Thirteen years ago, in the midst of a different Republican administration, the liberal book of the moment was Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” In answering his title’s question, Frank argued that hardworking heartland Americans were being duped by a Republican Party that whipped up culture-war frenzy to disguise its plutocratic aims. Middle-class and working-class Republican voters, he insisted, were voting against their own economic self-interest and getting worse than nothing in return.
At the time, Frank’s analysis had two flaws. First, it minimized the importance of social issues, both their inherent moral stakes and their role in shaping the ecology of everyday life, of work and family and community. You don’t have to be a dupe to be a “values voter” of one sort or another. You just have to believe that some moral questions are more important than where to set the top tax rate.
Second, Frank minimized the extent to which Republicans, in the George W. Bush era and before, did make a concerted effort to deliver for the middle class. The modern GOP was certainly solicitous of the interests of wealthy donors and corporations and always eager for an upper-bracket tax cut. But as Henry Olsen points out in his recent book “The Working Class Republican,” Ronald Reagan also accepted the New Deal settlement and sought to balance his donor base’s interests with his voters’ pocketbook concerns — and George W. Bush did likewise.
He was also the president of Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, a big homeownership push and a larger child tax credit and lower rates for almost everyone, not just the upper class.
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So Frank was wrong … or maybe he was prescient. Because he was writing just before Bush won re-election to a second term without a clear middle-class agenda, which led to the unpopular pushes for Social Security reform and an immigration amnesty and to the collapse of Bush’s political position. Then after Barack Obama’s election the GOP lurched away from the middle class in a more stark way than it ever did under Reagan or Bush or the Newt Gingrich speakership, embracing theories about how the working class was actually undertaxed, rallying around tax plans that seemed to threaten middle-class tax increases and promoting an Ayn Randian vision in which heroic entrepreneurs were the only economic actor worth defending.
As president, Donald Trump has essentially become the Frankian caricature in full, draping the rhetoric of populism over an agenda that so far offers little or nothing to the middle class, making appeals to the religious right that are notable in their cynicism and rallying his base through culture-war controversies distinguished mostly by their ginned-up phoniness.
So “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” was a poor guide to the party of Reagan and George W. Bush, but thus far it is a very useful guide to the Trump administration. For all its failures, not everything about the Bush era was disastrous, and there were ways in which the Bush White House had a clearer sense of what conservatism should offer to the common man than any its successors.
Appreciating Bush a little more, in this specific way, could offer some reason for optimism about the right.
What’s the matter with the Republican Party? Many things, but right now above all this: Far too many Trump supporters have seen the then-inaccurate caricature that Frank painted 13 years ago brought to blaring, Technicolor life by Trump — and they’ve decided to become part of the caricature themselves, become exactly what their enemies and critics said they were, become a movement of plutocrats and grievance-mongers with an ever-weaker understanding of the common good.
The path out of caricature requires a different moral vision. It requires looking backward, to Bush and Reagan, to a Republicanism that had a thousand flaws but also understood a few important things Trump’s party has deliberately forgotten.