The People, No! A Brief History of Anti-Populism.

By Thomas Frank

TAR book review/recommendation 

Readability 6/10 (if you enjoy history, it is a 7.5/10)

Value 9.5/10

In The People, No Thomas Frank historically frames how the Democrat’s abandonment of the working people over time has led them, most recently, to drive Trump to victory. Democrats now find themselves as the elitist party, constantly attacking “populism” and referencing an expert class at every turn. Frank’s most poignant lesson is that populism or harnessing the power of the common man in your message is the most powerful tool in American politics, and always has been. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they have completely seeded that ground and message, completely to their demise. 

The Start of Populism

Frank starts in 1896 with the first Populist to get on a major party ticket for President – William Jennings Bryant. Very similar to our current state, inequality was rampant. Farmers across the country were going further into debt on a daily basis due to the gold standard, while factory workers in the city were being treated horribly for pitiful wages. A group of Farmers from Kansas started what they called “The People’s Party” they saw that both sides were no different when it came to corporate ownership. While the majority of their ideas went on to become mainstream in the FDR administration, the most controversial policy in 1896 was the idea of leaving the gold standard. Why did they want to get off the gold standard? If the value of money is based on a finite or limited amount of gold, as we got more productive the value of the dollar was rising at a breakneck pace because we don’t add more gold. A dollar today is worth two dollars tomorrow. This was an amazing system if you were a lender, you gave away $100 and when it had to be paid back that $100 was really worth $1000. Think about this when purchasing goods, $100 yesterday bought two bales of hay, tomorrow it buys three. For Farmers who had to borrow money each season, this was a guaranteed sentence to poverty as you fell more behind each passing season. 

The populist party sought to unite all farmers and workers in the country. This was a radical group, they believed in uniting white and black farmers in the south. The original populist were perhaps the most powerful class movement in American History. Jennings lost the presidential election of 1896, interestingly enough, he was outspent 100 to 1. There still has never been a candidate outspent to that degree or have the business class be more united against them. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Frank next moves to FDR, one of the only presidents to actually fight for the people. While there are many debates about FDR, Frank highlights the populist vein through his enemies. Interestingly enough, the same articles written about Trump were written about William Jennings Bryant and FDR many times over. The media hated FDR more than they hate Trump. One of their favorite hit pieces still remains a favorite- let’s get a group of “experts” to denounce everything they do. “FDR is a narcist, 20 psychiatrists all agree” “100 economist sign letter denouncing FDR and the New Deal” “90 Nobel laureates endorse Biden and denounce Trump”. Similar to Trump, FDR believed that 70-85% of the media was against him, and the endorsements reflected it.

This is where Frank puts up the warning sign for the Dems, if you are with the experts trying to delegitimize working-class voters, you are usually on the losing side in America. So where did we go wrong, why are we losing the working poor?

Enter the 70’s, Pat Buchanan was an aide to Richard Nixon and convinced Nixon to start adopting the Left’s working-class dialogue. Speak to the forgotten men and women, the silent majority that the elites don’t care for. Boy did it work, the republicans merged the wealthy class with the working class. However, the Democrats were more complicit in the loss than anyone, Nixon was able to take that ground because the left stopped fighting for workers. They had sold out, which left them impotent, they couldn’t call his or Reagan’s bluff, the New Deal was long ago. No longer were the Republicans a mild imitation of the Dems, the tables turned the Dems became Republican Lite.

Fast forward to the late 90’s early 2000’s Pat Buchanan is on the scene constantly. What is Pat’s message, that Washington Elites are out of touch with the rest of the country. In 2000 Buchanan takes this platform to a 3rd party bid. According to Roger Stone, he then recruited the TV celebrity Donald Trump to also declare a 3rd party bid for the white house,(that part is confirmed fact) to sink Buchanan and save George Bush Jr. Fast forward again to 2016 and we see Donald Trump take the populist message from Pat Buchanan all the way to the white house. And guess who predicted Trump could flip the Midwest with that message? Pat Buchanan.

What is the American Good Life?

In Slavoj Zizek’s 2017 book the Courage of Hopelessness, he mentions multiple revolutions that have tried and failed vs the ones that tried and succeeded. In all these cases he is talking about mass worker/communist revolutions, I would include the American Revolution as well. Zizek brings up this idea of the clichés of daily life and society at large and how they hold our system together. The successful revolutions that totally changed daily life for its people were the Bolshevik and Chairman Mao’s takeover of China. The failed revolutions are too many to name, however the tie that binds them is that they sought to stick with old norms in a new system or completely scrap them without creating new ones, according to Zizek. Lenin and Mao were successful at creating new clichés and norms, they asked the question what did daily life look like for the citizens of a communist society? Let’s use this as the start to a thought experiment.

