Thomas Frank: Corporate Democrats Idolize FDR, but Hate His Policies and the Populists That Supported Him

Yves here. We’re behind on continuing with Paul Jay’s important discussion with Thomas Frank about his new book, The People, No, and the awfully open hatred in the press and contemporary politics for the views of ordinary people. Here Frank focuses on the misuse of FDR’s legacy.

Readers like Frank’s cheery tone and pleasant voice, so if you have time to listen, as opposed to read the transcript, it’s worth the extra time.

By Paul Jay. Originally published at

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay, welcome to podcast.

This is part two of my discussion with Thomas Frank about his book, ‘The People, No’, I’ve got to get the inflection right on that to get the proper ridicule dripping off the lips of-

Thomas Frank

-So can I give it a shot, Paul? My daughter and I were actually working when I did the audiobook of this. We’re working on how to say the title. And here’s what I finally came up with, ‘The People, No’.

Paul Jay

And anyway, once again, joining me is Thomas Frank, who has just told us how to say the title of the book. And I assume everybody knows, but just in case, Thomas Frank is the author of many books, most notably, ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’, and he’s in Kansas as we speak, and ‘Listen, Liberal’, and his most recent book, he just told us how to say, ‘The People, No’, and I refuse to whine, even if it captures the full meaning of the title.

All right. So we left off part one, as we head into the 1920s, the populist movement has more or less fizzled out. It’s kind of split, some of the movement has kind of assimilated into democratic parties, some have gone into various socialist parties. And the 1920s is a period where everyone’s optimistic, capitalism seems to be just hunky-dory, lots of people are buying into the stock market and borrowing, and there’s the promise of wealth for everybody.

And then along comes The Great Crash in 1929, and we won’t get into exactly why all that happened, but not the least of which is the amount of speculation and leveraging, borrowing money to buy stocks and other issues, and then we headed into the Great Depression. So this now starts the beginning of— may not have been called the next version of the populist movement, but in substance, it’s very similar.

So talk about the development of the movement in the thirties and how influenced is, what was the populist movement coming out of areas like Kansas with the kind of socialist and communist movement that’s developing in some of the cities influenced by Marx, (Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that uses a materialist interpretation of historical development, better known as historical materialism, to understand class relations and social conflict as well as a dialectical perspective to view social transformation), and socialist movements all over the world? I guess there are separate strains, but they’re certainly very related to it.

Thomas Frank

Yeah. So to take a step back, a lot of populists, when the People’s Party fell apart after the 1896 election, a lot of them went into the Socialist Party. And in fact, Kansas had a big socialist contingent and so did Oklahoma, Oklahoma had the most socialist per capita of any state, which is hard to believe because Trump won every single county there.

Paul Jay

But West Virginia used to be something like that.

Thomas Frank

Exactly, the same story there. But, in the 1930s, the word populist was not used to describe the left-wing movements of the day, but it’s appropriate because, in my mind, they come out of the same tradition, the populist tradition, Franklin Roosevelt’s talks, like the populists used to, had a lot of ideas like they used to, and even more sort of important is the labor movement. So the populists had reached out to organized labor in the 1890s. Some unions signed up with them, but, by and large, their leadership did not because they didn’t believe in working, they didn’t believe in having a political party. And, you know, they thought they should work through the two main parties or something like that.

And by the 1930s, labor is very different. It’s really radical, it’s exploding in size, let’s put it that way. People are signing up for unions all over America and organized labor becomes the great force of the decade, the great social movement. So every bit as big and as powerful and as strong as the farmers, as the radical farmer movement had been in the 1890s, and there were also radical farmers in the 30s. There were a bunch of them, and in Minnesota, you had this thing called the Farmer-Labor Party. They still exist today, now, they’ve been folded into the Democratic Party, but this was their heyday. They elected a very radical governor of Minnesota. There were similar politicians, in all sorts of different parts of America, but basically this sort of populist dream of bringing together all these different working-class people, it succeeds in the 1930s and you have a very radical decade.

The culture of the decade is extremely populist. I’m thinking of the WPA mural, the Hollywood movies even, you know, made by people like Frank Capra, all of them were, and we mentioned Carl Sandburg in the last episode, sort of the great theme of the art of the 1930s was the nobility of the common man, the people. It went along with the left-wing politics of the period.

And so you finally did have a regulatory state and you finally had workers that were able to organize and the government started the income tax that began in earnest, and there is deficit spending and the government set up relief programs, they hired people to do public works. It was an amazing time, a time of great ferment.

So as we mentioned at the very start of the show, Paul, the book is a history of different sort of populist chapters in American life, but more importantly, it’s a history of anti-populism, of how people opposed the populist tradition, that’s much more interesting to me.

And what you see in the 30s is, in 1932, when Roosevelt was first elected, people really didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know what kind of president he would be, his platform looked pretty conventional. He did talk big about the New Deal, but nobody knew what he meant by that, by 1936, however, they did know and they knew what it consisted of, and it was, regulating banks, regulating big business, you know, all the things that I just mentioned.

And again, you had what I call a democracy scare when the members of the elite in America come together in this kind of iron-clad consensus against what they regard as the worst elements of society who are trying to take power and sort of inflicting taxation and regulation on their betters. And they talk this way very openly. And the groups I’m referring to in the 1930s, it’s very similar to 1896. So it’s newspaper publishers, of course, the Republican Party, of course, and then the sort of union of business interests that was called the American Liberty League. It’s the first of the great right-wing front groups, and they raised an extraordinary amount of money, they had more than a political party, more than the Republican Party, and spent it to bring Roosevelt down.

