Saturday, January 9, 2021

Status Deprivation, Violence, and the Epiphany Insurrection

 

            This is the term paper I wrote for my fall class in African American Literature I, which covered books and poetry written by black writers from pre-revolutionary times to 1912.

            I hadn’t planned on making it a post, but since the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6, it seems to have become relevant in that many in the Republican opposition seem to believe the BLM protests of last summer were somehow equivalent to or possibly worse than the nightmare we all watched on Epiphany.

            The BLM protests were in response to perceived police violence. I don't know of ANYONE who condoned the violence and the self-serving looting that followed (and it should be noted much of that violence was carried out by Proud Boys and their followers, like Kyle Rittenhouse). The January 6 riot was instigated by a Huey Long-like demagogue who is upset with the fact that a majority of Americans rejected him. Note here--voters rejected HIM, not his party. He has fabricated lies that support his position, sold those lies like he sold Trump steaks and Trump College degrees to the gullible and the deranged. He played with matches around dynamite, and he got an explosion.
            I never thought Donald Trump was too bright, but I certainly thought he was smarter than this. He could have played his victimhood into a movement that would have had influence for years. Instead, he's shot his wad. As far as 2024 goes, yeah, he "coulda been a contendah," but now he's just an old has-been who may survive until Inauguration Day without being impeached and removed or declared incompetent under the 25th Amendment, but none of the previous presidents will ever invite him to participate in any reindeer games.

            And as he and his family attempt a re-entry into polite society, they will learn quickly the meaning of NOCD.
            It will be very interesting to see how his obituary reads, and how he's treated in history books will be fascinating.

            In the meantime, here’s my term paper, but first a note on B. C. Franklin’s autobiography. B. C. Franklin, the father of famed historian John Hope Franklin, became a prominent attorney in Tulsa. During his lifetime a park was named for him. He moved in both black and white circles. He may have pulled some punches when describing the Greenwood riot of 1921.

Status Deprivation and Violence

            The idea for this paper came to me as I was reading an opinion piece by Leonard Pitts in the October 15, 2020 Kansas City Star. In that piece Pitts discusses Joseph Morrison, one of the men recently arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Pitts is responding to a Huffington Post article that includes a photo of Morrison’s ramshackle yard strewn with junk and on which are parked two trucks which “appear drivable,” although one has damage to a side panel. The ambience is further enhanced by two flags, one of which is the Confederate flag, drooping from poles. The Huffington Post article asks the question, “Can we acknowledge that maybe economic circumstances play a role in radicalizing people?” and concludes that, in the face of skyrocketing job losses, “of course we’re going to see violence.”  The author of the Huffington Post article, Walker Bragman, also points out that while people are willing to point to economic conditions as a driving factor when it comes to violence in the inner city, “when it comes to militancy in rural America, they refuse to entertain a similar explanation.” Pitts replies that inner city violence results from having too little, living too close, and enduring too much, and it almost always stems from arguments, drug trade disputes, and small-time street crime and asks, “But when have you ever seen an inner-city gang conspire to overthrow a government?” Pitts contrasts urban violence, often a violence of survival, often a violence of tragic stupidity, with Morrison’s violence, which Pitts says is a violence of cultural entitlement, of the perceived loss of power and rank. He then goes on to say, “One of the things white people do not understand about white people is how deep that resentment, that fear of demotion, go.” He goes on to say, “But poverty did not cause the bitterness or the violence. Rather, they stem from a conviction that, by dint of color or culture, one deserves the final and decisive word.” Pitts’ point is we frequently give the white poor sympathy they don’t deserve. I’m going to focus on the cultural entitlement and perceived loss of power and rank, or what William Tuttle expressed as “status deprivation” in his 1970 Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919.      

            Leading up to World War I a labor shortage drew an estimated 450,000 southern blacks north. The war ended in 1918; in 1919 the country went through one its periodic paranoid episodes, the main target being communists that time, but blacks became collateral damage. As Tuttle writes, “the most highly susceptible objects of prejudice in America were its black men and women, not because they were radicals, but because they threatened the accommodative race system of white superordination and black subordination.” During the war, blacks competed with whites for jobs and housing, among other things. “The employment of a new black worker in a shop or the arrival of a black family on a block only heightened anxieties of status deprivation.”  The desire of blacks to get ahead clashed with whites’ determination to “reaffirm the black people’s prewar status on the bottom rung of the nation’s racial and economic ladder.” Lynchings and race riots were a big part of the summer of 1919, and one of the worst of the race riots that summer was in Chicago, but I’m going to leave 1919 because I want to look at status deprivation and the violence that resulted from it in much of the literature we’ve read this semester.

            I define status deprivation as the perception that a person or a class, race, or group of people has moved above its station, or done better than the aggrieved party believes that person or group has a “right” to. Those who see people they consider inferior doing better than their self-appointed betters become resentful. (For example, expect a major outbreak of status deprivation should Kamala Harris ever become president.)

            In our readings for this class, it’s possible we could attribute the actions of Mr. Trappe in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative to status deprivation, but I believe he is more interested in making money, and his making sure no one escapes their status as a slave is a byproduct.

            The first definite examples of status deprivation we encounter are in Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record. I’m also going to draw on Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, a 1989 documentary available on Kanopy. Eric Foner was one of many participants in the documentary’s production. In 1889 Will Stewart, Calvin McDowell, and Thomas Moss, all of whom were friends of Wells, opened a grocery store near a white grocer in Memphis. The store did well, especially with black shoppers. In 1892 the three grocers were lynched. The white grocer complained he had lost many black customers to the new store. How dare those blacks be successful a mere 24 years after having been slaves?

            The black community of Memphis was stunned. In Southern Horrors, Wells urges economic action, saying, “The appeal to the white man’s pocket has ever been more effectual than all the appeals ever made to his conscience.” She told the black people of Memphis they did not have to put up with lynchings and suggested they move to areas such as Kansas and the newly-opened Oklahoma Territory. Six thousand of them did, which hurt many white businesses. Many ministers took their entire congregations with them. All-black towns were sprouting up in Kansas and the Oklahoma Territory, one of which was Rentiesville, where, for a while, Buck Colbert (B.C.) Franklin lived and where his son, John Hope Franklin, was born. I’ll come back to B.C. Franklin later.

            Wells also urged black people in Memphis to boycott the newly-installed trolley system. Six months after the lynchings, the secretary and treasurer of the city railroad company came to Wells at her paper, The Free Press to ask for help getting blacks to use the system. They believed blacks were avoiding the trolley because they were afraid of electricity. Evidently the possibility that blacks would actually take any action in response to these murders was beyond white comprehension. Wells advised her readers to keep up the pressure. Shortly after this, while Wells was in Philadelphia, the offices of the Free Press were destroyed and she was advised not to return to Memphis.

            Another example of status deprivation-inspired violence Wells gives is “An Indiana Case,” in which Allen Butler, a wealthy black man, was lynched because the mob could not reach his jailed son, who had been in a consensual relationship with a white servant employed by Butler. Here we have a man who triggered status deprivation by being wealthy and having a white servant. I hate to dwell on the obvious, but if a white man’s son had been involved with a black servant, consensual or otherwise, that would have been considered par for the course.