 In America one cliché would be the American Dream “if you work hard, you can have the life you want”, while being very vague it serves as an underlying support for our whole system. Every society has functioning rules, norms, and clichés that give structure to our lives, even if we don’t like them. Zizek highlights some revolutions completely destroying old clichés, when they took power or attempted too, and people had no conception of what values to hold onto, that level of change was utterly shocking. Where Lenin had succeeded was answering the existential questions of his constituents, what is their purpose and role in the larger system. A very tangible example of this is the fact that most men in America die shortly after retiring, no matter their health. They have nothing to hold on too or work towards, their daily purpose is gone leaving a massive longing for meaning and value. This is the same as a revolution without values and clichés.

Hopefully we didn’t lose any conservatives at the mention of Lenin, because this thought experiment is valuable for everyone. Let’s imagine the country decided, today, to start totally over and the candidate of your dreams was the president with both houses of Congress, bringing in sweeping changes and rebuilding the system. Try to go beyond your current partisan riffs and topics, those have been fixed, what does daily American life look like? What really is the true American good life? If you like Trump, what does your ideal society look like? Let’s throw out an example-

An easy one to start with is UBI. More and more we know that we are losing jobs to technology. Technically we are efficient enough to barely require working, our priorities are just not aligned with life satisfaction. Lets picture the world Elon Musk predicts where the majority of people have been replaced by technology and redistributive taxes on those who own the technology provide enough for everyone in society to make $150,000/year(not his number) from the Government. While this sounds beautiful on the surface, there would be extreme challenges. Americans derive value from working, all of a sudden the free time and resources might feel like a prison, no objectives and nothing to achieve- a complete loss of meaning. This is where we would have to bring in new clichés, our society would have to place much more value on creating, traveling, art, cooking, and recreation(just my examples). This is visible comparing America to Latin American countries, the core of our society is work and the core of theirs is family. If we took out work we would have a massive lack of meaning that will need an alternative. 

Let’s walk around in this “future state” for experiment’s sake. Starting at the top, you wake up in the morning, there is no where to go, nothing required. This work gap leaves ample time to focus on your well-being. We could value mental and physical health as life’s primary goal. Spend time finding the routine, exercise, and mental work you need to live a healthy life. Take time to grow your own food. Ok well if you don’t want to garden your neighbor now sells veggies as a hobby she loves. Next we would need to find meaningful work, this is difficult. The parameters of what to do have been blown out, it doesn’t have to make money. Obviously you can’t just lose all of your money, but now profit is pointless. You also can think very creatively, there are no more businesses benefitting from scarcity, so a business like dollar tree or Walmart would just become the shittiest stores out there. No one would be forced to buy shitty things. People would spend their money differently as well. You would likely buy things that added to your lifestyle and not simply things that sustained survival. 

It would be important to change our ideology. Instead of commercial products being advertised as “cool” we would have to make some serious shifts. We would need a population content striving for personal development and creativity. Perhaps TV shows and media would need to appeal to these aspects, instead of selling mind numbing devices, booze, or crappy entertainment they would actually have to sell to a new class of consumers who didn’t know scarcity. As individuals who were previously not getting enough daily food now had the means to buy groceries for their family, this would be an entirely new lifestyle for that individual. There would be a massive need for education, there would have to be a public effort to educate people on how to handle their money, how to eat healthy, purchase a home, and get loans for projects or businesses. 

The other big shift we would need to make is to Re-Glorify the local and small business. Making small business ownership became the bedrock of American society, small towns would see a complete renaissance. Anyone with a skill could now start their own shop and work for themselves. Taking us full circle from complete lack of meaning to a cliché American life filled with purpose, autonomy, and value. 

So, what is your version of the American Good Life? 

Pig Wrestling: The Brilliantly Simple Way to Solve Any Problem… and Create the Change You Need.

The TAR Notes

Find the book here.