And just like 1896, went on the warpath against him in this incredible way. And I, again, have a lot of fun in the book quoting and giving illustrations of what their war on Roosevelt looked like, it’s very funny, but again there’s a reason historians don’t write about this stuff, it’s revolting, there’s a lot of scientific racism that’s bound up in the war on Roosevelt, because, as I said, it’s a democracy scare. So it’s not just that they’re angry at Roosevelt, they perceive that the deplorables are coming to get them. You know, it’s the whole sort of bottom half of society is trying to get above its station, is trying to order its betters around.

Paul Jay

There’s a section of the U.S. elites that were very pro-Hitler, starting, of course, with Henry Ford who was a sort of well-known one. It was given the equivalent of the Iron Cross by Hitler.

Thomas Frank

Wait, isn’t that Lindbergh?

Paul Jay

No, no. Henry Ford. Ford used to send Hitler, I think it was $500,000 every year on his birthday (in today’s dollars).

Thomas Frank

Oh, my God.

Paul Jay

And Hitler actually credited Ford with inspiring his anti-Semitism and opening his eyes to the threat of the Jews

Thomas Frank


Paul Jay

Oh yeah, Hitler was a big fan of Ford and vice versa.

Thomas Frank

I was surprised at how much fascism there was in the United States in the 30s. William Randolph Hearst ran newspaper columns by Göring, I didn’t know that. I mean, there were all sorts of little local fascist groups that were set up to break strikes, that sort of thing.

Paul Jay

General Motors was arming Hitler. When Hitler invaded Poland, he was doing it in vehicles made by GM.

Thomas Frank

What really got me, Paul, is reading through the sort of barrage of hate directed at Roosevelt, and it’s like I say, it’s almost exactly analogous to what they did to William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and I was reading through it. You know, the Internet is such a wonderful thing, Paul, you can do this research without going to the archives or to the library, right, but you don’t have to spend every waking hour there anymore, you can do so much of it over the Internet. I was able to read all of these pamphlets issued by the American Liberty League, many of which were transcriptions of radio speeches and the red-baiting of Roosevelt is just incredible. And as I mentioned before, the eugenics, I was so surprised at how many times these antagonists of the New Deal, and these are prestigious men, these are leading economists, leading lawyers, leading captains of industry, came back to eugenics as a way of describing what they were trying to say, which is that the ruling class rules because they are better people.

Paul Jay

So FDR does not try to have, quote-unquote, bipartisan politics because of this populous support, he fights his enemies, he does not try to compromise with these other sections of the elites, which is kind of in itself fascinating. And then he picks—

Thomas Frank

They do offer the olive branch to him very early on. The elites say you know, go back on the gold standard, stop encouraging workers to organize, this is what the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the big corporate front groups, said to him. And he and his associates basically laughed it off. They’re like, ‘no way, no way are we doing that’, and so then the war was on, yes, and he did not compromise.

This is one of the most extraordinary things about Roosevelt, he fought them very forthrightly and was really upfront about it, gave prime time radio speeches about what he saw happening. ‘We have taken the power away from this country’s dynastic rulers and they want their power back’, and he said this to the American people, and it rang true. I mean, they could see that that was the case in their own lives.

Paul Jay

And he advocated something that, frankly, even Bernie Sanders didn’t advocate, although I’m sure he supports, Roosevelt advocated public ownership, though. He talked about the electrical utilities.

Thomas Frank


Paul Jay

And if they can’t service the population with effective and reasonably priced electricity, then they should be taken over and turned into publicly owned utilities, and you can extend that principle.

Thomas Frank

Yes, he did say that, and that’s the famous, what’s the law called, PUHCA (Public Utility Holding Company Act ), I’m trying to remember what it stands for. It finally got repealed and or mostly got repealed of one of the big deregulatory measures a couple of decades ago.

Paul Jay

You once said something to me in one of the interviews we did earlier, “that the liberal elites that run the Democratic Party, the aristocracy of the Democratic Party, it’s not that they don’t like the left of the party, Bernie Sanders and such, they hate it,” you said, I’m quoting you.

Thomas Frank

They just despise them, yeah.

Paul Jay

And I think it’s really interesting that they idealize or idolize FDR, but they despise the actual policies he advocated and the people that supported him.

Thomas Frank

That is exactly right they like him because he was a winner, and look, he is the reason you have a Democratic Party today. It all goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. So they admire him because he was a master politician. I was reading one of the biographies of him, they said you could take a map of America and draw a line across it, and every county that the line went through, Roosevelt could tell you who it voted for, who is in charge in that county, what the issues were that the people there cared about, etc. So he was an excellent, preternaturally good politician. And, yeah, if it wasn’t for him the Democratic Party would not really exist today. So they have to admire him. But, yeah, you’re exactly right, they hate and despise the kind of people that supported him and that made up his administration, and that we’re doing things in the 1930s that made this country a middle class.

You know, Paul all my conversations with you, we come back to the ironies of American history. The success of the New Deal gives you, in turn, the great middle class, suddenly blue-collar workers are paid, not suddenly but you give the New Deal a couple of decades to work, and by the 1960s, blue-collar workers are being paid. They’re middle-class citizens and they have a house in the suburbs and they have two cars and etc., and a lot of them become Republicans. I’m sorry, that’s too much, I bit off too much there. I want to go back to the 30s, I want to stick with Roosevelt.

So the campaign against him is shocking, but it involves the same kind of iron-clad consensus of elites that you saw in the 1890s. And I think the best illustration of this is, one I just found by chance. I was reading, of all things, Thomas Hart Benton’s memoirs. Benton was from Kansas City. And I finally got around to reading his memoirs, I meant to read it for many years. He used to just drive around the state of Missouri, just meeting people, you know, taking pictures of them, you know, painting them, and that summer he describes, you know, driving around, meeting people, and he’s in the home of a banker somewhere, a retired banker, a man of standing, and Benton apparently makes the grave faux pas of saying something nice about the New Deal, you know, and the banker just erupts and talks about how we’re going to put your class back in their place and we have the machine guns and this kind of thing, this is a most extraordinary outburst. But that was the feeling on the ground, this hatred of Roosevelt, the newspapers of this country just absolutely despised the man.