            In Pauline E. Hopkins’ Contending Forces, we encounter Charles and Grace Montfort, who, in response to Great Britain’s impending abolition of slavery, leave Bermuda for South Carolina, bringing with them their wealth, seven hundred slaves, and two sons. Bill Sampson, talking to Hank Davis, says upon first seeing Grace Montfort, “thet ar female’s got a black streak in her somewhar.” Hank Davis is rebuffed when he applies to be Charles Montfort’s overseer and vows revenge. Anson Pollock befriends Charles Montfort, who purchased his plantation from Pollock. Grace rebuffs Pollock’s advances, which infuriates him, especially because of the rumors of her “black blood.” When Pollock sees the Montforts’ sons building play houses with golden eagle coins and it becomes known that Montfort plans to free his slaves, Pollock gets Bill to round up a “committee” with the intent to, as Bill Sampson tells Hank Davis, “git all thet money, all them purty trinkets, and fine furniture,” not to mention the seven hundred slaves. Anson Pollock wants only Grace Montfort and her two children. The deed is done. Grace commits suicide after being whipped and raped. The two children become slaves. At least part of the justification for the committee’s action was Grace’s rumored “black blood.” She and her family had risen above their station.

            Later in Contending Forces we are introduced to the American Colored League, which is debating what action, if any, to take after yet another lynching is reported in the South. Hopkins’ character, the Hon. Herbert Clapp, is, as Hopkins writes in her preface, modeled on William J. Northen, a former governor of Georgia and a white supremacist, and Clapp’s speech is based on what Northen actually said at the Congregational Club at Tremont Temple in Boston on May 22, 1899. Clapp advises no action on the lynching, and he states that blacks who stay out of politics in the south have no trouble there. Clapp gives an example of “the death of a highly respected Negro in Georgia” who never dabbled in politics and whose “death was deplored by white and black alike.” Dr. Arthur Lewis, representing the views of Booker T. Washington, agrees with Clapp and advises things will get better with southerners “if we give them time and do not hurry them.”

            After hearing these assurances that as long as blacks steer clear of politics and wait for their rights they will be just fine in the South, Luke Sawyer arises and tells the story of his father, who kept a large store in a little town in Louisiana. His father did well in business and steered clear of politics because he feared meddling in politics might be “an excuse for his destruction.” When Luke was ten years old, a white man opened a business like his father’s on the same street. Luke’s father’s business continued to prosper while the white man’s business was on the brink of failure. Luke’s father began receiving threats, and he was trying to gather his property to leave town, but evidently not quickly enough. One night a gang broke into the Sawyer house, lynched his father, fatally raped his mother and sister, and murdered his baby brothers. He survived only by running to the woods, where he was rescued by a black planter named Beaubean.

            While this story may have been lifted from Ida B. Wells’ story of her friends’ grocery store in Southern Horrors, it does serve the purpose of demonstrating that any progress made by blacks would likely stoke status deprivation in whites, even if blacks were to abstain from political activity.

            The entire Wilmington massacre, which inspired Charles W. Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, was the result of status deprivation. Many books have been written about the populist movement in the 1890s, among them Lawrence Goodwyn’s 1978 The Populist Moment and Michael Kazin’s 1995 The Populist Persuasion, which was revised and updated in 2017 to reflect recent events. It’s difficult to describe that movement adequately in a short paper, but I’m going to attempt a coherent summary. After the Civil War a period of industrialization began, which concentrated wealth and economic power. Those with this increasingly concentrated power used it to drive commodity prices down and costs, including the costs of shipping goods by rail, up. The only way for farmers to keep farming was to borrow money. The era was one of deflation, so the value of money was also going up. Farmers were repaying loans, plus interest, in dollars that were increasingly worth more than those they had borrowed. It was becoming impossible for farmers to break even, much less have money to live on. Farmers were trapped in a cycle of borrowing from which many could not recover. Thomas E. Watson, a populist politician, in his 1892 The Negro Question in the South points out that both black and poor whites were suffering and suggested that they unite politically in order to further their mutual interests. Although Watson emphatically does not advocate social equality between the races, he gives us a realistic snapshot of the times when he describes how Northern leaders could cry “Southern outrage” and win the “unanimous vote from the colored people” and Southern politicians could cry “Negro domination” and “drive into solid phalanx every white man in all the Southern states” in order to keep people voting against their interests. He says both parties “have constructed as perfect a ‘slot machine’ as the world ever saw. Drop the old, worn nickel of the party slogan into the slot, and the machine does the rest.” He proposed a new party—the People’s Party—to represent the interests of the poor and the farmers. As a result of the times, a Fusionist movement formed and was most successful in North Carolina.

            According to David Zucchino in his 2020 Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by 1898 the Fusionist ticket in Wilmington had resulted in three (of ten) black aldermen, ten (of twenty-six) policemen, black health inspectors, a black superintendent of streets, and many black postmasters and magistrates. That same year a field representative for the American Baptist Publication Society called Wilmington “the freest town for a negro in the country.” Moving on to Wellington, Chesnutt’s fictional Wilmington, Dr. Miller, the town’s black doctor, expresses his pride in his city when he says to his former professor, “If our race had made as much progress everywhere as they have made in Wellington, the problem would be well on the way toward solution.”

            In some circles, Wellington’s progress was a problem. I suspect because he feared being sued for libel, Chesnutt disguised the identities of the “big three” who decided Wellington’s black citizens were doing far too well. According to the Norton Critical Edition of Chesnutt’s book, Major Carteret is a representation of Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), General Belmont is inspired by Alfred Moore Waddell (1834-1912), who became mayor as a result of the coup, and Captain McBane was drawn after Mike Dowling, who organized the Red Shirts, who terrorized the black populace during the riots. I could not find Dowling’s birth and death dates. All three of Chesnutt’s “big three” suffer from status deprivation.

            Carteret, whose family once owned 90,000 acres and six thousand slaves, came home from the Civil War to an impoverished estate that was lost in foreclosure. He is now wealthy only because he married into wealth. Sadly, it appears he’ll be losing his wife’s money as well, since he is moving money invested in a cotton mill paying a “beggarly” ten percent into a get-rich-quick investment he doesn’t understand. (We learn later that this investment has tied up so much of his wife’s money they’d be hard-pressed to come up with $10,000.) Little Dodie’ health issues aren’t the only problems he’ll be facing. To rub salt into Carteret’s wounds, his family’s old house is now owned by Dr. Miller.

            General Belmont is a “man of good family,” a lawyer and politician, “aristocratic by birth and instinct,” and a former slaveowner. Chesnutt says that while Carteret, in serious affairs, desired the approval of his conscience, “even if he had to trick that docile organ into acquiescence,” Belmont permitted no fine scruples to stand in the way of success, although he “was not without a gentleman’s taste for meanness.” In short, Belmont disguised a Machiavellian personality with a civilized fa├žade. I believe Chesnutt incorporated some aspects of John Hill Wheeler (1806-1882), who was known for underhanded dealings as minister to Nicaragua, into the character of Belmont. The Bedford Critical Edition has a footnote referencing an 1893 Nicaraguan coup, but there was no U.S. intervention in that coup, so I like my theory better. Belmont is uneasy with so many of the town’s black population having positions of authority and wants to return to the days of unquestioned white supremacy.  

            “Captain” McCabe is from the poor white class, the son of an overseer, and until recently the holder of contracts with the state for its convict labor. Just a quick historical note here. The Thirteenth Amendment’s wording is as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The exception has been called the amendment’s “fig leaf” and has been used to maintain de facto slavery. Convict a vagrant, and voila! you have a slave. McCabe has accumulated a great deal of money but has discovered money alone won’t buy him status. He resents losing his contracts as a result of the Fusion government, and he resents any progress by blacks, especially those who do well, like Dr. Miller.

            The “big three” decide to take things into their own hands. Carteret can use the press to influence public opinion, Belmont can use his political network to generate support, and McCabe can organize a band of lowlifes to terrorize Wellington’s black population.

