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Talking with Thomas Frank

Author of ‘Listen Liberal’ will speak of culture wars, fake alternatives and the rise of Trump at UWM

Mar. 28, 2017
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Nearly 30 years ago, Thomas Frank predicted the bad political consequences of a culture industry selling a toxic brew of constant distraction, mindless populism and celebrity worship. Back then, however, even Frank might never have prophesied the likes of Donald Trump in the White House.

Frank’s 2016 book, Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, mentions Trump only once by name (the manuscript was on the presses by the time the reality TV star seized command of the primaries). But Listen Liberal focuses on at least one set of factors that led to Trump’s victory: the diminishing power of organized labor in the national arena and within the leadership of the Democratic Party. His earlier work as editor of the idol-smashing magazine The Baffler, and in books such as Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler and One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, already spoke to the cultural conditions that set the stage for Trump. The New York Times called Listen Liberal one of the best books to read for understanding the outcome of the 2016 election. 

Frank is coming to UW-Milwaukee this week as part of a 13-city tour of the Midwest, a region he knows well. Born in Kansas City, Mo., Frank graduated from the University of Chicago and lived for many years in the big city by the great lake. Listen Liberal takes the political class to task for losing touch with the working class and the concerns of heartland Americans.

“The culture industry is responsible for a celebrity without political or governmental experience to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate,” Frank says. “Trump was also made possible by the alternative reality that has taken hold—thanks in large part to right-wing talk radio—in every village and town in America. Things that never made sense are now being treated as fact.”

Frank blames the culture industry for promoting “fake alternatives” in music, life styles and media long before the advent of the Alt-Right. This parallels the “phony populism” sold by corporate leaders. “American big business presents itself as warriors against the hierarchy. Fake populism is everywhere,” Frank continues. 

One of the culture industry’s other accomplishments was the vilification of labor unions. Frank also blames elements of the Democratic Party for not bridging the split that began in the late 1960s when organized labor squared off against student protesters over Vietnam, a schism in the Democratic coalition Republicans have taken advantage of ever since. Instead of palling around with media stars like Mark Zuckerberg, Democratic politicians should have been spending time with labor leaders.

Frank adds that Bill Clinton alienated blue-collar workers by pushing free trade at the expense of American jobs. “NAFTA really hurt organized labor,” he says. “Some Democrats thought the working class would never go over to the Republicans. ‘They have nowhere else to go but us,’ was their mantra. Trump is the fruit of that slogan.”

And yet, Frank hasn’t given up on the party that gave Americans Social Security, the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare. “I don’t think a third party will be capable of success,” he says. “Change in America has to come from the Democratic Party. It’s the only organization capable of standing up to Trump. The Democratic Party has to become more interested in the concerns of working people and that will only happen by people working from the grass roots up.”

Thomas Frank will speak at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 30 at UWM Union Wisconsin Room, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. in an event hosted by Community Uprise.

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