And I take a whole lot of illustrations of this from the Chicago Tribune, which is legendary for their anti-Roosevelt invective. They would put every day on the front page or there would be a little notice at the bottom, this is in 1936, leading up to the election, it would say “You have X number of days in which to save your country”, however many days it was counting down to the election and they did this every day, and you can look it all up, its all easy to find online now, you can go back and read your Chicago Tribune and they would run an editorial every day under the headline “Throw the Rascals Out”, you know, denouncing Roosevelt as a communist, denouncing him as, “it’s class war”, these people are incompetent, these people are paranoid, these people are mentally ill, “they” meaning the new dealers. You know, this is the worst elements of society trying to lorded over their rightful masters, this is the world turned upside down, that’s how they greeted the New Deal, and then, of course, he won in one of the greatest landslides of all time, Roosevelt totally prevailed.

So they were able to defeat William Jennings Bryan with this strategy, but Roosevelt beat them. He had the radio, he had his support among the people. His support was very strong, they could see he wasn’t really a communist, he wasn’t really crazy, he wasn’t a dictator, he wasn’t an authoritarian, they could see that and they could hear his voice on the radio. And he won in this overwhelming landslide. Where was I going with all this? The thing is that it was another democracy scare, so this was a pattern, Paul, that recurs throughout American history. In 1896, then again in 1936, and it always consists of the same thing, so the press comes together unanimity, you have this coming together of academics, there are all of these statements signed by a whole bunch of economists, something that you see, again, in our own time. But orthodoxy, orthodoxy is the key orthodoxy came together against Roosevelt and his experimentation. And this whole idea of the unfit members of society rising up against their betters.

Paul Jay

So we head into World War Two, and I’m going to just jump through so many things that one should talk about if you’re digging into this.

Thomas Frank

But that’s what the book does, the whole idea is to do this episodically because you can’t do the whole history, right.

Paul Jay

I want to hit something that maybe isn’t as touched into the book, but I think we need to talk about, Roosevelt’s vice president by this point is Henry Wallace. And it’s really of mainstream politicians that really embody these kinds of progressive, populist, socialist ideals it’s certainly as socialistic as you’d get it in a vice president.

Thomas Frank

Yeah, and from Iowa, from this sort of radical farmer. Actually, he didn’t think of himself as a radical, but he was from this sort of farmer background, farmer labor background-

Paul Jay

-The policy he came to in the end was as radical as anything you could find him, and that kind of politics. But at the Democratic convention, I guess it’s in 1945

Thomas Frank

1944, yeah, they tossed him overboard.

Paul Jay

They dump Wallace, Truman becomes president. Then Truman drops atomic weapons on Japan and is part of, goes along with ushering in the House un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, which attacks anything that’s certainly anything communists, socialists, but even anything populist, anything that even smells slightly of a kind of left populism gets viciously attacked and, you know, practically drives it underground in the 1950s.

Thomas Frank


Paul Jay

And that becomes who the Democratic Party is for quite some time.

Thomas Frank

Yeah, but I would go easier on Truman than that. It is true that he sort of unleashed the McCarthyism, but he clearly thought it was out of hand when McCarthy got going. You know, McCarthy called him a communist.

Paul Jay

Yeah, well, not just the McCarthyism, because there’s no bigger democracy scare than the Cold War.

Thomas Frank

Yeah. Well, that’s another great moment of hysteria. I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but I feel often like we’re living through some version of that again today, you know, but we’ll talk about that later. What they did to, Henry Wallace is one of the heroes of the book, so Henry Wallace also was a great user of the populist language. He wrote a book even called, ‘The Century of the Common Man’, and it was supposed to be his reply, his pushback to when Time magazine said that this is the American century, he said, no, this is the century of the common man. That kind of language was very common in the New Deal days, and especially during the World War Two iteration of the New Deal when they were trying to persuade the rest of the world that we were not just fighting to rescue the British Empire, which is what we turned out to do.

Truman was clearly less radical than Wallace, but he did do a couple of really wonderful things. And one of them, I mean, they didn’t get anywhere, but he’s the one that proposed universal health care for America and really fought for it and was beaten on this, this is within two years of the end of World War two, the right is pushing back in exactly the way that you just described, and his universal health care never gets anywhere, but we’ve never got it in this country, and damn, it would be nice if we had it now, I keep thinking about that as we go through this epidemic.

Paul Jay

See, the way I see it, from Truman, and then you get into, and Kennedy, and the party gives up this kind of, real policies to some extent rhetorical, but actual policies of Roosevelt, of taking on the concentration of wealth, taking on the big banks. There’s a fascinating quote from Roosevelt where he says “this merging of corporate interests and the government and the state is the definition of fascism”, and it’s in one of Roosevelt’s speeches.

The Democratic Party turns its back on all of that after World War Two and becomes (associated) with Kennedy, the party of the greatest expenditure on the military-industrial complex ever, it starts with Truman. Ellsberg has an interesting quote, Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon papers, he said he thinks now, he said, “the Cold War was essentially a commercial subsidy for the aerospace industry, they needed an excuse to spend all this money on bullshit.

Thomas Frank

That’s pretty cynical, but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion when you live in, nowadays, when you live in Washington, D.C. One of my friends was describing this the other day, he said basically, ” we fight these wars is just as a way of subsidizing these companies”, that’s what we have the army for, it’s just a subsidy racket for these private companies.