            Carteret begins publishing incendiary editorials that don’t generate much interest among the populace. Meeting six months after the campaign started, the “big three” are having little impact on public opinion. Evidently Wellingtonians are not dissatisfied with their Fusionist government. But that would change. In the summer of 1897 Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent Georgia gadfly, gave a widely-disseminated speech in response to a series of alleged black-on-white rapes on Georgia farms. In this speech she advocated lynching—"a thousand times a week if necessary”—as a solution to the problem. When Alex Manly, the editor of Wilmington’s black readership Daily Record, read of Felton’s speech, he published a response that gave the historical instigators of the Wilmington riot the match they needed to light the fuel. Josephus Daniels had 300,000 copies printed and distributed throughout the state. In Chesnutt’s Wellington, the “big three” sit on Barber’s (the fictional Manley’s) editorial, and when the time is right, they release it. Tom Watson’s “old, worn nickel” was in the slot, and the riot began.

            As the “big three” are preparing for the riot, they discuss the various people they want to run out of town. Carteret has said he will not condone murder, so exile is the next best thing. Belmont wants Watson, the black lawyer, run out of town because he’s taking business from white lawyers. McBane wants a black real estate agent on the list because he’s doing so well he’s driving Billy Kitchen, a white real estate agent, to the poorhouse. Barber, the editor who wrote the offending editorial, will have to go, as will all the Republican politicians in office. They discuss Dr. Miller. McBane wants him gone; Belmont says he thinks Miller should stay, and while Carteret would like to see Miller leave, he admits personal reasons are behind that desire. The “big three,” while preparing for a coup, are using that coup to rid Wellington of blacks who have risen above their station and are making life difficult for their white competitors.

            During the riot, McBane takes an active part, leading his mob against unarmed blacks. Belmont slinks off to his lair while Carteret witnesses the increasing violence of the mob. Realizing things have gotten out of hand, he tries to stop the riot but is unsuccessful. He realizes an avalanche is not as easy to stop as it is to start. As Chesnutt writes, and as we learn still today, “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.” Frustrated, he washes his hands of the matter and tells himself he is not to blame.

            As Ray Stannard Baker wrote about the 1906 Atlanta race riot, “The riot is not over when the shooting stops.” Carteret makes his way home to a new world of his own making. His wife’s beloved Mammy Jane is dead, his servants have deserted his house, leaving little Dodie in a draft, which results in his becoming gravely ill. Carteret winds up begging Dr. Miller, whose own child was killed in the riot, to attend to his son. When Miller refuses, Mrs. Carteret begs him, and Miller’s wife tells him he must save the Carteret baby if he can. In keeping with the custom of the times, the ending gives an unconvincing glimmer of hope for a happy ending.

            According to Zucchino, twenty-one hundred black residents fled Wilmington after the riot, and twenty-one citizens, including seven whites, were banished.

            In his later years, as Zucchino writes, Josephus Daniels admitted his paper, as the “militant voice of White Supremacy,” was guilty of “sometimes going to extremes in its partisanship” and was “never very careful about winnowing out the stories or running them down.” Nevertheless, he remained proud of his work, boasting that white supremacists had crushed “Negro domination.” He glorified Red Shirt attacks on black neighborhoods and praised white gunmen for creating a “reign of terror” among blacks in Wilmington. Chesnutt could not know it in 1901, but Daniels would serve as Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. Franklin D. Roosevelt was his assistant secretary and would appoint him ambassador to Mexico in 1933, where he served until 1941.

            James Weldon Johnson, in his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, touches on status deprivation when he observes that black people who strive to better their physical and social surroundings in accordance with their financial and intellectual progress annoy whites who see these efforts somehow as black’s doing these things for the sole purpose of “spiting the white folks,” which should be counterintuitive but sadly is not. 

For my final example I’m going to stray from our class’ readings and move forward a decade or so. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that races could be kept separate “but equal.” This translated into housing discrimination. Because of this discrimination black areas became self-contained and to a degree self-sustaining. Ministers, undertakers, bankers, barbers and in time lawyers and doctors had a ready-made client base. Some of these areas became quite successful and attracted the envy of less successful white neighbors. One example of this was the Tulsa, Oklahoma district of Greenwood, which in 1921 was destroyed by a white mob on the pretext that a white woman had been molested by a black man.

I’ve chosen to spend some time on the Greenwood riot because while I was researching John Hope Franklin, I discovered his father, B. C. Franklin (1879-1960), defended victims of the riot when the city of Tulsa attempted to prevent their replacing their homes and businesses. That led me to Franklin’s autobiography, My Life and an Era, which was edited by his son, John Hope Franklin and John Hope’s son, John Whittington Franklin and published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1997.

Franklin was born in Indian Territory (his father was a Chickasaw freedman and his mother was one-quarter Cherokee and had grown up as Cherokee) and was in Tulsa at the time of the riot. Many sources claim Greenwood was the wealthiest or one of the wealthiest black areas in the country. Franklin doesn’t go there, but he does say that at one time Tulsa had been integrated, but by 1921 Tulsa was one of the most segregated cities in America. He blames two very wealthy black real estate developers who came to Tulsa “a few years before statehood” and bought thirty or forty acres of land, plotted and surveyed it, and “put [it] upon the market to be sold to Negroes only.” He says developers of “other races” purchased adjoining land and followed suit. Oklahoma became a state in 1907, so exactly when this happened is difficult to establish, but Greenwood would have been an area of homes and businesses no more than twenty years old.

Franklin was in Tulsa to establish his law business in preparation for a move from Rentiesville, Oklahoma, the all-black community I mentioned above, which is not far from Tulsa. The day the riot started, May 31, 1921, he was in the courthouse and overheard some conversations but didn’t think much of them. When he got to his lodgings his landlady told him she’d heard some rumors of trouble brewing. He went into the streets and saw one white man and one black man, both of whom claimed to have fought in the recent war, telling people they needed to burn some houses in the white areas of town to disburse the riot and get the state to call in troops to control the violence. Franklin says he (Franklin) addressed the crowd and got them to disburse. He says the white man told him, “This sort of battle is as much mine as it is yours. A great mob is forming, and you are at a disadvantage you can never overcome in an open fight.”

Franklin tried to call the sheriff, but telephone wires had been cut. He tried to get to the sheriff’s office, but he was immediately arrested and taken to a detention camp. He says homes were being looted and planes were flying overhead dropping explosives on the buildings. The book has before and after photos of the area, and they resemble before and after photos of Dresden in 1945 on a smaller scale. He writes “only two” prominent black men were killed. Subsequent estimates put the number of blacks killed as high as 300, and possible sites of mass graves are now being explored. One site containing eleven bodies has recently been unearthed.      

According to an article about the riot in the October 5, 2018 New York Times, a black man most likely tripped and accidentally stepped on the woman’s foot in a crowded elevator; charges against him were later dropped. Franklin’s story is essentially the same (and was possibly the unattributed source for the Times article). He says the woman slapped the man, and a reporter looking for a scoop was on the elevator. Voila! Fake news.

As if the destruction of their community and the loss of everything were not enough (Franklin’s savings, clothing, and law books were incinerated along with his rooming house), insurance companies, citing clauses in their contracts denying payment for losses incurred in “riots, civil commotion and the like” refused payment. In addition, the city attempted to impose a requirement that replacement buildings be fireproof. Franklin formed a partnership with some other attorneys and successfully argued against this requirement, citing the due process clause.  

Franklin writes that no “responsible white resident of the city” was involved, meaning, I suppose, the riot was carried out by poor whites. Which I suppose is possible. Franklin was there; I wasn’t even born at the time, but it’s difficult for me to envision poor whites having access to airplanes, and “responsible whites” were certainly involved in making it difficult to rebuild.

