Tom Frank has been touring red states to talk about the new paperback edition of his book Listen, Liberal, or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? He’s the author of several earlier books, including the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? He’s been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harper’s, and a contributor to The New York Times and The Nation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
JW: You wrote Listen, Liberal before the 2016 election. In it, you argued that the Democrats had detached themselves from their historic constituency: ordinary, working-class Americans. Your recent tour took you through the red states—you went to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis—
TF: You want to know the biggest lesson I learned touring Trumpland? People hated Hillary Clinton. To a degree that even I, with my cynicism, did not understand. I did not hate Hillary Clinton. I voted for her, and I agreed with Obama that she was very qualified. She deserved to be president. I didn’t think she’d be a great president, but I thought she’d be OK—certainly better than Donald Trump. I knew how to hate Donald Trump. That’s easy. He boasts about groping women. He says these evil things about Mexicans, and mocks the handicapped. It’s unbelievable the stuff this guy did and said. Hating him was easy. What I did not understand was the degree to which people really hated Hillary Clinton. And that’s ultimately what this election was about: Which one do you hate more?
JW: Why did so many people hate Hillary?
TF: That’s the question. What is it about her? She doesn’t say rude things. She tries so hard to not offend people. I think it’s the very things that you and I like about Hillary that were the problem: She is so professional, she is so polished, and she’s such a wonderful lawyer. She went to Yale law school, and was so brilliant, and was the best in her class. People hate this. They hate what she represents, this kind of scolding liberalism that’s better than you. In Listen, Liberal, I talked about her goodness and her righteousness. I kind of made fun of her for it. But people hate that stuff. Hate it. And people running the Democratic campaign had no idea. The Republicans kept Trump at arm’s length all through the campaign. They knew that this guy was toxic. The Democrats did not do that with Hillary Clinton. They loved her without reservation. And not just them: the media, the press, the newspaper columnists—they could not imagine someone better than Hillary Clinton being a nominee for president.
JW: What is your case against the party of Hillary Clinton?
TF: It’s not a party of working-class people anymore. It’s not a party that cares much about the condition of the middle class. It’s a party that is attached to a different group, affluent, white-collar professionals who share a certain class perspective on the world. It’s a story of social class, but not the social class everyone thinks of when they think of the Democratic Party…. I voted for Hillary Clinton. But Hillary Clinton was the perfect embodiment of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party.
JW: Of course the Democrats had a choice in the primaries. On the one hand, there was the most qualified person ever to run for office, who would make history by becoming the first woman president. On the other, there was a 74-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont.
TF: And he’s the electable one!
JW: You called him “a living symbol of what the Democrats used to stand for.” So why didn’t Bernie win?
TF: I’m not one of these people that thinks she won the nomination by cheating. Her side did cheat. There’s no doubt about that. The Democratic National Committee did cheat. But she also won fair and square. Why did Bernie lose the Democratic primaries? First of all, he was a totally unknown quantity when those primaries started. Today, he’s very well-known. People sort of wish he was president. But at the time, he was an unknown quantity. Most damaging of all, he wasn’t a Democrat. All those years in Congress, he never signed up with the Democratic Party. He voted with them most of the time, and he caucused with them, but he never joined the party. So party insiders, people who vote in Democratic primaries, Democratic elected officials—there’s no way they’re going to support a guy like that. And here’s Hillary, who has been promising these people things for decades now. She is their ideal candidate.
JW: The Democrats adopted most of Bernie’s issues in their platform at their convention—did that have an impact on the white working-class Trump supporters?
TF: No. Zero. They didn’t even know that. Another thing I learned in Trumpland: Bernie Sanders is a remarkably popular politician. Remarkably popular. This is a man that has very few scandals. I don’t think he has any. I think a lot of people regard him as a reassuring figure, as a comforting figure because he reminds them of Democrats of old. I spoke in a union hall in Indianapolis. This is the union local that represents those workers at the Carrier plant that Trump made such a big deal out of in the election. It was a lot of fun. These are people where the rank and file, by and large, went for Trump—because he was talking about not just their issues, but their lives. But all over this union hall are pictures of Bernie Sanders. They love this man. You see that, and suddenly, you figure something out: When people ask, “Would Bernie have been able to beat Donald Trump?” The answer is, “Hell, yes.” Because these are the voters that defected, that left the Democratic Party and voted for Trump. They love Sanders. Yeah, he would’ve beaten Trump. Hell yes!
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