Paul Jay

The whole SAGE radar system, the thing, like Dr. Strangelove, a total fraud, never worked for a day, over a trillion dollars over 25 years, goes on and on where the whole military-industrial complex fight fundamentally driven by commercial interests with the excuse being the Cold War. But the reason I’m going there is because the Democratic Party, at least an important part of it, and the party still continue to control the machinery of it, is very much that party and which includes the Vietnam War, and it’s that section of the Democratic Party that so despises what they call populism.

Thomas Frank

So I talk a lot in the book about the populist culture of the 1930s, and one of the sorts of great expressions of that period was this movie ‘Citizen Kane’, which I’m sure you’ve seen and I myself seen many times, but while I was writing the book, I finally got to see it in high definition one of these modern TV sets. And I was really struck by it because, it’s on the one hand, very, you know, populist as all the stuff from that period is, but it’s also the story of a demagogue and the sort of left culture of the 1930s was very, very, very concerned with the problem of the demagogue. But the fascinating point is that they could draw a bright line between the demagogue and between legitimate populism. So Kane is the great demagogue and he’s appealing to the underprivileged and the underfed and all this, and it’s all bullshit, and everyone can see that. And, the other characters in the movie sort of reminding him of how full of shit he is. Here’s the thing that I want your that people don’t remember, that’s Donald Trump’s favorite movie.

Thomas Frank

Oh, he totally misunderstands it. He thinks that the demagogue character in the movie, Kane, Citizen Kane is the hero. He doesn’t get it.

So there’s this moment where Kane is running for governor of New York and he’s in speaking in Madison Square Garden. And he’s giving this kind of Trumpian speech, and there’s this huge picture of his own face behind it with his name in gigantic letters, and it’s like that’s what they did at the Republican convention in 2016, remember Trump’s name in huge letters, Trump puts his name on everything. And one of the promises that Kane makes in this speech, do you remember this, is to lock up his rival, he’s going to throw his rival in prison and lock him up. I was watching this and I’m like, oh, my God.

I suddenly get where Trump came up with all this crap. But there’s this scene where that I never noticed until I saw it on a high definition TV. Kane is talking to his wife or something, there’s a closeup on his face, he’s wearing a fancy tie with a stick pin in it, and the stick pin is the letter K, great big gold K, that’s Trump. It’s everything about Trump, these incredible narcissists, you know.

It’s a demagogue based on William Randolph Hearst, as imagined by Orson Welles, and this is Trump’s hero. Isn’t that amazing?

Paul Jay

Okay, well, I’m jumping, too, but I’ve been wanting to ask you this, so now as good a time as any, why does that type of narcissist, at least now days appeal to so many rural and some working-class urban, but more rural, people, a complete, utter narcissistic character, so obvious to see, and he’s not the only one that appeals to people like that, why?

Thomas Frank

Oh, my God, Paul. That should be the subject of my next book, but there are so many people that have tried to understand that. So we’re putting aside, you know, the possible legitimate reasons people might have for voting for Trump, which you and I have talked about at great length, putting out some ideas, yeah, there are some. And we’re also putting aside the sort of scapegoating reasons, the sort of racist reasons that people might have voted for him. And you’re talking about something else, which I think is bound up in our mass culture in this country and in sort of the logic of TV, the logic of specifically of reality TV, which has taken over television entertainment. And yet people think there’s something normal about that. They think there’s something maybe even admirable about that, by the way, I would include, I think the left has gone down this path to a certain degree also, and we’ll talk about this, I hope, later on, what I call the utopia of scolding. I can’t understand the logic of it because it’s not how you build a political movement.

Paul Jay

Let’s hang on to that, because I think that’s really important, and we’re gonna do that in the next segment. But I want to go at this a little more because it’s not just a political figure like Trump. I’ve always found it fascinating, I cannot quite understand a culture, which at least until very recently, was very homophobic, loved Liberace, I mean, the gayest guy you could find. I mean even somebody as narcissistic as Elvis Presley, I don’t know the kind of gold and stuff he wore. I mean, there’s a reason why you go into a transvestite and other kinds of clubs where people portray different characters and they love to portray Elvis Presley because of the flamboyancy. How does that appeal to conservative rural Americans?

Thomas Frank

The same people who loved Woody Guthrie and the Joads (Grapes of Wrath), you know, we’re the people we keep on acomin’. Paul, I don’t know the answer to that. Even if I did, I couldn’t do it in one minute, so.

That’s the next book, man.

Paul Jay

Okay, that’s the end of part two, we’re going to do a part three with Thomas, please join us for that on podcast.

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  1. vlade

    TBH, I can’t comment too much of FRD’s domestic policies, because I never dug deep into the domestic US politcs of the time, but his foreign policy was appaling, and to a large extent was responsible (in not a good way) for the post WW2 world.

    FDR was entirely naive in dealing with Stalin, who he tried to charm and failed miserably while falling for Stalin’s “intimacy”. FDR’s “Atlantic declaration” was nice in theory, but in practice he ignored it, trying to run the same realpolitiks as before (for example, sacrificing Polish London govt for Stalin’s support of the UN’s idea. Which was ironic, because it was more or less proving that the UN would be mostly ineffectual anyways. Better than the lame League of Nations, but ineffectual nevertheless).

    His China politcs was a mess (appointing Stillwell to head China there was as dumb as it comes because Stillwell understood nothing about fighting there) arguably directly leading to the Chinese communist winning the inevitable civil war (and also arguably pushing Chiang from a reformist to reactionary. There are historians who say that today’s China is what Chian’s envisioned in 1930, as opposed to what Mao did)

    His inability to deal with de Gaulle was famous (mind you, hardly anyone could, but in the end the British had a better relationship with him than Americans, which few would have believed before the war), and I could go on.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Do you mean Chinault, not Stilwell? I’d always had the impression that Stillwell was a good soldier, but a lousy diplomat (despite his fluent mandarin and general sympathy for ordinary Chinese). Chinault is I think considered to have been something of a disaster by most historians of the period and he left a hell of a mess. China was such a confusing mess at the time its hard to see what would have been the ‘right’ strategy for any outsider, although it was certainly right to try to stop the Japanese from completely conquering the country.

