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?