As we can see from these examples, when black people do well, they threaten the status of whites who have not done as well. I think we can, without too much of a stretch of the imagination, see examples of this in recent history. In 2009, a mere ninety years after Red Summer, Barak Obama became president of the United States. Many of us were elated and congratulated ourselves on how far the country had evolved. Yet there was an undercurrent of status deprivation that Donald Trump was able to tap into. Obama did not deserve to be president. He was not born in the United States. He is Muslim. He is the “other.” And Trump convinced enough of those who believe, as Leonard Pitts says, “by dint of color or culture, one deserves the final and decisive word” to cobble together an Electoral College victory in 2016, and he came very close to pulling it off again this year.


Thursday, December 3, 2020

Thoughts from a Pandemic Thanksgiving

 

For many years Dan and I have had Thanksgiving dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant. This year the restaurant is doing carry-out only, so we called our order in three days ahead of time. When we went to pick the order up, there was a line of people ahead of us. We got in the line and exchanged pleasantries with the woman in front of us. All of a sudden, a man burst through the line waving his phone and said, “I have an order to pick up.” Ummmm. The dining area was blocked off. The restaurant was only doing take out. There was a line. I wondered if he thought the rest of us had come there to stand in line six feet apart because we didn’t have anything better to do that day. Everyone, including the woman at the counter just looked at him. He got the message, but rather than getting in line, he stood near the counter until it was his turn.

            I don’t usually talk about it because it was an experience I don’t like to revisit, but I lived in San Jose when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989. I had just gotten home from my job in Palo Alto. I had a class that night, and I was rushing around getting ready for the class. I had just fixed a quick meal and sat down to watch the news when I heard it coming. People tell me that’s not the way it works, but I heard the rumble before the house started shaking. And I was there. I got into a doorway like I was supposed to and grabbed on to it with both hands. The power went out. After the shaking stopped, I called my parents to let them know I was OK. (Back then landlines worked even when the power was out.) Our minds have trouble absorbing the new reality when the totally unexpected happens. My immediate concern was getting to my class. The power was still out. How was I going to get my car out of the garage? As reports from the neighbors trickled in about the severity of the quake (the Oakland-Bay Bridge had a partial collapse), it suddenly dawned on me. This was not something that happened only to me. The odds were that getting to that class, which would in all probability be the last thing on the minds of the teacher as well as the other students that night, was the least of the things I should be thinking about. I think the time it took me to realize it was not all about me and I was not the only one affected was less than ten minutes. The shutdown, at least in Kansas City, has lasted eight months and counting, and some people, like Mr. Cellphone guy, have yet to figure out this pandemic is affecting everyone, and it’s not all about them.

            Like most people, I was less than thrilled with most of the changes in my life the pandemic caused, and I resisted. The spring semester at UMKC went online in mid-March. I finished that semester, but I sat out the summer session because I figured things would be back to normal in the fall. They weren’t. There was a class I really wanted to take, and I had a choice. I could pout for a semester because things weren’t the way I wanted or I could bite the bullet and take the class online. I signed up for the class, and you know what? I adapted, and actually I like it online. It’s asynchronous, meaning the lectures, assignments, tests, etc. are all online, and as long as I meet the due dates, I can do them from home and on my schedule. I find that happens a lot with me. I hate change. I make changes only when I have to. (I ordered a new laptop, primarily to use in Zoom meetings, for example, and I’m not looking forward to its arrival.) And usually I wind up wondering why I hadn’t made the change before (maybe I’ll like the new laptop, after all), which brings me back briefly to our take-out Thanksgiving dinner. Dan especially missed the ambience of the restaurant, but when we got the meal home, it was already in containers, so I didn’t feel the urge to overeat in order to minimize the amount of leftovers the servers had to pack up for us to take home. (Notice how I just justified my overeating as an act of altruism!)  We just ate what we felt like eating and put the rest in the refrigerator. For the first time in my life I did not gain Thanksgiving weight, and we got almost two meals out of the leftovers. I won’t say this will be our new Thanksgiving normal, but who knows?

            I think a lot of us are discovering that some of the changes the pandemic has forced on us are not that bad, and I don’t think the new normal will return to the old normal even when the pandemic is over. Many people can work from home, and it will be a tough sell to get them back in the office when the time comes. After all, in many cases employees have seen they can do their jobs from home just fine, and employers who are intransigent about going back to the old ways may find themselves in search of new employees. It’s a modern version of “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” As far as employers are concerned, they should be able to see that without needing room for so many employees, they can downsize the amount of office space they need to pay for. People may be free to move to areas they prefer without having to give up their jobs. I may have stayed with Company L had I not had to put up with the expense, commute, and general hassle of life in Silicon Valley as well as suffering the insufferable personalities I worked for. But non, je ne regrette rien. Things have worked out very well these nearly twenty-six years.

            There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a vaccine, so know the pandemic won’t last forever. The 1918 flu pandemic burned itself out in a couple of years without a vaccine, and the Roaring Twenties began.

            I realize there are many people who are really suffering during these times, and there are those who don’t have the choice to do their work from home, like the staff at our favorite Chinese restaurant, those who work at grocery stores, and most of all, those health care workers who bravely soldier on. For the rest of us, rather than obsess over what we’ve had to sacrifice these past months, let’s be thankful for what almost has to be better times ahead.

            Here’s looking forward to the rest of the 2020s!            

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Donald Trump: With 71 Million Supporters, He's Not Going Away

             On November 7, 2020 Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election. Donald Trump, who has ignored or violated nearly every norm established by the previous forty-four presidents, has refused to concede, claiming the election was fraudulent, stolen, and that the votes cast in favor of Biden were “illegal.” Those Americans who are not appalled or embarrassed are amused at the buffoonery we’ve become accustomed to over the past four years. I have a message for y’all. Wipe that smirk off your faces. Trump may end up leaving the White House, but he’s not going anywhere.

            Remember, he built a political movement based on lies. The first one was that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and was a Muslim. Trump attracted a following of those who were economically and socially disaffected and were dismayed that a black man was the leader of the free world. He tapped into a vein in American society that appealed to those who believe life has been unfair to them, that it’s not their fault that things have not worked out well for them, that somehow, someway, someone has cheated them, and now that unspecified someone has to pay.

            In the election Biden received roughly 75 million votes, more than any presidential candidate has ever received. Trump received roughly 71 million votes—the second highest number of votes any presidential candidate has ever received. If you think Trump, the ultimate con man and sleazebag grifter, is not going to take advantage of that support, I have a bridge to sell you. Trump is now playing to that base. The election has been stolen. The votes were rigged. The media are against him. His failure, like the failures of those who are in his camp, is not his fault. It’s the system that’s against him, and the only reason the truth is not revealed is fake news—you know, the media that don’t report Hillary Clinton’s, George Soros’, Tom Hanks’, Bill Gates’, and (fill in the blank’s) gatherings in the basements of pizza shops nationwide to drain the blood of infants and sexually abuse children.

            Trump will not concede. I suspect he will, as Joe Biden posited, have to be escorted out of the White House as a trespasser. This will make Trump appear even more like a victim to his cult. The more of a victim he can make himself out to be, the more sympathy his followers will feel for him. The poor man is being evicted from his home. Never mind that he has gold plated abominations in at least two states he can return to, he’s still a victim of a system that’s rigged against him. He’ll keep his admirers, and he may even pick up a few more. He may, like Grover Cleveland, have an interrupted presidency, but I suspect his goal is to create a third party that will carry on his disruptive activities.

            He won’t follow any playbook, but I highly recommend we all familiarize ourselves with what has happened in the past. We can look to Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, Robert Welch, and others that are now footnotes in fascism, and we can read books such as All the King’s Men and It Can’t Happen Here to prepare ourselves for what increasingly CAN happen here.

            Let’s just take a brief look at Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here.        

