The stuff that was the matter with Kansas in 2004, when Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a trenchant analysis of the lunacy of American politics, is still the matter with it, only now it’s the matter with 32 out of 50 other states as well.
Citizens in ever greater numbers have abandoned their economic interests and used the voting booth to register their opinions about social issues, turning 2/3 of the country from blue (or at least purple) to red and electing to the presidency that darling of the religious right, Donald Trump.
Of course, one could argue that Trump, with his narcissistic bragging and his vulgar ad hominem attacks, did make some economic promises. He promised to bring back the coal mining jobs. And maybe some laid-off factory workers really believed that he would return manufacturing from overseas, where it’s cheap, and restore the assembly lines that used to pay great wages when 38% of the labor force was unionized.
But from what I’ve seen, Trump voters are a lot like Trump. They come in two categories: business people who really don’t mind screwing a sizeable portion of the public in order to make a healthy profit for themselves. And people who just want to shoot their mouths off about all the things that they think are wrong with America. At the Republican convention last summer, Trump said, “I am your voice.” And that’s why they voted for him.
Thomas Frank provides a detailed depiction of the ascendency of the right wing in Kansas, a state that was a hotbed of proletarian agitators early in the last century, and had turned as fervently right wing by the end of it. The Pro-Life movement gave people something to believe in, and Democrats gave them somebody to hate. Frank paints a vivid portrait of the snooty, latte-drinking college professors and rich liberals who form the illusory liberal conspiracy that is blamed for everything that wrong with in this country while real economic wrongs and injustices go unaddressed.
The rich get richer and the poor watch Fox News. Rupert Murdoch must be so proud of himself.
Thomas Frank describes a situation in which liberals (which means Democrats, in the parlance of our day) have become the ultimate logical fallacy, the red herring of every right-wing argument, the straw man that gets beaten up at election time and most other times as well. Frank’s exasperation leaps off the page when he writes of how the people who have the least control over important issues like taxation, judicial appointments, and passing legislation are constantly blamed for everything that is supposedly wrong with this country, i.e., women have some rights, segregation has at least technically been eliminated, and it is not illegal to be gay anymore. The angry dumbasses constantly being stirred up by right-wing media outlets deploying a horde of pundits from Koch Brothers-financed think tanks never have to look in the mirror.
Since 2004, edgier outlets like Breitbart have emerged on the internet, but they’re beating the same dead horse — when they’re not beating up on anybody in the Republican party who still has a shred of sanity. But none of that shit would fly, or congeal, or whatever it does, without the fundamentalist churches, which churn out people who are only too happy to be as generous as possible to the wealthy while they convert our country into a cold-hearted, stingy theocracy populated by Bible-thumpers who have never actually read the Bible.
As Frank points out, the Democratic Party is hardly blameless. He points the finger at Bill Clinton and the party he led to election victories in the 90s, following up that success with a precipitous Democratic decline. Let’s say the villain is Clinton-omics – deregulation of the banking industry in particular – motivated by an inordinate love of capitalists and a belief that they are working for the ultimate good of all Americans. Abandonment of the working class was one result of the Clinton years in Frank’s view. (The defeat of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency was another.)
Of course, the election of Mr. Trump has resulted in some hopeful signs for Democrats and the left, and I’d love to read what Frank has to say about this. Grassroots organizing and political activism – which had already begun to revive in the Obama era – have come back strong. And the issue of glaring economic inequality – highlighted by Republicans’ “tax reform” plan and their absolute willingness to take healthcare away from millions of Americans – is becoming harder to ignore, as is Republican incompetence and lack of interest in average Americans in general.
But the fact that Donald Trump could be elected, even by a minority of voters, surely suggests that something is wrong with a lot more than Kansas these days. And whatever it is might not be fixable even if SCOTUS makes the proper decision and reverses the gerrymandering that has turned so many state legislatures to that flaming shade of red. But maybe then we can at least quit worrying about it and get back to solving real problems again – like passing some decent gun control legislation and tackling climate change, the way a responsible government would.