      1. vlade

        Stillwell hated Chennault (and vice versa), and in that row he (Stillwell) was actually right, as Chennault held the dumb (but seems widely shared by some Allied commanders) idea that you can win a war by bombing alone.

        Stillwell’s problem was the total inability to grasp the fact that the Chinese army (and, to a large extent, Chindits and Marauders) didn’t operate like the US land forces did. As in the average Chinese consript was often conscripted forcefully, underfed, w/o any effective armaments etc., fighting in environments that even trained Western soldiers struggled, yet Stillwell kept asking things of them as if they were well trained and equipped troops fighting somewhere on the plains of the US. And when they didn’t perform, he blamed them, not the himself, which pissed off many Chinese and British commanders who understood what was happening on the ground much better.

        Stillwelll also forced Chinese to concentrate on areas that sort of made sense strategically, but caused them to lose/abandon areas that they had to hold on to feed the army (as much as they could) – which he ignored. Say Burma was strategically important, but it didn’t help to feed Chinese army a whit.

        For his good points, he did keep asking for more materiel, which FDR routinely denied (and when anything was sent, it was sent to Chennault), but it was still w/o fully understanding the practicalities on the ground.

        The whole point of FDR’s China policy was to keep China in the war with Japan. Which Chiang knew, and often tried to blackmail the US by threatening to make peace with Japan. This was way less efficient after it became apparent that the USSR would, sooner or later, go into war with Japan as well.

        But FDR tended to overpromise on materiel and under-deliver. Which was, in a way, one of the reasons why at one time Chiang asked FDR for a massive loan which was refused (and presented in the US media as “Chiang wants to cash that check for himself”. No doubt non-trivial part of the money would be gone, but likely still some would make it to the troops in forms of materiel).

        From that perspective, I believe McArthur was the best at playing the “get me the resources” game in the US army, but that was likely because FDR saw him as a real threat if McArthur decided to run for a president. There were rumours at the time that FDR struck a deal with McArthur that he (McA) wouldn’t run against FDR and in return he would be given resources and a relatively free hand to fullfill his “I shall return”.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Thanks for that, despite my interest in the period, I haven’t read up much on the US perspective of the politics and military in China. Stillwell certainly had a very low opinion of the British high brass, with pretty good reason and that coloured a lot of his decision making. I suspect that like many military men, he was good at tactics but lousy at strategy. Chennault (sorry for the bad spelling above) was a terrible choice in so many ways for a mission like that. The entire land war in Asia was a mess of incompetence, cowardice and corruption from the point of view of the Allies, Mao was lucky in his enemies.

          I think you could also argue that had Japan not taken the bait laid out by FDR (admittedly, the fuel embargo was probably justified on the basis of the massacres the Japanese were busy carrying out), then they could well have won a land war in Asia, especially as they had learned the hard way not to challenge the Soviets.

          1. vlade

            Chennault was a prima-donna with way overblown idea of himself, fuelled by the press (what’s new?).

            Stillwell was actually pretty good logistician (as was many of the US generals TBH), his real problem was that he was xenophobe IMO (it was very clear with British, he was massively anglophobic), but he never really cared to understand anyone else except for the US (and US troops). I believe that when he was given Okinawa command later on (with US troops), he performed pretty well.

            The history of the WW2 generalship is really fascinating, as while there was a lot of politicking and infighting in Red Army (the massive RA casualties in battle of Berlin are a direct consequences of his rivalry with Konev and Staling egging both of them to be “the conquror of Berlin”), and with Whermacht (worse llater on when being a Hitler yes-man was more and more important than any military competence), the UK and US armies were really almost non-functional. Monty for the UK was really a large PR machine (he was handing out his signed photos to the press), and while he was a good trainer, he was terrible at both tactics (he hated tanks, which he equated with cavalry) and strategy. His most famous victory at El-Alamein was actually prepared by Auchinleck and Monty’s plan (feint in the south) didn’t work, so he went to brute force, and failed to use the breakthrough. He was famously cautious, except for Market Garden, which was his idea..

            US army had its (very large) share of primadonnas – most people know about Patton, McArthur etc, but say Mark W. Clark was referred by his soldiers as Marcus Aurelius Clarkus, because he insisted of all photos taken of him to take his “imperial nose”, and got obsessed with taking Rome for the headlines.

            When you read some of the details of those things, you sort of wonder how the hell Allies could have managed to win, when as often as not the unit next door was seen as much of an enemy as the Germans by their commanders.