            The story focuses on Doremus Jessup, owner and editor of a small New England newspaper and begins in 1936 with a presidential campaign in which Buzz Windrip, a Huey Long-like front man, is put forth as a man of the people and promises everyone $5,000 (more than $94,000 in 2020 dollars) if he’s elected, which he is. The brains behind the campaign, as well as the author of Windrip’s autobiography, is Lee Sarason, who runs things while Windrip plays poker, accumulates graft, etc. Donald Trump, who is not known as a reader, has also hired ghost writers to write his many and conflicting autobiographies.

            During the campaign, Sarason has hired “volunteer” thugs, who are called “Minute Men,” and who, like Hitler’s Brown Shirts, beat up those who speak against the “Chief.” Donald Trump has not, as far as we know, hired the Proud Boys and other various white supremacists and malcontents, but we’ve seen some of his self-defined enforcers in action. Spy networks are set up, concentration camps are established, an emergency is declared, and martial law takes effect. Doremus’ resentful former handyman, Shad Ledue, winds up in a position of power. Without too much imagination we can see Rudy Giuliani in the role of Shad. After Doremus prints an article critical of the Chief, Doremus’ paper is taken over by the state, but he’s required to remain on the paper writing drivel. We can certainly envision Trump declaring unfriendly media “enemies of the people” (oh, wait—he’s already done that) and taking similar action. Doremus winds up working for an underground network, is caught, and is sentenced to a concentration camp. When his son-in-law protests, the son-in-law is summarily executed.

            As would be expected, those in favor do well under Windrip. The Minute Men grow in numbers, those in positions of power engage in graft. Shad Ledue gets caught with his hand in the till and winds up in the concentration camp with Doremus and others he’s abused. Shad does not survive. As time goes by, some people become disenchanted with Windrip, who not only does not produce the promised $5,000, but makes conditions worse for most people. We can certainly see Trump promising the moon and delivering something considerably less. Sarason engineers a coup, and Windrip is allowed to escape overseas, where he consoles himself with the $4 million (about $80 million today) he managed to deposit offshore. Sarason appoints his many boyfriends to various positions and uses the redecorated White House for his orgies, which offends the straight-laced Secretary of War, Col. Dewey Hait, who breaks into the White House with troops and shoots Sarason and his fellow partiers. Hait imposes a stricter regime, a war with Mexico is invented (we can envision the same thing happening with Iran or some other easily-demonized country), and parts of the country begin to rebel.

            Doremus is allowed to escape and joins a resistance effort. The ending of the book, “a Doremus Jessup can never die,” reminds me of the end of the 1940 film, The Grapes of Wrath. (I’ve never read the book.) A glimmer of hope pasted on to a dismal tale.

            In 1928 Lewis married Dorothy Thompson, a renowned journalist who in 1932 interviewed Hitler and dismissed fears of him as overhyped. Before the election of 2016 we’d seen Trump dismissed as a buffoon, and, like Hitler, look what happened. Two years later Thompson returned to Germany and was expelled. Lewis listened to Thompson and her friends, who were familiar with Hitler’s increasingly restrictive, punitive, and antisemitic actions. After Germany invaded Poland, Thompson became an avid interventionist.

            Hopefully people will wise up and Trump will go away or the effects of all those cheeseburgers and milkshakes will take their toll, and he won’t be around. Huey Long’s movement fell apart after his death (and I am emphatically NOT advocating assassination—this country does not need Trump the Martyr).  We do need to take a look at the movement behind the movement.

            Trump has never revealed his wealth or lack of it, but I doubt he has enough money to sustain a movement like he has in mind, so who is financing him? That is the question. I don’t have an answer, but who would gain by a weakened and disunited United States? Who would gain if the world’s greatest democracy were to become a thing of the past? Russia? China? Someone closer to home?

            I’m open to suggestions, but someone is spending big bucks to keep the pot stirred.

            While we’re pondering Trump’s next moves, it’s time Trump’s opposition makes some moves of its own.

            First, we must acknowledge that disaffected Trump supporters have some valid complaints. Some time ago I reviewed Thomas Frank’s new book, The People: NO! and described Frank as a Cassandra--cursed to utter prophecies that were always true but which would never be believed. In his 2016 Listen, Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? he warned Democrats that they were alienating the working class by concentrating on wealth and technology and ignoring the tragic loss of manufacturing jobs and those hit hard by the economic crisis and housing depression. Even worse, Democrats were telling people the situation they found themselves in was their own fault because they lacked education and nothing could be done about it. In other words, to borrow a phrase from 1970s New York: Democrats to working class: Drop Dead. Frank was ignored, and we wound up with an orange buffoon in charge of the country for four years.

            This year he restated his message in The People: NO! He says that beginning in the 1970s, Democrats began turning away from the working class. The late 1960s had seen the working class begin a migration to Republicans. In 1970 construction workers in New York rioted in support of the Nixon administration. Increasingly educated Democrats turned more toward elitism and less contact with the working class. They turned away from unions, and especially union leaders, who had increasingly become conservative and often were, or were perceived to be, corrupt.

            Frank takes us through the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, who tried to govern as a centrist Democrat, concentrating on technical competence, alienating further the working class, and opening the door for the Reagan “revolution.” The next nominal Democrat to win office, Bill Clinton, concentrated further on trade, giving us NAFTA, CAFTA, and several other programs favored by Republicans. In 2008 Barak Obama was elected and proceeded to name Republicans to his cabinet hoping for bipartisanship. He wound up rescuing banks and Wall Street while leaving homeowners, the victims of banks and Wall Street, to deal with their situation on their own. Even Obamacare, his signature achievement, did not “inconvenience Big Pharma or private insurance companies.” Yet another step away from the people Democrats depend on. Cue 2016, and Hillary Clinton does little to repair the frayed relationship with the former base of her party. Nevertheless, she wins a majority of voters, but not enough of a majority. Trump, appealing to the disaffected, became president, and he came very close to winning a second term this year. Frank argues Trump voters could just as easily have been supporters of Democrats had they not been ignored and increasingly vilified. Democrats, not Trump voters, are the problem. By offering nothing to their historic base, they have lost that base. And even worse, liberal Democrats are ensuring future defeat not only by not pursuing their former base, but by vilifying them. Instead of being the voice of the working class, Frank says, the Democratic party sees itself as a “sort of coming together of the learned and the virtuous.” The former party of the people became anti-populist. They want “no part of any systemic criticism of big business or monopoly or the financial industry. They shied away from supporting mass movements. The idea of putting together a coalition of working-class people was one they came to regard with deep distaste.” They became the party of the white-collar elite, the “smart and rich, the ‘better-educated upscale voters’ who wanted private retirement accounts but weren’t so keen on public schools.” Frank writes that in 1992 journalist and author Mickey Kaus advised Democrats to abandon their concern for economic equality; Democrats had to stop listening to labor unions and sever their ties with the black “underclass.”

            Frank refers to Lawrence Goodwyn, a 1970s-era scholar of populism, who wrote that in order to build a movement like the People’s Party of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” Goodwyn warned against a politics of “individual righteousness” or celebrating the purity of one’s radicalism. In order to reform the country’s economic structure, we must practice “ideological patience,” a suspension of moral judgement of ordinary Americans. Only then can we start to build a movement that is hopeful and powerful and that changes society.

            Another point Frank makes is the modern Democratic Party seems totally uninterested in labor except to ask for its endorsement every few years. Frank tells the story of a group of affluent progressive teens whose opinions were sought on the importance of various issues. Racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, and gun control all had significant support. Labor, when it was mentioned, had no support. Zero. Frank points out that the yard signs the affluent are placing in their yards to show their support of inclusiveness, you know the ones that say:

                                    In this house, we believe

                                    Black lives matter

                                    Women’s rights are human rights

                                    No human is illegal

                                    Science is real

                                    And kindness is everything,

don’t say a word about the right to organize or earn a living wage.

