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The Unpopular Tale of Populism: Thomas Frank on the Real History of an American Mass Movement

In this special live episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, political commentator and historian Thomas Frank joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss his newest book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. Presented by the Kansas City Public Library and Rainy Day Books, this conversation delves into the complicated history of populism, as Frank argues that the Trump administration and right-wing authoritarian governments in Hungary and Brazil—characterized by many as examples of populist movements—are in fact anything but.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at

This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.

Selected readings for the episode:



* Excerpt from a Conversation with Thomas Frank

Whitney Terrell: A lot of contemporary commentators associate populism with racist and anti-immigrant ideology and language, and this is one of the reasons people call Trump a populist. But you’re saying that’s historically inaccurate. You write quite a bit about this in the book, and obviously populists are not perfect on this issue, but I wanted you to talk about that specifically.

Thomas Frank: They were not perfect. A lot of them were racist. But, at the same time, a lot of them were what would have passed for anti-racism at the time. For example, Kansas was founded by abolitionists, and a lot of these abolitionists were still around in the 1890s and thought that populism was the next step in social progress, and they signed up for the populist movement. In fact, I recently found out the man who wrote the 13th Amendment, the one abolishing slavery—he was a senator from Illinois—he went into retirement, but then he came back out to sign up with populism and give speeches on behalf of populism in the 1890s. Didn’t end well but another important thing to remember is that the real racist power in the 1890s was the Democratic Party in the South. They were monolithic. The South was a one-party system, and that party was the Democrats, and the Democrats enforced their rule by this incredible racist propaganda. This was the Jim Crow system.

WT: They sort of went after the populists in North Carolina, right?

TF: That was the great enemy of populism in the South. So populism had two regions where it was strong: one was here in Kansas, in the Midwest, the other was in the South. And in the South, that was what they had to do. They had to fight the Democratic Party. The way they did it was by reaching out to Black farmers. One of their ideas was that the interests of poor Black farmers and poor white farmers were largely the same and if they came together politically, they could improve their situation. And you’ve got to also remember there was a group called the Black Populists. These people are never mentioned when someone is talking about how racist populism was. There was a whole contingent of Black populists, and they were not insignificant. They provided a lot of votes for populist candidates in the southern states.

WT: James Traub, who has been on our show, had a New York Times review of the book recently and one of his critiques of the book was that populist heroes that you mentioned, like Tom Watson and Ben Tillman, did go on to become racist demagogues that use race in the way that we imagine—in the popular imagination that you’re pushing back on—was populist. Could you respond to that?

TF: Historians are fascinated by Tom Watson because of how wrong he went. But I should mention, first of all, Ben Tillman was not actually a populist. He was a Democrat. And, in fact, I talked about that white supremacy campaign in North Carolina where they brought in paramilitaries to intimidate populist voters. Tillman had a hand in that! One of the guys [who] was crushing populism was Tillman. He was not a populist. But Tom Watson was. Watson was their leader in Georgia and, early on in his career, was this inspiring character. [He] wrote this amazing article about how he was reaching out to Black voters, and they were going to topple the system of the South. Historians are fascinated by him, because this is a guy that completely changes, his personality seems to go 180 degrees. He gets beaten, he doesn’t win, he becomes very disappointed. He had been a member of Congress, and then the Democrats defeated him by various elicit techniques, and he sort of disappears, becomes very, very frustrated.

And then he reappears as one of the leading racists in the South, turns against his former friends in this shocking way, and in fact was responsible for a notorious lynching episode. They lynched a Jewish guy in 1915, I think it was. He was single handedly responsible for this. The guy’s name was Leo Frank. But Watson is fascinating because of how wrong he went. But generally speaking, you can’t sort of dismiss the entire movement because one of its leaders went bad.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s interesting listening to you talk. You’re reminding us that the Democratic Party was the party of racism, and that is a narrative that has entirely shifted It’s the sort of thing that I feel like I see in Facebook comment threads, sometimes when people comment, they’re sort of like, “The Democratic Party is historically the party of racism.” And yet, this is actually kind of an ahistorical view.

TF: It’s changed a lot, of course.

VVG: Right. These flips that you’re describing, they’re not characteristic of our political landscape now. Now, they’re sort of like [an] entrenchment. But race and immigration aren’t the only areas where populists have been accused of believing something that you say is exactly the opposite of what they believe. And you’re also mentioning that, contrary to today’s version of populism, they were for government regulation, they were pro-free trade, they were far more interested in promoting women…

TF: I’ve discovered people don’t really know these things about populism. So yeah, on immigration, it is true that in their platform, they denounced pauper immigration—this is in 1892—on the grounds that it drove down wages. They were trying to reach out to Northern industrial workers. And so they put that in the platform. I went and looked and the Democratic platform says the same thing, and the Republican platform says the same thing. So, to single out populists as the bad guys on this, it’s just a weird move. And I also went and looked at the autobiography by their leader at the time, it was this guy, a Civil War General from Iowa called James Weaver. And he was the one they nominated for president that year. This guy was in favor of completely open immigration on entirely humanitarian grounds. So, you have to dismiss all these other facts to be able to make that claim, but people want to make that claim so badly. That’s what we keep coming back to.


Transcribed by Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Dylan Miettinen.

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