Political commentator Thomas Frank seeks to differentiate the term "populism" from Trumpian nationalism, and restore its meaning as a proponent of democratic values. Taking us from the tumultuous 1890s, when the radical left-wing Populist Party fought Gilded Age plutocrats to the reformers’ great triumphs under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Frank reminds readers how much they owe to the populist ethos.
... brilliantly written, eye-opening ... Frank...is the ideal public intellectual to grapple with this duality. From 1891 to the rise of Trumpism, Frank walks readers through a minefield of assumptions about populism’s nature and history. His reflections on the 1896 presidential election set the narrative’s pace and tone ... Throughout The People, No, Frank takes pains to look at populism through a broad lens ... His reflection on how the jeans-clad Jimmy Carter wrapped himself in populism to avoid being tagged as a socialist, liberal or conservative is spot-on.
In the most compelling passages of The People, No, Frank unearths the populists from the rubble piled atop them ... Demagogy may not have been the populists’ 'true' nature; their heroism, and tragedy, were real. But how, given this history, can one wholly dismiss the kinship between the populists and the followers of Orban and Trump? ... Frank’s purpose here is explicitly polemical: He wants to realign history in order to force us to reimagine the present ... Frank treats identity politics as yet another species of elitism. Who, then, are 'the people'? ... the gulf between the populists and the antipopulists may not be quite so great as Thomas Frank supposes.
The book’s writing is clear, if sometimes heavy with sarcasm, and its author does what few writers today are capable of doing—he criticizes his own side. Mr. Frank is a firm believer in redistributionist economics and social liberalism, but he has written his book mainly to scold the American left ... The title is odd—it’s an allusion to Carl Sandburg’s poem 'The People, Yes'—but the thesis is straightforward ... The book’s chief problem is semantic. Mr. Frank sharply criticizes pundits who use the word 'populist' to describe mass political movements that do not accord with the policy aims of the original Populists. I assume he understands that the same word can have a variety of legitimate applications, but he gives no indication that he understands it. For Mr. Frank, the term 'populism' and its cognates can only apply to political movements that Mr. Frank approves of.