            1. Scott1

              I’m reading “Tower of Skulls”. It is by another Frank apparently. The delineated negotiations between Roosevelt and the Japanese are eerily similar to current negotiations with China, Communist China, which seems to have a propensity to become Stalinism. Sure is in the only Communist China ally: North Korea.
              Within the book is a warning concerning personal diplomacy, or that that depends on proximity and status instead of that created by competent Foreign Service officers. Staffs.
              That there was created an expectation for a sneak attack is pretty clear. We may find that the Communists of China believe now, as did the Japanese then, that war with the US is inevitable. If that is so then will we attack Communist China before they attack us? In 1942 we came close to losing the war in the Pacific. And of course the full on Presidential experience is a big war. If Trump gets a war with China he’ll move to cancel the election, I have no doubt.
              What I know of some of the characters involved in China during the Second World War is General Wedemeyer who made the plans for the invasion of France. Churchill is said to have hated the guy for he cared no whit for the Empire and the soft underbelly. He may have been wrong for wanting to invade France before the Atlantic Wall was built if you think the US Army didn’t have a competent army, which they did not. North Africa and up through Italy made the surviving soldiers hellasus soldiers. They became soldiers who so hated their enemies they went into combat with the same zest for killing the enemy as the great generals like Eichenberger in the Island Hopping Campaign. A real zest for killing the enemy. God bless Eichenberger for saying he hated the phrase “mopping up”. “How do you tell a guy that lost 5 out of 8 fellow soldiers in his squad it was “Just Mopping Up”.
              As we sit now dependent on the reputation of the US dollar and the gift to all of it as bonds that give anybody some interest for no particularly good reason, in a serious Trade War with China, in Hybrid War with Russia for their international crimes the UN was supposed to fight. Screwing with Iran and totally stupid about the DPRK, our best bet is to at least make friends with Viet Nam and arm them and arm Japan to the hilt.
              Or say give the UN these jobs. Just give the UN an Army Navy and Airforce, Spaceforce, and make them enforce their laws. What other thing to do has any hope of avoiding war with China at this point? P.S. Wedemeyer was shunted off to China because of Churchill. He was depressed by all the corruption that accompanied Chaing Ki Shek.

              1. vlade

                US Army would get a very nasty surprise and a beating if it tried to invade northern France in 1943, as Operation Torch shown (cf Kasserine pass).

                The corruption in China was endemic, and one of the (many) reasons why many nationalistic soldiers went unarmed and hungry, with their officers taking a cut until nothing was left (although some were better, and actually funded their troops from their own pockets).

                Chiang’s government (and I believe Mao’s as well during WW2) major income was from opium. That’s tells you a lot of what you need to know.

          2. The Rev Kev

            Had to go digging into Wikipedia but wasn’t Chennault’s second wife, Anna Chennault – born Chan Sheng Mai – a force to be reckoned with herself in American politics for decades? I remembered that she had a role in spiking the peace talks for Vietnam so that Richard Nixon could win the Presidency and Wikipedia conformed it-


    2. rkka

      “FDR was entirely naive in dealing with Stalin, who he tried to charm and failed miserably while falling for Stalin’s “intimacy”.

      It wasn’t Stalin’s “intimacy” FDR found to be important, but the Red Army’s capacity to eat Nazi Corps, Field Armies, and Army Groups raw. This was very important in ending Adolpf’s war of racial extermination against the various Slavic untermenschen, Poles & Ukrainians very much included.

      “FDR’s “Atlantic declaration” was nice in theory, but in practice he ignored it, trying to run the same realpolitiks as before (for example, sacrificing Polish London govt for Stalin’s support of the UN’s idea.)”

      Well, when the London Poles lied about the Red Army “just standing by, passive and ostentatious” during the ’44 Warsaw Uprising, it’s no wonder. The obvious attempt to break up the anti-Hitler coalition was blatant & ridiculous.

    3. vato

      China headed for a reformist politico-economic society in the 1930’s??
      Are you out of your mind??
      China was a feudal, deindustrialized – devastated by centuries of foreign exploitation – totally reactionary mess with millions dying each year from malnourishment and reoccuring famines.

      Nice to see liberals – or whatever your Orientalistic trail of slime indicates – still treat China and the Chinese Communist Revolution as some kind of Western ‘failure’ that should’ve been prevented.

      Totally disgusting…

  2. Musicismath

    [McCarthyism is] another great moment of hysteria. I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but I feel often like we’re living through some version of that again today, you know, but we’ll talk about that later.

    I kind of wish Frank had decided to go there, because I think there’s a lot of mileage in that. (Though I can’t blame him for ultimately declining to.) If we see mid-twentieth-century anti-communism’s purpose as providing a means to purge a very broad swathe of the left via guilt by association and innuendo, rather than being primarily aimed at the small number of actually existing communists, then the current ways in which moral “hysteria” around identity is being instrumentalised by antileft liberals and centrists seem very similar. In the UK, the AS smear is being used extremely effectively to drive off what remains of the formerly resurgent economic left from Labour. What Frank Furedi calls the “movement without a name” currently sweeping through Anglosphere institutions seems likely to have a similar effect: driving out or silencing economic leftists who are unwilling to publicly join in narrowly “centring” Left priorities on identity issues, rather than class or “universal concrete benefits.”

    What we have to keep stressing is that people like RLB aren’t the “collateral damage” of these forms of reaction and counter-revolution occasionally overreaching; they’re the actual primary targets.

  3. Bruno

    I was shocked by Frank’s total suppression of The Kingfish from his discussion of US populism in the 1930’s. The plutocratic contumely against Huey Long was even worse than against FDR, and it continues unabated to this day amongst our FDR-admiring Newdealer Liberalists. No “great writer” ever perpetrated an “All The King’s Men” to slander FDR, but the Lone Nut assassination in 1935, which was indispensable to Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection, has never received the critical exposure that befell its historical successors (JFK, RFK, Malcolm, MLK). Only slightly less shocking was Frank’s treatment of Henry Wallace, who was chosen by FDR as his war VP in 1940, after “Dr. New Deal” had been proclaimed dead and replaced by “Dr. Win The War”; and was dumped by FDR (not by some agentless “they”) for the candidate of the racist Pendergast Machine (heir of the Border Ruffians well known to Frank’s Kansas).

    1. Watt4Bob

      FDR had a lot of help “dumping” Wallace.

      Apologies, yes, from wiki;

      Party leaders, such as James F. Byrnes, strongly opposed his renomination. They regarded Wallace as being too far to the left, too “progressive” and too friendly to labor to be next in line for the Presidency.

      Outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman Frank C. Walker, incoming chairman Robert E. Hannegan, party treasurer Edwin W. Pauley, strategist Edward J. Flynn, Chicago Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly and lobbyist George E. Allen all wanted to keep Wallace off the ticket.