            Frank says there are many examples of labor’s omission in today’s wokeness. He names “A Century of Protest,” a 2018 video feature produced by the New Yorker that included protests throughout American history, which began with an ad for Prada, and included fifty-eight clips of historical footage covering everything from suffragette marches in 1913 to the ACT-UP protests. There was plenty of civil rights footage, and Communists and even the KKK were represented, but nothing on labor. Nada. And heaven knows, there is plenty of footage available on labor protests, including the 1936 GM strike and the UAW strike of 1945-6. Besides being ignored, labor is being airbrushed out of history.

            Now that Democrats have alienated their former base (let’s hope temporarily), they seem to be going out of their way to keep them alienated. Rather than addressing the issues that drove so many to vote for a con man, liberals seem to be relishing any misfortune that has come to Trump voters, and woe be it to anyone who suggests that we show empathy with those who supported the buffoon. Frank writes that New York Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristoff reports nothing he has written recently generates the outpouring of rage he receives when he makes periodic assertions that Trump voters are human, too.

            In my review of Max Skidmore’s Common Sense Manifesto I wrote about a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Portland, Oregon restaurateur Kurt Huffman complaining about the $600 unemployment insurance enhancement and bemoaning the fact that his slaves, er, I mean employees weren’t champing at the bit to return to work for $15 an hour and tips totaling as much as an additional $1 an hour (his words, not mine). How dare his employees inconvenience him? Oh, the humanity! As a quick Google search revealed, Mr. Huffman is Portland’s leading restaurateur whose favorite restaurant in is London.

            Just to show that some things never change, Frank writes about a vice president at DuPont, who in 1934 wrote a letter to the chairman of General Motors to complain about the New Deal. Here is how, as Frank says, it ruined his life:

            “Five Negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this Spring, after I had taken care of them and given them house [sic] rent free and work for three years during bad times, saying they had easy jobs with the government… .

            “A cook on my houseboat at Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter when he never knew a thing about painting before.”     

            In 1934 the Democratic Party’s emphasis was on helping labor. I wonder where the party stands with regards to Mr. Huffman’s employees. That I even have to ask says a lot about how far the party has traveled from FDR and the New Deal. I’ve often imagined that Lincoln would be appalled at what has become of his party. I suspect the same could be said of FDR.

            Farmers and labor went for Trump this year. Those are two of the groups that were the heart of Democratic support when FDR was president. Democrats have turned their backs on farmers and labor. Is it surprising that farmers and labor have turned their backs on Democrats?

            Democrats need to go back to their base—the working class. In an America as divided as we are, that’s about the only way to avoid Trump 2024. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Best Years of Our Lives: or, How I Got Through Election Night

             I’ve had this piece in mind for more than a week, and it’s fitting that it’s Veterans’ Day, and I’m finally sitting down to write it.

            I knew the night of the election was going to be a long one, so I decided to watch The Best Years of Our Lives, one of my favorite movies, which just became available on Kanopy, the library’s free streaming channel. I’ve written about it before, and I will reiterate what I’ve said in the past: If you can watch this film with dry eyes, you have my nomination for hardass of the year.

            The movie is nearly three hours long, and it follows three returning World War II veterans. It was made in 1946, one year after the war ended, and it is a snapshot of America at a turning point. Unknown at the time the film was made was—what would that turning point be like?

            Harold Russell, who lost both hands in the war, plays Homer, who returns home to a family that pities him and Wilma, the girl next door, who loves him enough to overcome Homer’s doubts that she will ever be happy with him as he now is. Within days of Homer’s return, a relative is bloviating about how there will be a new depression coming, and Homer had better get a job—and fast. In truth, many people did see a depression on the way. The economy was shifting from wartime to peacetime, and millions of veterans were coming home. What was not known in 1946 was there was a tremendous pent up demand for housing and cars that had not been available during the war, and the GI Bill of Rights would stimulate the economy in ways that could not be foreseen.

            Fred, an airman, returns home to find his wife, whom he married after twenty days of knowing her, has an apartment of her own and a job in a nightclub. They quickly exhaust Fred’s savings, and the best job Fred can find is as a soda jerk in the drug store where he worked before the war. He loses that job when he defends Homer in an altercation instigated by a customer who tells Homer he had fought on the wrong side. The customer has a newspaper about a senator warning of danger. The film was released in November 1946, so that may have been a reflection of some of the senatorial campaigns in which red-baiting became popular. 1946 saw Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, among others, win seats in the Senate.

            Fred is without a job. His wife, who has taken up with another man, tells him she’s getting a divorce, and a romance with Al’s daughter seems off the table (more on that later), so he decides to leave. As he’s waiting for his flight, Fred walks through the airfield where combat aircraft are being dissembled. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of planes in pieces. He sees one like he flew and pulls himself into the nose window, which is where he spent a lot of time during the war. He’s spotted and asked what he’s doing. He tells the guy who’s questioning him he spent a lot of time in one of those and says something about all these planes being scrapped. To me the implication is the planes, like the returning veterans, are being piled on the scrap heap. The guy, who turns out to be a building supervisor, tells him the planes are not being scrapped. They’re being dissembled and will be used to build houses. He hires Fred. The planes are being put to new use. Maybe there’s hope for Fred.  

            As I mentioned above, there was an incredible housing shortage at the end of the war. My father, who rushed to enlist after Pearl Harbor, was very disappointed to be declared 4-F. (The same thing, by the way, happened to me during Vietnam except for the rush to enlist and the disappointment.) He (and my mother) wound up working on the Manhattan Project, first in New York, then Santa Fe, and finally Oak Ridge. After the war, they were transferred to St. Louis and let go. They moved in with my father’s parents, who treated them like children, even though they’d been on their own for a few years. That didn’t work out, and there’s quite a story there, but I’ll save that one for another time.

            There were companies that made homes of metal. One was Lustron, which was based in Columbus, Ohio. The Navy owned an aircraft plant next to the airport. After the war, the Navy rented the plant to Lustron, but because of the Cold War, the Navy decided to take the facility back, and North American Rockwell moved in. My first job with the Navy was in that facility. There are a few Lustron homes still around, including a few in Santa Fe Hills in Kansas City.

            Anyway, back to the movie. Al, who is a prosperous banker, comes home to a boss who wants him to get back to work immediately. He intends for Al, a veteran, to handle the new business coming in because of the GI Bill. The problem is the GI Bill is designed for veterans who don’t have much money, and Al’s boss wants Al to abide by the old rules. Al, who is very much into alcohol and, if the film were made today would probably be the subject of an intervention, gets plastered at a dinner honoring him and argues for the loans to be made as intended. It looks like he’ll get his way, but it’s 1946, and no one knows for sure how this is going to work out.

            Fred falls in love with Peggy, Al’s daughter, and vice versa. They reunite at Homer and Wilma’s wedding. Fred now has a job and an uncertain future and is divorced. He tells Peggy he doesn’t know how things will turn out, but he’ll really try, which is good enough for her. We can only guess how things worked out for the characters in the film, and audiences in 1946 were in the same boat. Who knew what the future would bring? As it turned out, there were challenges—including the coming of us Baby Boomers—that could not be imagined at the time, but there were also blessings, including the postwar boom and all it brought with it.

            After the movie ended, I checked the election returns. In spite of polls predicting a blue tsunami, it looked to me to be a replay of 2016. I went to bed thinking it looks like we’ll have four more years of Trump. I thought to myself, “We made it through the first four. I guess we’ll make it through the next four.” I consoled myself with the thought that the country had survived tough times before and come out all right as I’d just seen in The Best Years of Our Lives, and we could do it again. As we now know, Biden won. I told Dan it was so narrow, and I used an obscene expression one of my favorite bosses used, and Dan told me never to say that again—ever, so I won’t.

