want to stick with Roosevelt.

So the campaign against him is shocking, but it involves the same kind of iron-clad consensus of elites that you saw in the 1890s. And I think the best illustration of this is, one I just found by chance. I was reading, of all things, Thomas Hart Benton’s memoirs. Benton was from Kansas City. And I finally got around to reading his memoirs, I meant to read it for many years. He used to just drive around the state of Missouri, just meeting people, you know, taking pictures of them, you know, painting them, and that summer he describes, you know, driving around, meeting people, and he’s in the home of a banker somewhere, a retired banker, a man of standing, and Benton apparently makes the grave faux pas of saying something nice about the New Deal, you know, and the banker just erupts and talks about how we’re going to put your class back in their place and we have the machine guns and this kind of thing, this is a most extraordinary outburst. But that was the feeling on the ground, this hatred of Roosevelt, the newspapers of this country just absolutely despised the man.

And I take a whole lot of illustrations of this from the Chicago Tribune, which is legendary for their anti-Roosevelt invective. They would put every day on the front page or there would be a little notice at the bottom, this is in 1936, leading up to the election, it would say “You have X number of days in which to save your country”, however many days it was counting down to the election and they did this every day, and you can look it all up, its all easy to find online now, you can go back and read your Chicago Tribune and they would run an editorial every day under the headline “Throw the Rascals Out”, you know, denouncing Roosevelt as a communist, denouncing him as, “it’s class war”, these people are incompetent, these people are paranoid, these people are mentally ill, “they” meaning the new dealers. You know, this is the worst elements of society trying to lorded over their rightful masters, this is the world turned upside down, that’s how they greeted the New Deal, and then, of course, he won in one of the greatest landslides of all time, Roosevelt totally prevailed.

So they were able to defeat William Jennings Bryan with this strategy, but Roosevelt beat them. He had the radio, he had his support among the people. His support was very strong, they could see he wasn’t really a communist, he wasn’t really crazy, he wasn’t a dictator, he wasn’t an authoritarian, they could see that and they could hear his voice on the radio. And he won in this overwhelming landslide. Where was I going with all this? The thing is that it was another democracy scare, so this was a pattern, Paul, that recurs throughout American history. In 1896, then again in 1936, and it always consists of the same thing, so the press comes together unanimity, you have this coming together of academics, there are all of these statements signed by a whole bunch of economists, something that you see, again, in our own time. But orthodoxy, orthodoxy is the key orthodoxy came together against Roosevelt and his experimentation. And this whole idea of the unfit members of society rising up against their betters.

Paul Jay

So we head into World War Two, and I’m going to just jump through so many things that one should talk about if you’re digging into this.

Thomas Frank

But that’s what the book does, the whole idea is to do this episodically because you can’t do the whole history, right.

Paul Jay

I want to hit something that maybe isn’t as touched into the book, but I think we need to talk about, Roosevelt’s vice president by this point is Henry Wallace. And it’s really of mainstream politicians that really embody these kinds of progressive, populist, socialist ideals it’s certainly as socialistic as you’d get it in a vice president.

Thomas Frank

Yeah, and from Iowa, from this sort of radical farmer. Actually, he didn’t think of himself as a radical, but he was from this sort of farmer background, farmer labor background-

Paul Jay

-The policy he came to in the end was as radical as anything you could find him, and that kind of politics. But at the Democratic convention, I guess it’s in 1945

Thomas Frank

1944, yeah, they tossed him overboard.

Paul Jay

They dump Wallace, Truman becomes president. Then Truman drops atomic weapons on Japan and is part of, goes along with ushering in the House un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, which attacks anything that’s certainly anything communists, socialists, but even anything populist, anything that even smells slightly of a kind of left populism gets viciously attacked and, you know, practically drives it underground in the 1950s.

Thomas Frank

Yeah.

Paul Jay

And that becomes who the Democratic Party is for quite some time.

Thomas Frank

Yeah, but I would go easier on Truman than that. It is true that he sort of unleashed the McCarthyism, but he clearly thought it was out of hand when McCarthy got going. You know, McCarthy called him a communist.

Paul Jay

Yeah, well, not just the McCarthyism, because there’s no bigger democracy scare than the Cold War.

Thomas Frank

Yeah. Well, that’s another great moment of hysteria. I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but I feel often like we’re living through some version of that again today, you know, but we’ll talk about that later. What they did to, Henry Wallace is one of the heroes of the book, so Henry Wallace also was a great user of the populist language. He wrote a book even called, ‘The Century of the Common Man’, and it was supposed to be his reply, his pushback to when Time magazine said that this is the American century, he said, no, this is the century of the common man. That kind of language was very common in the New Deal days, and especially during the World War Two iteration of the New Deal when they were trying to persuade the rest of the world that we were not just fighting to rescue the British Empire, which is what we turned out to do.

Truman was clearly less radical than Wallace, but he did do a couple of really wonderful things. And one of them, I mean, they didn’t get anywhere, but he’s the one that proposed universal health care for America and really fought for it and was beaten on this, this is within two years of the end of World War two, the right is pushing back in exactly the way that you just described, and his universal health care never gets anywhere, but we’ve never got it in this country, and damn, it would be nice if we had it now, I keep thinking about that as we go through this epidemic.