      Their group was deemed by Allen as “The Conspiracy of the Pure in Heart.”

      They privately told Roosevelt that they would fight Wallace’s renomination, and they proposed Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman as FDR’s new running mate.

      1. Adam Eran

        I’ve read that Claude “Red” Pepper was literally tackled by the party functionaries as he tried to make his way to the podium at the Democratic convention to nominate Wallace…

        1. flora

          I think Claude Pepper must be rolling in his grave seeing what’s happened to the Dem party. Watching FL go GOP marks how bad the modern Dem estab is wrt Main Street issues.

  4. Carolinian

    I’m not sure how seriously one should take Citizen Kane as a social critique. Pauline Kael called it a “shallow masterpiece” and perhaps that’s why our less than deepthink president likes it–because it’s one of the most entertaining movies ever made and, yes, about a larger than life figure who likes to see his name in big letters.

    The more interesting question is why Trump–a completely different character than FDR–generates the same kind of hysteria among the elites. Clearly even faux populism is seen as a huge threat that must be strangled in the crib. And it isn’t just the elites as the left in general doesn’t seem to think much of those “bitter clinger” rural white people. Perhaps we as a society should spend a lot less time judging each other and more time devoted to practical solutions–Roosevelt’s true, rather non ideological legacy.

    1. flora

      That was an interesting bit. Also interesting that the elites in both parties attack T in the same way earlier elites attacked earlier populists – russia and Putin being the modern standin for ‘the devil’. ;) One interesting thing Enjeti on Rising said yesterday is that T numbers among the working class – white, latino, black – are rising as a proportion of the GOP voters, and that the only group pushing up Bidens numbers are middle and upper middle class suburban voters. I haven’t seen the polls, except Biden has a problem with latino voters.

      I never thought about the Citizen Kane comparison but it seems apt. T may be a demagogue. But he did pull out the TPP and TPIP treaty negotiations, even as he gives the elites every tax break and bailout money they ask for. But pulling out of the elites cherished trade deals was beyond the pale, and they will not forgive him no matter how much else he gives them. (Killing the Post Office or SS will destroy his support among the working class, imo.)

      An aside: Huey Long was called a demagogue by the elites, too. Maybe that’s why Frank didn’t cover him.

      1. flora

        Oh, wait, there are several page references to Huey Long in the book’s index. So he does cover Long in the book.

  5. Patrick Thornton

    In today’s second segment with Thomas Frank about his new book The People, No Paul Jay pondered why rural Americans sidle up to the likes of Trump, or Liberace, or Elvis (or professional wrestling) and came up with no explanation that, as Thomas Frank said, could be provided in “one minute”. Here is a thought: cultural conservatives (i.e., “rural Americans”) tend toward the myth, the narrative, fantasy. Trump, Liberace, Elvis, professional wrestling, religion, military might, American Exceptionalism, freedom, the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, MAGA. Sometimes even conspiracy theory (Alex Jones). All part of the peddled myth. On the other hand, the “left” is not so susceptible to the myth and does a better job of sorting bullshit from the truth. Thus they understand that Trump – and lots else about America – is a con or, put more mildly, part of the national narrative, the myth offered by powerful elite storytellers that is used to bind us together.

    1. flora

      On the other hand, the “left” is not so susceptible to the myth and does a better job of sorting bullshit from the truth.

      Yes. It’s too bad so many on the left talk down to rural Americans, people in flyover, and consider them write-offs instead of people willing to engage.

      The nat Dems ignore flyover even as state Dem parties beg for resources. There used to be many Dems elected to Congress from flyover – mostly from the populist tradition. Starting at least 25 years ago the Dem party decided to ignore midwestern Dems. imo. In the 90’s even my red state sent Dems to Congress. People in my state didn’t suddently swing hard right, the Dem estab stopped caring about winning state and nat elections in flyover. Maybe we didn’t have enough mega-rich industries with lots of money to feed the nat. Dem appetite.

    2. ObjectiveFunction

      Funny, plenty of conservatives think similar things about the Left (at least the non-Woke folks): lots to agree on when it comes to diagnosing the problems, and many enemies in common, but dangerously naive (susceptible to myth) when it comes to solving them, especially using government power.

      ‘Cultural conservatives’ in my experience tend to be primarily people of faith who live by moral codes. Typically they also think life would be better if everyone followed those codes. Some may be hypocrites, but that’s not a given. (And yes, I get that many left progressives are also people of faith)

      I think the flag waving Nascar American Dream types you’re describing are more libertarians, who idealize self-reliance and free will. They might also profess faith, but they don’t really want the preacher all up in their business any more than the gubmint. They typically don’t spend much time thinking about what other folks ought to do, other than take care of their own business and leave them alone.

    3. Adam Eran

      A nice remedy for this kind of thinking: “Adam Ruins Everything” on Netflix. Now if he’d only take on economics!

    4. steelyman

      Do you really believe the ” ‘Left’ is not so susceptible to the myth and does a better job of sorting bullshit from the truth.” Even after 4 plus years of pretty much non-stop Russia! Russia! Russia! delirium?

      1. Patrick Thornton

        Let’s distinguish the “left” from “Democrat Party corporate-captured liberalism” aka “faux liberals”. Yes, all homo sapiens subscribe to myth – we all live by the narrative, the story. Today’s “red scare” (“russia gate”) is only the de jour political warfare sideshow in our winner-take-all two-party political system that divides us down the middle and that doesn’t really offer a viable alternative capable of transcending the myth of corporate capitalism. Two wings of the same bird of prey. Nothing new here.

    5. Offtrail

      Here is a thought: cultural conservatives (i.e., “rural Americans”) tend toward the myth, the narrative, fantasy.

      In the third part of the interview Frank points out that the myth that the liberal elites believe in is that of their own eliteness.