Knowledge: 8/10

Have you ever had a problem that was so bad you said to yourself – “I am stuck, I’ve tried everything!” Maybe you have one right now! This is where Pig Wrestling picks up the story. This is a book written by two psychologist who coach elite athletes up to top CEO’s on how to solve problems. I won’t cover the literal story because it is a fictional “fable” the authors use to help you understand the problem solving mindset. The story is of a young manager who is totally stuck with his company and is ready to throw in the towel, until he meets a sage barista at his collaborative work space. The Barista introduces him to a system of thinking that he and the rest of the people in the space have co-opted, and then sends him to each of the people to teach him a lesson. This is where the story is a little goofy and tries a little too hard for millennial appeal, however the knowledge behind the goofy story is incredibly valuable. Some books seem to have those lessons that touch all areas of your life and this is one of them. Here are some of highlights below, there will be a natural lack of context, feel free to purchase the book here.

If you find yourself wrestling a pig, you have the wrong problem

Once you are in the im-stuck-I’ve-tried-everything-mindset you are wrestling a muddy pig. At that point you want to step out of the pig pen and do the foot on the fence check 

  • Do I know this is a problem for me to solve
  • Is this a problem that HAS to be solved right now
  • Can I see the whites of the Pigs eyes? Do you have first hand information about said problem? Never rely on second hand info, go to the source and make sure you know the absolute truth.

Language and Framing

In the story they imagine a pig with a picture frame around its neck. This call us to examine how we are framing said problem.

  • The language used to describe problems or people often fuel the problem and hold it in place.
  • Humans make faulty assumptions about people and processes based on one occurrence, for example a guy leaves his coffee cup in the sink once and he is for ever a slob who is lazy at work. 
  • The language holds one frame over the problem, locking us into one point of view.
  • We are viewing a situation as a people problem when it could be a scheduling issue, a technology issue. We think some one is complete a process wrong when the tool to complete the process wasn’t set up correctly.
  • Example- In a European country’s airport the male restrooms were being treated horribly by the people who used the facilities. The first campaign the airport ran they put up posters telling people to take pride in their country and take care of the restroom out of respect for others. No change at all despite many campaigns. What was the solution? Getting little images of flies painted in the dead center of the urinals, turns out it wasn’t a respect and decency problem, it was a literal aiming problem.

Feeding Trough and Crystal Ball

  • Feeding Trough w/Hanoi printed on it- The trough reminds us to question what we have been feeding our problems. 
  • Example- In Hanoi Vietnam long ago the city was infested with Rats. The government couldn’t hire enough rat catchers, so they opened it to the public. They would pay any citizen for each rat they killed. Next thing they know the rat population has exploded in the city, worse than before. The problem- enterprising people started breeding rats for cash. 
  • ***Major Key- The themes that connect your failures, highlight the assumptions you are making.
  • Look back at the consistent themes in your failures, more than likely you never actually changed strategies you kept trying iterations of the same thing. Where did the problem occur, who was there, whats the situation?
  • Crystal Ball – If you could look into a crystal ball and see that a miracle happened your problem was gone, how would you know that your problem was solved? How will you know it has been fixed? Always ask yourself this question, how will I know I’ve fixed this, and work your way backwards from there. 

Golden Nuggets and Spot the Difference

  • Now that you have analyzed your failures and moments when a problem occurred we look for gold nuggets
    • When was a time when the problem did not occur and everything ran smoothly?
  • While sometimes we feel like a problem never goes away, there is some moment or occurrence when the problem hasn’t occurred.
  • Find these golden nuggets and study the patterns, who what when where.
  • Spot the Difference- Now that you know the patterns of failures and the patterns of success, spot the difference between the two
  • Sometimes it is the literal environment- “we always clash in front of the whole company while defending our team, yet in private while collaborating we can see eye to eye.”
  • Major Key – Nice-to-haves vs Need-to-haves: now that you know the difference, separate your nice to haves from need to haves. Yes it would be nice for everyone to share your enthusiasm and show up to work an hour early, but  you don’t truly need them to do that. You need people to do what they are responsible for, oftentimes we are holding people to standards that are not mandatory. Use the crystal ball and ask what do I literally need to make this happen. More than likely it isn’t for someone to change their whole personality.

You are the problem and The Pig Warning Sign

  • After all those tips the moral of the story is, you are the problem. All of these tips are about examining your own mindset and assumptions so that you can get out of your own way and out of your team’s way. 
  • Never take pigs home – Don’t let a Pig turn into a 24 hour hobby you mull over and carry around your life. Some people like drama and like having a pig to carry around, it is some sort of negative entertainment.