            There was hardly a blue tsunami—or even a blue ripple. It seems Americans didn’t reject Republicans, but they did reject Trump for now. But stay tuned. I’ll be writing my next piece on what I think Trump has planned for our future, and it ain’t pretty, folks.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

On Amy Coney Barrett's Nomination to the Supreme Court

            Get a Grip, Folks. Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed for the Supreme Court, probably before the election, and there is not a thing anyone can do to prevent that. I’m as appalled as anyone else that Moscow Mitch and his minions, with brazen hypocrisy, have taken the opposite position to the one they took in 2016 when they refused even to schedule confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. All we can do is hope for the best.

            Many previous Supreme Court justices have proven to be surprises. Probably the one who proved most disappointing to the president who nominated him, Dwight Eisenhower, was Earl Warren, who ruled in favor of desegregating schools and against school prayer. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember all the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards and bumper stickers we used to see on the highways and byways of America. David Souter, appointed by George H. W. Bush, proved to be surprisingly liberal. Even John Roberts voted in favor of Obamacare and has honored stare decisis over his personal beliefs with regard to abortion clinics. Neil Gorsuch was an unexpected surprise on LGBTQ rights in the workplace. Often justices don’t live up to our worst fears. They grow into the jobs.

            It will do the Democratic Party more harm than good to attack Barrett for her religious beliefs, which are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution she will be pledged to uphold; the damage she might do to the Affordable Care Act, on which many Americans have come to rely, is fair game, especially given the pandemic, but if she rules that act unconstitutional, perhaps Congress will go back to the drawing board and enact truly universal health care, like those evil socialist countries Denmark, Sweden, and Germany have, or perhaps even Medicare for All. Congress has been asleep at the switch lately. Perhaps our elected “representatives” will actually start representing us again.

            In short, Barrett’s appointment might be good in the long run. Let’s hope for the best and fight our battles where we can win—like get our butts out and vote, whether by mail, absentee, or in person. Remember, Trump did not win the popular vote last time, and his margins in the states that pushed him over in the Electoral College were small. Let’s not let that happen again!

        And remember, as Max Skidmore explained in his Common Sense Manifesto, which I reviewed a few months ago, only one of the two major parties has a chance of winning, so skip voting for a third party

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The People, No! A Brief History of Anti-Populism. A Review of Thomas Frank's New Book.

            I know I said I wouldn’t be posting for a while, but I came across a mention of Thomas Frank’s The People, NO!: A Brief History of Populism and was able to get a copy from the library. At 256 pages (excluding notes), it’s a quick read and very much worth reading.

            While I was reading the book, I was transported to New York in the 1970s. My friend Mike, whom I’d met in Oklahoma, where he was a VISTA volunteer, and I were on a crosstown bus going from his mother’s beautiful pre-war rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment (which was larger than my parents’ house) to an Italian restaurant we liked in Yorkville. On the way to the bus stop a man was handing out political flyers, and I took one. At the time New York was probably at its worst in recent memory. The country was in the grips of stagflation, Gerald Ford had recently become president and had pardoned Richard Nixon, which was not a popular move in New York. Add to that the city was close to bankruptcy, and Consolidated Edison, on which Mike’s mother relied for a good deal of income, was in a serious financial crisis. It says a lot about the long-term optimism of those living in that time that people were handing out flyers instead of throwing Molotov cocktails.

            On the bus I glanced at the flyer, which was about how the working class was getting shafted. Mike, who had refused to take a pamphlet, asked me why I would be interested in what it said. I told him I wanted to know what was going on, and besides, the pamphlet had some really good points. He gave me that condescending look only a native Manhattanite knows how to give, and said, “Do you consider yourself working class?” I hadn’t really given it much thought, but I said, “I work, so I must be working class.” He started in on all the reasons we were not working class. (Mike was a reporter for a neighborhood newspaper, so he worked, too.) I couldn’t believe what I was hearing (and from a former VISTA volunteer at that). All I could say was, “It sounds to me like you just don’t want to be considered working class,” which elicited a loud snicker from another passenger and a request from Mike that we change the subject.

            Mike did very well, married an attorney, and lives in a beautiful condo in Riverdale that overlooks the Hudson River. He is one of the people who told me I needed to get my butt in gear and get back to writing, so he gets some credit (or blame) for this blog.

            Thomas Frank must feel like Cassandra, who was cursed to utter prophecies that were always true but which would never be believed. In his 2016 Listen, Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? Frank warned Democrats that they were alienating the working class by concentrating on wealth and technology and ignoring the tragic loss of manufacturing jobs and those hit hard by the economic crisis and housing depression. Even worse, Democrats were telling people the situation they found themselves in was their own fault because they lacked education and nothing could be done about it. In other words, to borrow a phrase from 1970s New York: Democrats to working class: Drop Dead. Frank was ignored, and we wound up with an orange buffoon in charge of the country.

            Frank is restating and enhancing his message in The People: NO! and he’s giving us a much-needed history of populism, which he says is a word that has taken on undeserved negative connotations. Populists, historically, were not ignorant racist hayseeds. In fact, many, including tramps, dirt farmers, and the working poor, were extremely well-read, especially compared to today, when we have more television available than we can possibly consume. He tells the story of Emmanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius, who in Girard, Kansas began publishing the “Little Blue Books,” which included classics as well as political pamphlets (probably like the one I took in New York). Many were about racism and anti-lynching. The books were five for a dollar and were sold everywhere including railroad stations. They were even offered in vending machines. By 1951, when Julius died, there were 2,500 titles offered, and some 500 million Little Blue Books had been sold.

            Historically, even though populists were not ignorant hayseeds, the elite have inevitably sought to portray them as such. Beginning in 1896 supporters of William Jennings Bryan were portrayed as monstrous cretins bent on raping polite society. In 1936 supporters of FDR were portrayed the same way, albeit not with much success, since populist policies, if not actual populists, had won the day in many cases, and FDR’s efforts to fight the Depression were making people’s lives better—especially the lives of the working class, who became the backbone of the Democratic party. Until about the time Mike and I took that bus ride.

            Frank says that beginning in the 1970s, Democrats began turning away from the working class. The late 1960s had seen the working class begin a migration to Republicans. In 1970 construction workers in New York rioted in support of the Nixon administration. Increasingly educated Democrats turned more toward elitism and less contact with the working class. They turned away from unions, and especially union leaders, who had increasingly become conservative and often were, or were perceived to be, corrupt. Frank quotes from Charles Reich’s 1970 The Greening of America to make his point about the pitiable blue-collar character, whose life is really quite sad: “He has very little of love, or poetry, or music, or nature, or joy. He has been dominated by fear. He has been condemned by narrow-minded prejudice, to a self-defeating materialism, to a lonely suspicion of his fellow man. He is angry, envious, bitter, self-hating. He ravages his own environment. He has fled all his life from consciousness and responsibility. He is turned against his own nature.” I should note here that I read The Greening of America when it came out, and I found it long on describing problems (a major one in Reich’s world being hydrogenated peanut butter) but woefully short on recommending solutions. It has that in common with Kids Today, the 2017 complainathon by Malcolm Harris b. 1988, but that was another review.