        1. vato

          Yet, Frank describes Hofstaeder’s characterization of Populism ( “anti-intellectual, antisemitic, anti-science, etc “) as a mere ‘failure’, so that Paul Jay tries to intervene but gets ‘cross-talked’ before he could’ve made a point which would have been, I guess, that Hofstaeder’s deceptive obfuscation of the Populist movement and its historical interpretation was deliberate and not just a mistake from which the corporate dems now live on.

  6. Mr. House

    “The more interesting question is why Trump–a completely different character than FDR–generates the same kind of hysteria among the elites.”

    I concur with this, unless all the Dems took a class from Vince McMahon on studio wrestling. Trump took one and knows perfectly how to play the heel.

  7. Off The Street

    Ford, General Motors and scores of other companies sure had a keen eye for foreign investments, didn’t they? /s

    Frank covers more history, threads and intriguing rabbit holes than the typical past student was likely to encounter, unless really motivated toward much independent research to find those somewhat hidden sources. Now, eightyish years after the fact, some of the information is leaking out more widely.

    1. vato

      I was rather stunnend that he, as an historian, wasn’t aware of the fact that Hitler had major financial and technological support from American industrialists

  8. The Rev Kev

    Does anybody know if Thomas Frank mentions the 1934 Business Plot, aka The White House Putsch in his new book? I hope that he does as it would not be complete account of these times without mention of that little episode to show the lengths the opposition was willing to go.

  9. hunkerdown

    Of course they do. FDR was the quintessential machine politician and worked to STOP the New Deal by (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) using the conservative wing of the party as an institutional monkey wrench. There is a whole chapter dispelling the beatification of FDR in Walter Karp’s Indspensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America, walking through the handbrakes he, unforced, placed on the New Deal. Whatever bourgeios hagiographies Frank is reading, he needs to pull his head out of his “master narrative” and understand how power works.

    It’s clear that ruling classes are, every single one, irresponsible, malicious, mendacious, and downright deadly. Isn’t it time we reconsider whether we shouldn’t eliminate the entire line of business and replace them with citizen democracy rather than bourgeois democracy? I believe so.

    (A little add-on note: freedom and liberty are diametric opposites. Freedom is the condition of not being bossed. Liberty is the ability to boss others. Note carefully how these have been propagandistically conflated in neoliberal discourse.)

    1. vato

      Bourgeios hagiography…nice!
      Michael Parenti referred to this ilk as ‘gentlemen historians’!

      1. occasional anonymous

        Parenti is himself a hack who literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about much of the time.

  10. Offtrail

    I would really like to know the source for Paul Jay’s statements “Hitler actually credited Ford with inspiring his anti-Semitism” and “Ford used to send Hitler, I think it was $500,000 every year on his birthday (in today’s dollars).”

    I think both of these statements are false. A quick search of the internet, including Wikipedia and a PBS article on Ford’s antisemitism turns up no mention of these.

    Ford’s antisemitism was highly discreditable. That doesn’t permit you to say anything at all you like about it.

    1. flora

      H. Ford was notorious for his anit-sem. Hard for me to think herr Mustache learned anti-sem from Ford. Anti-sem was a ‘thing’ back then. Paul Jay might have overstated the case wrt herr Mustache, but it would not surprise me if herr Mustache found ideological confirmation and support, pre WWII, from Ford’s views.

      The $500k is new to me. I don’t dismiss it out of hand, but need more sources before accepting it as confirmed data.

      The past is a foreign country, as the saying goes.

    2. Jeff W

      I obviously don’t know the specific source of Paul Jay’s statement regarding Henry Ford sending a large monetary gift to Adolf Hitler in his birthday every year but this site, quoting Trading with the Enemy The Nazi – American Money Plot 1933-1949 by Charles Higham, says “Invariably, Ford remembered Hitler’s birthday and sent him 50,000 Reichsmarks a year.” (I’m not vouching for the site, the book or the specific quote.) This “historical currency converter” gives the value of 50,000 Reichsmarks in, say, 1936, as roughly $285,000 (in 2015 US dollars).

  11. Sound of the Suburbs

    How did we get here?
    WW2 ended after six months as no one could afford for it to go on any longer.
    Wait a minute, that didn’t happen.

    What did the economists learn in the 1940s?
    In the paper from 1943 you can see …..
    They knew Government debt and deficits weren’t a problem as they had seen the massive Government debt and deficits of WW2.
    They knew full employment was feasible as they had seen it in WW2.
    After WW2 Governments aimed to create full employment as policymakers knew it could be done and actually maximised wealth creation in the economy.

    Balancing the budget was just something they used to do before WW2, but it wasn’t actually necessary.
    Government debt and deficits weren’t a problem.
    They could now solve all those problems they had seen in the 1930s, which caused politics to swing to the extremes and populist leaders to rise.

    They could eliminate unemployment and create a full employment economy.
    They could put welfare states in place to ensure the economic hardship of the 1930s would never be seen again.
    They didn’t have to use austerity; they could fight recessions with fiscal stimulus.

    To get here, the economists had to forget what they learnt in the 1940s.
    They went back to 1920s ways of thinking with neoclassical economics.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      I have seen MMT YouTube videos and they have evidence that a lot of what they are saying now, was known in the past.
      They should add that paper from Kalecki, a real insight into what the thinking was at that time.
      The hard lessons of the 1930s were fresh in their minds, and they were looking for solutions to those problems.

  12. Fabio Gorgonzola

    When Wallace visited the Soviet Union in 1944 he was completely taken in by the Potemkin villages Stalin built for him. He described the Magadan concentration camp as a “combination of Tennessee Valley Authority and Hudson’s Bay Company”. If such a clueless rube had become president, things might have turned out even worse than they did under Truman.
    Too bad progressives have a persistent tendency to be hoodwinked by tyrants.

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