Episode 42: “Populism” — The Media’s Favorite Catch-All Smear for the Left

Citations Needed | June 27, 2018 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

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Adam: Today we are talking about the catch-all smear of “populism” and how everyone and their mother and everyone and their goldfish became an expert on populism, uh, over the last two, three years.

Nima: The most terrifying of -isms if we’re to believe the extreme center media.

Adam: And increasingly second to “terrorism” as the one of the most abused and meaningless -isms. So for almost three years since the rise of Trump, there’s been scores and scores of pundits and reporters and talking heads who have been warning about the problems of populism and its attack on quote unquote “democracy.” “Populism and immigration pose major threat to global democracy,” the Gates Foundation insisted, “The Dangerous Rise of Populism: Global Attacks On Human Rights Values,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2017. “Trump’s Rise Proves How Dangerous Populism Is,” NBC noted in 2015. “Populism is still a threat to Europe,” the European Institute tells us. But what exactly is populism? How is it a term that allegedly applies to both Hugo Chávez, Bernie Sanders and also a whole cohort of fascists, alt-right and far-right forces?

Nima: So under this thin, ideology-flattening definition of populism, the term is more often than not used as a euphemism for demagogic cults of personality and, and kind of outright fascism and as the ultimate horseshoe theory reduction to kind of lump movements for equity and justice on the left alongside those of revanchist, nationalism and explicit racism on the right. These two are seen as twins under this broad mantle of populism and both to be resisted at all costs.

Adam: On this episode, we’re going to explore the uses and misuses of this term, it’s origins and who benefits from the watering down and malleability of this term.

Nima: So later today we will be speaking with Thomas Frank, journalist, political analyst, historian. He’s the co-founder of The Baffler magazine, author of several books, most notably What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Pity The Billionaire, and recently Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?

[Begin Clip]

Thomas Frank: If you read these books now by these Europeans about or even by Americans about the boogieman populism, they often make no reference to the reform movement that the word originated with, no reference, like zero, or even to the sort of latter day, uh, people who use the populist rhetoric but weren’t all there like Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman who were, you know, very populistic. It’s crazy. It’s like that whole thing has just been, uh, as, as though it never happened.

[End Clip]

Adam: At the beginning of the rise of both Trump and Sanders in the primaries, the term populism became a very generic catch-all way to lump Sanders in with Trump and treat them both as kind of two sides of the same coin. This was a take that was done a billion times in 2015 and 2016. The Daily Beast: “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are Delusional on Trade Policy.” NPR: “5 Ways Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Are More Alike Than You Think.” Bustle magazine: “5 Ways Bernie Sanders & Donald Trump Are More Similar Than You Think.”

Nima: (Laughs) Keep it going.

Adam: The Atlantic: “What Trump and Sanders Have in Common.” Huffington Post: “How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s Campaigns Are Similar.” Guardian: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Look Like Saviors to Voters Who Feel Left Out of the American Dream.”

Nima: Right.

Adam: And within one 24-hour period in March, there are four separate publications that all ran basically the exact same take. This was right before the primary in Michigan.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Ha’aretz: “The Angry White Men That Gave Trump and Sanders Their Victories.” CNN: “Why Americans Are So Angry in 2016: The Rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.” Fortune magazine: “Why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Both Appeal to Angry White Men.” Wall Street Journal: “Angry White Males Propel Donald Trump — and Bernie Sanders.”

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: In every, almost every one of these stories I mentioned uses this term “populism” to conflate the two candidates as sort of features of the same thing, right? This is part of a broader theory we’ve discussed on the show before, which is the horseshoe theory, which is that if you go too far to the left, you basically just go right and that this necessarily means that the most Rational and Logical capital ‘R,’ capital ‘L’ position to have is to be in the quote, capital ‘R’, capital ‘C’ “Reasonable Center.”

Nima: Exactly. Just to stay status quo and you see this populism is so often equated with, as you just heard in those headlines that Adam read with anger. That it has to do with the people being furious about their current lot in life and blaming government, blaming institutions, blaming at times the quote unquote “elite,” and that it’s all born of anger and fury and that to appeal to that is actually irrational and just kind of throwing red meat and that it winds up just being this thing writ large called “populism” kind of giving the masses, ordinary people, people, unthinking people, unlearn people, just slogans and rhetoric that will appeal to them and this is called “populism,” which as we will unpack, is not necessarily populism.

Adam: Right.

Nima: And I think has a lot more to do with demagoguery as well as kind of basic politics. The way politicians speak in general, uh, and the way that institutions operate is often nodding toward the masses while always protecting the interests of those in power.

Adam: Well over three-year period — 2015, 2016, 2017 — there was basically four things that led to this insta-expert cottage industry of populists, populist studies, the Atlantic Council/New Republic Study for the Populism Studies. Um, that was Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Brexit. I think Brexit had as much to do with all three of those forces as any. And then there was this general sense that there was this emerging discontent among Western countries, whether it was in, you know, everyone had a version of this in France to Hungary to Germany to Poland, Austria.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Now, really, what most people mean when they say “populism,” especially in the European context, is they mostly mean nationalism or quasi-fascism or outright fascism.

