Thomas Frank is the author of several books, most recently Listen, Liberal, and the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? He’s been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and for Harper’s Magazine, where he wrote about “Four More Years” for Trump, and a contributor to The New York Times and The Nation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You describe Donald Trump as deeply unpopular and as someone who has no clue how to govern. Now Robert Mueller is tightening the noose, the US Attorney in Manhattan has seized Michael Cohen’s files, and Stormy Daniels is going to be hard to stop. And yet you think this president could be reelected, that there a clear path for Trump to win in 2020.
Thomas Frank: That’s right, but first I have a couple of assumptions that you have to grant me. The first is that he doesn’t get impeached and removed from office. I think there’s good reason to believe that that won’t happen. Then he has to avoid a disastrous war. If you give me those, yes, I think he has a really good chance of getting reelected.
JW: What is his path?
TF: It’s really simple. Unemployment is extremely low right now. The economy is booming. He could succeed the way Bill Clinton did. People have trouble remembering what Clinton actually did as president, but they do remember it was good times. There was universal prosperity. As a result, Clinton was massively popular towards the end of his administration. It wasn’t because of NAFTA or the balanced budget or bank deregulation. Those were not particularly popular things. It was because the economy was booming. I’m not just referring to the stock market. As we all know, there was a classic stock-market bubble in the late 1990s—the NASDAQ bubble with tech stocks. But something else happened in the late 1990s: Wages grew for the first and only time since the 1970s. Real wages for average workers grew, when adjusted for inflation. In the country that you and I grew up in, Jon, that used to be common. That happened every year. Nowadays, it never happens. The Bill Clinton late 1990s was the one period when it in fact took place.
JW: But why would wages go up in the Trump era? We don’t have strong unions, and the Republicans won’t raise the minimum wage.
TF: Wages will go up by themselves if unemployment gets low enough and stays low enough for long enough. If the economy runs hot, if it runs at maximum capacity for a couple years, wages will start to grow—because employers will be bidding for labor, bidding for workers. And here’s the thing: We’re almost there right now. There are lots of signs out there that wages are starting to grow. Unemployment has been low for quite a while. In one county in Wisconsin, unemployment is so low and the job market is so tight that employers are hiring people straight out of prison. Walmart has actually raised its starting wage—which is an incredible thing.
JW: Can Trump actually make it happen? It seems to me that the most likely thing is that Trump will do nothing at all to help the working class.
TF: Trump is a buffoon and a scoundrel and a national embarrassment, but this is something he understands. We know he understands it because he talked about it all the time on the campaign trail—and because of the choices that he has made as president. For example, the guy that he appointed to chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell. This guy is not going to jack up interest rates like Paul Volcker back in the 1970s. It would be stupid to try to guess what the Federal Reserve is going to do, but my opinion is that he is probably going to let this thing roll. And Trump wants it to roll. And then you think of all the other things that he has said he wants to do—that would just add fuel to the fire.
JW: The one thing that would clearly help get wages up in the short term is that $3 trillion infrastructure plan that Trump promised. But now he has betrayed that promise by requiring that the states and the localities and the private sector pay 80 percent of it.
TF: But even if he does it in the crappy way that you just outlined, it’s still going to have a stimulative effect. It’s still going to have an effect on employment. And since we are close to full employment right now, something like that, even if it’s not big, can lead to a labor shortage that will raise wages. And it doesn’t have to be everywhere; he could do mini–New Deal infrastructure programs as localized things in key swing states. For example, if he was smart, he would roll into Flint, Michigan, with a whole lot of federal money, and hire a whole lot of union plumbers and pipe fitters to fix the water system there. He would win Michigan next time.
JW: Let’s talk about what the Democrats can do to stop him. Of course, we have Robert Mueller, and we have Stormy Daniels. Will Stormy save us?
TF: The period when Bill Clinton was at his most popular was when he was actively being impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. You’d think a president having an illicit affair with a porn star would be pretty bad, politically. But I don’t know if that’s going to hurt Trump at all if the economy is booming.
JW: Okay, what about Mueller saving us?
TF: Every Democrat that I talked to is counting on Mueller to deliver the midterms for them. This has worked for Democrats before. The famous Watergate class in Congress in 1974 was entirely the doing of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, and the Democrats are basically expecting that to happen again. It looks like it will work.
JW: What’s wrong with that?
TF: It breeds a kind of passiveness among Democrats where they never have to think about their own message. They may succeed in the coming midterms, but that’s a recipe for disaster in the long term. If Trump is not running for reelection three years from now, there’s going to be another Trump. The Republicans are never going to retreat from what this guy showed them in 2016. They now understand how you beat the Democrats. The next Trump is not going to be so vulgar, he’s not going to have affairs with porn stars, he’s not going to pick fights with NFL players. So the Democrats have to be thinking bigger. They can’t think “Oh, he screwed up. Great! Now we get back in.”
JW: How can we defeat this phenomenon once and for all? Don’t we need a progressive like a Bernie Sanders who would raise the minimum wage, make college tuition-free, bring Medicare for all—and actually make life better for ordinary middle- and working-class people?
TF: Yes. I don’t want to put any proper names on it, like a certain senator from Vermont, but the bottom line is this: If the economy booms and wages go up, it’s going to be hard to beat Trump in three years. The Democrats cannot stick with the Clinton and Obama approach where you identify yourself with what I like to call the ideology of the 1990s, the “catechism of tech, bank, and globe,” as I say in the article. There’s really only one set of successful politics for an age like this one: It’s the politics that we identify with the party of Lyndon Johnson, the party of the New Deal. What Trump has offered is a kind of weird replica of that. But as I have said many times, the real thing would beat the fake.