            Frank takes us through the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, who tried to govern as a centrist Democrat, concentrating on technical competence, alienating further the working class, and opening the door for the Reagan “revolution.” Since we’re concentrating on the Democratic party, I won’t dwell on Reagan (and you know I can). The next nominal Democrat to win office, Bill Clinton, concentrated further on trade, giving us NAFTA, CAFTA, and several other programs favored by Republicans, who repaid him by impeding as much of his progress as possible and ultimately impeaching him for alleged sexual misconduct, of which, truth be told, many of them were as guilty, if not more so, than he. Under Clinton, the working class receded further from Democrat’s agenda. In 2008 Barak Obama was elected and proceeded to name Republicans to his cabinet hoping for bipartisanship. He wound up rescuing banks and Wall Street while leaving homeowners, the victims of banks and Wall Street, to deal with their situation on their own. Even Obamacare, his signature achievement, did not “inconvenience Big Pharma or private insurance companies.” Yet another step away from the people Democrats depend on. Cue 2016, and Hillary Clinton does little to repair the frayed relationship with the former base of her party. Nevertheless, she wins a majority of voters, but not enough of a majority. And we have Trump. Even though he is The. Worst. President. Ever, this book is not about Trump. It’s about Democrats, and their reaction to Trump voters, who, Frank argues, could just as easily have been supporters of Democrats had they not been ignored and increasingly vilified. Read: Deplorables. And that gets us to the crux of the problem. According to Frank, Democrats, not Trump voters, are the problem. By offering nothing to their historic base, they have lost that base. And even worse, liberal Democrats are ensuring future defeat not only by not pursuing their former base, but by vilifying them. Instead of being the voice of the working class, Frank says, the Democratic party sees itself as a “sort of coming together of the learned and the virtuous.” The former party of the people became anti-populist. They want “no part of any systemic criticism of big business or monopoly or the financial industry. They shied away from supporting mass movements. The idea of putting together a coalition of working-class people was one they came to regard with deep distaste.” They became the party of the white-collar elite, the “smart and rich, the ‘better-educated upscale voters’ who wanted private retirement accounts but weren’t so keen on public schools.” Frank writes that in 1992 journalist and author Mickey Kaus advised Democrats to abandon their concern for economic equality; Democrats had to stop listening to labor unions and sever their ties with the black “underclass.”

            Frank refers to Lawrence Goodwyn, a 1970s-era scholar of populism, who wrote that in order to build a movement like the People’s Party of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” Goodwyn warned against a politics of “individual righteousness” or celebrating the purity of one’s radicalism. In order to reform the country’s economic structure, we must practice “ideological patience,” a suspension of moral judgement of ordinary Americans. Only then can we start to build a movement that is hopeful and powerful and that changes society.

            Frank says that if liberals are not interested in democratizing the country’s economic structure, individual righteousness is the way to go. Ordinary citizens are judged, purged, canceled, and scolded. This is not building; it is subtraction. Its goal is to “bring the corps of the righteous into a tight orbit around the most righteous one of all.” And he has a point. It seems many are more concerned with ideological conformity than with achieving objectives. Take, for example, the purging of pro-life Democrats. Let’s face it, most people wish there were fewer, or better, no abortions, and if that’s their position, fine, and as long as they don’t take any action to force their viewpoint on others, they should be welcome to express those views. Persuasion, yes; forceful intervention, no.

            Another point Frank makes is the modern Democratic Party seems totally uninterested in labor except to ask for its endorsement every few years. Frank tells the story of a group of affluent progressive teens whose opinions were sought on the importance of various issues. Racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, and gun control all had significant support. Labor, when it was mentioned, had no support. Zero. Frank points out that the yard signs the affluent are placing in their yards to show their support of inclusiveness, you know the ones that say:

                                    In this house, we believe

                                    Black lives matter

                                    Women’s rights are human rights

                                    No human is illegal

                                    Science is real

                                    And kindness is everything,

don’t say a word about the right to organize or earn a living wage.

            Frank says there are many examples of labor’s omission in today’s wokeness. He names “A Century of Protest,” a 2018 video feature produced by the New Yorker that included protests throughout American history, which began with an ad for Prada, and included fifty-eight clips of historical footage covering everything from suffragette marches in 1913 to the ACT-UP protests. There was plenty of civil rights footage, and Communists and even the KKK were represented, but nothing on labor. Nada. And heaven knows, there is plenty of footage available on labor protests, including the 1936 GM strike and the UAW strike of 1945-6. Besides being ignored, labor is being airbrushed out of history.

            Now that Democrats have alienated their former base (let’s hope temporarily), they seem to be going out of their way to keep them alienated. Rather than addressing the issues that drove so many to vote for a con man, liberals seem to be relishing any misfortune that has come to Trump voters, and woe be it to anyone who suggests that we show empathy with those who supported the buffoon. Frank writes that New York Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristoff reports nothing he has written recently generates the outpouring of rage he receives when he makes periodic assertions that Trump voters are human, too.

            “Karen” has become a generic term for a (usually) upper middle-class white woman who takes action to embarrass, publicly if possible and ideally on Twitter, those who are guilty of infractions of various perceived misdeeds. (Think of a 21st Century Hyacinth Bucket—that’s bu-kay—or the title character of John Waters’ Serial Mom.) While not using the term, Frank admonishes Karens to cool it. If you see something, say something to the individual. The world does not need to know.

            Frank points out Populism was and is relentlessly optimistic. The current anti-populist liberals are all about despair. He discusses some of the literature, including an editorial by Clemson professor Todd May, who questions whether human extinction might not be a bad idea. Now, isn’t that a day brightener? Who is going to be drawn to a party full of nihilists? Keep this up, and it’s the Democratic Party that’s going to be extinct!

            In my review of Max Skidmore’s Common Sense Manifesto I wrote about a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Portland, Oregon restaurateur Kurt Huffman complaining about the $600 unemployment insurance enhancement and bemoaning the fact that his slaves, er, I mean employees weren’t champing at the bit to return to work for $15 an hour and tips totaling as much as an additional $1 an hour (his words, not mine). How dare his employees inconvenience him? Oh, the humanity! As a quick Google search revealed, Mr. Huffman is Portland’s leading restaurateur whose favorite restaurant in is London. 

            Just to show that some things never change, Frank writes about a vice president at DuPont, who in 1934 wrote a letter to the chairman of General Motors to complain about the New Deal. Here is how, as Frank says, it ruined his life:

            “Five Negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this Spring, after I had taken care of them and given them house [sic] rent free and work for three years during bad times, saying they had easy jobs with the government… .

            “A cook on my houseboat at Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter when he never knew a thing about painting before.”     

            In 1934 the Democratic Party’s emphasis was on helping labor. I wonder where the party stands with regards to Mr. Huffman’s employees. That I even have to ask says a lot about how far the party has traveled from FDR and the New Deal. I’ve often imagined that Lincoln would be appalled at what has become of his party. I suspect the same could be said of FDR.

            As I was about to post this, I read the New York Times review of the book, which was written by James Traub, author of What Was Liberalism (which I have not read) and who is evidently not a fan of Frank, populism, or the working class. He relies on ad hominem to discredit the populists. Tom Watson became a virulent racist (which Frank discuses), Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman became a racist, and William Jennings Bryan became the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes trial. All true, but the fact that individuals in the Populist movement were flawed do not negate that movement any more than the fact that flawed individuals wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution negate what they achieved. Many Populists remained true to their beliefs including Eugene V. Debs, who would spend time in jail for opposing World War I, and Oscar Ameringer and his wife Freda, who carried on his work into the 1970s in Oklahoma City.

            I’ve had the time in retirement to study history at a more leisurely pace (I tell friends the first time I studied for a degree; I now study for an education), and I’ve come to realize it is a giant mistake to view any group as monolithic. Southerners were not all virulent racists. Northerners were not all morally pure abolitionists. Populists did not all become narrow minded anti-Semitic racists. We need to get over a Manichean view of history. If we’re looking for a movement made up of people who were perfect and remained so throughout their lives, we’re going to be looking for a long time.