Paul Jay

See, the way I see it, from Truman, and then you get into, and Kennedy, and the party gives up this kind of, real policies to some extent rhetorical, but actual policies of Roosevelt, of taking on the concentration of wealth, taking on the big banks. There’s a fascinating quote from Roosevelt where he says “this merging of corporate interests and the government and the state is the definition of fascism”, and it’s in one of Roosevelt’s speeches.

The Democratic Party turns its back on all of that after World War Two and becomes (associated) with Kennedy, the party of the greatest expenditure on the military-industrial complex ever, it starts with Truman. Ellsberg has an interesting quote, Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon papers, he said he thinks now, he said, “the Cold War was essentially a commercial subsidy for the aerospace industry, they needed an excuse to spend all this money on bullshit.

Thomas Frank

That’s pretty cynical, but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion when you live in, nowadays, when you live in Washington, D.C. One of my friends was describing this the other day, he said basically, ” we fight these wars is just as a way of subsidizing these companies”, that’s what we have the army for, it’s just a subsidy racket for these private companies.

Paul Jay

The whole SAGE radar system, the thing, like Dr. Strangelove, a total fraud, never worked for a day, over a trillion dollars over 25 years, goes on and on where the whole military-industrial complex fight fundamentally driven by commercial interests with the excuse being the Cold War. But the reason I’m going there is because the Democratic Party, at least an important part of it, and the party still continue to control the machinery of it, is very much that party and which includes the Vietnam War, and it’s that section of the Democratic Party that so despises what they call populism.

Thomas Frank

So I talk a lot in the book about the populist culture of the 1930s, and one of the sorts of great expressions of that period was this movie ‘Citizen Kane’, which I’m sure you’ve seen and I myself seen many times, but while I was writing the book, I finally got to see it in high definition one of these modern TV sets. And I was really struck by it because, it’s on the one hand, very, you know, populist as all the stuff from that period is, but it’s also the story of a demagogue and the sort of left culture of the 1930s was very, very, very concerned with the problem of the demagogue. But the fascinating point is that they could draw a bright line between the demagogue and between legitimate populism. So Kane is the great demagogue and he’s appealing to the underprivileged and the underfed and all this, and it’s all bullshit, and everyone can see that. And, the other characters in the movie sort of reminding him of how full of shit he is. Here’s the thing that I want your that people don’t remember, that’s Donald Trump’s favorite movie.

Thomas Frank

Oh, he totally misunderstands it. He thinks that the demagogue character in the movie, Kane, Citizen Kane is the hero. He doesn’t get it.

So there’s this moment where Kane is running for governor of New York and he’s in speaking in Madison Square Garden. And he’s giving this kind of Trumpian speech, and there’s this huge picture of his own face behind it with his name in gigantic letters, and it’s like that’s what they did at the Republican convention in 2016, remember Trump’s name in huge letters, Trump puts his name on everything. And one of the promises that Kane makes in this speech, do you remember this, is to lock up his rival, he’s going to throw his rival in prison and lock him up. I was watching this and I’m like, oh, my God.

I suddenly get where Trump came up with all this crap. But there’s this scene where that I never noticed until I saw it on a high definition TV. Kane is talking to his wife or something, there’s a closeup on his face, he’s wearing a fancy tie with a stick pin in it, and the stick pin is the letter K, great big gold K, that’s Trump. It’s everything about Trump, these incredible narcissists, you know.

It’s a demagogue based on William Randolph Hearst, as imagined by Orson Welles, and this is Trump’s hero. Isn’t that amazing?

Paul Jay

Okay, well, I’m jumping, too, but I’ve been wanting to ask you this, so now as good a time as any, why does that type of narcissist, at least now days appeal to so many rural and some working-class urban, but more rural, people, a complete, utter narcissistic character, so obvious to see, and he’s not the only one that appeals to people like that, why?

Thomas Frank

Oh, my God, Paul. That should be the subject of my next book, but there are so many people that have tried to understand that. So we’re putting aside, you know, the possible legitimate reasons people might have for voting for Trump, which you and I have talked about at great length, putting out some ideas, yeah, there are some. And we’re also putting aside the sort of scapegoating reasons, the sort of racist reasons that people might have voted for him. And you’re talking about something else, which I think is bound up in our mass culture in this country and in sort of the logic of TV, the logic of specifically of reality TV, which has taken over television entertainment. And yet people think there’s something normal about that. They think there’s something maybe even admirable about that, by the way, I would include, I think the left has gone down this path to a certain degree also, and we’ll talk about this, I hope, later on, what I call the utopia of scolding. I can’t understand the logic of it because it’s not how you build a political movement.

Paul Jay

Let’s hang on to that, because I think that’s really important, and we’re gonna do that in the next segment. But I want to go at this a little more because it’s not just a political figure like Trump. I’ve always found it fascinating, I cannot quite understand a culture, which at least until very recently, was very homophobic, loved Liberace, I mean, the gayest guy you could find. I mean even somebody as narcissistic as Elvis Presley, I don’t know the kind of gold and stuff he wore. I mean, there’s a reason why you go into a transvestite and other kinds of clubs where people portray different characters and they love to portray Elvis Presley because of the flamboyancy. How does that appeal to conservative rural Americans?

Thomas Frank

The same people who loved Woody Guthrie and the Joads (Grapes of Wrath), you know, we’re the people we keep on acomin’. Paul, I don’t know the answer to that. Even if I did, I couldn’t do it in one minute, so.

That’s the next book, man.

Paul Jay

Okay, that’s the end of part two, we’re going to do a part three with Thomas, please join us for that on theAnalysis.news podcast.

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