Nima: Exactly. Far-right, racist nationalism, verging on, if not explicitly being, fascist in nature.

Adam: Right. Yeah and this shows you how warped the term is because of course these are not real populist in the sort of traditional sense of the word and what our guest I think Thomas Frank will argue, but what I don’t want to do is I don’t want to get into the “no true Scotsman” definition of populism. I actually think the term is sort of worth just getting rid of altogether because I do think that it’s, it’s gotten so sullied by this notion of, you know, the sort of angry white, when really what people mean is they mean “fascism” or “racism,” but you’re not really allowed to say that in proper company so we have to use these kind of silly euphemisms like populism.

Nima: Mhmm, right. And under that umbrella term, you then get to paint Sanders supporters in general as being anti-pluralist, that their populist rather than pluralist. So you know, they’re all white and they’re all furious, which obviously is not at all true, but you get that catch-all term, as we were saying earlier in the show, that you kind of lump everyone together. There was a Daily Beast article headlined, “The Daily Hate: Corbyn, Trump and the New Politics of Spite.” So again, you know, you see the linkages being made in the media and also by very kind of establishment centrist politicians as anything too far-left is the same as anything too far-right. Because it’s not, it’s not me, it’s not the same thing. Which is why Tony Blair called Corbyn, quote, “Our Trump,” end quote, for the UK. Trump mania meet Corbyn mania. All of these linking together of some of the most vile, explicitly racist, explicitly white nationalist, explicitly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, pro-fascistic platforms being effectively called the same thing as the politics of bringing more material benefit to the most people and taking away some of the power, some of the privilege, some of the profits from those already entrenched in power. That is seen as just the same kind of danger as the most racist.

Adam: Well, yeah, the sort of go to expert on populism for most Western media is this guy named Cas Mudde, who is a Dutch political scientist, who they love because he panders to this very vague notion of what is and what isn’t populism. He wrote in an interview for Vice last year he said, “Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’ Populists of the left usually take the decidedly different approach combining populism with some socialism.” Was sort of a nonsensical statement. A different approach with the same overall goal is not really clear. So the fundamental mistake that’s made, the fundamental, I think ontological scam here, is that if I tell you that there’s an elite that’s out to get you and I’m on the left, that is a, an elite that consists of the super rich and their, and their functionaries in the military who sort of control the levers of power along with soft power, the government, um, that we have sort of a broad, I guess you could say Marxist interpretation of power, that there is a ruling class that, that has disproportionate power and disproportionate wealth. This is sort of an obvious thing that most people would get. One of the reasons why you know, Marxism was so popular in places like rural Vietnam and rural Russia and rural China and Africa, is that it’s not a tough sell. People intuitively understand that that asshole over there has a lot of shit and I don’t have any shit and that they have it due to unjust and arbitrary accidents of history.

Nima: Right. If you’re a Cuban farmer and you look, you know, you look at what’s going on in Havana —

Adam: Not a tough sell. Not a tough sell.

Nima: (Laughs) It’s not a tough sell.

Adam: Super easy, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ Right? And of course there was, there was populist uprisings before there was even a Marx or even, uh, an understanding of, of communism that just sort of gave it a system. But the point is, that’s sort of what Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn largely argued that there’s this bad guy. Now, that’s an elite that actually exists. Whereas the Donald Trump elite that he’s fighting is a made-up cabal of Islamo/George Soros-funded/Black Lives Matter, whatever sort of, picture a Glenn Beck chalkboard, like, that’s his elite. Right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: But that elite doesn’t exist. And to me, if you talk about people railing against elites without interrogating the validity of whether or not these elites actually exist or the nature of those elites, or whether or not their concept of elites or I don’t know, anti-Semitic or racist, as Donald Trump and the right-wing concept of elites always are, then you’re talking about a term that is so vague and so process oriented and so divorced from ideology and divorce to politics that its to have no meaning. And of course that’s what they like about it because that’s what they want to use, the people who hold up these fake elites, to diminish those who point out what is I think demonstrably and very clearly an actual form of elite and that’s the scam of Western populism.

Nima: That’s the ruse. No exactly. Its basically saying the globalism dog whistle, which is clearly fascistic, which is clearly nationalistic, which is clearly anti-Semitic in its inception and its usage is viewed in the same way as now this term populism, which is not a new term, but the way it is being utilized and weaponized against both those kind of unsavory forces on the right, which pose certain threats to the center. Those are seen as being hand in hand with those on the left, which also pose a kind of similar threat when it has to do with dismantling power. So, in this kind of desperate attempt to make sense of what we’ve all been seeing in the U.S. and in Europe, uh, elsewhere with the rise of this nationalist and racist extremism actually gaining political power more and more, taking office, many books examining this situation are being published, a number of which take aim at this thing, specifically called “populism” as like the ultimate embodiment of the ultimate problem facing mankind today. So, to name just two of these books, there’s Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy and William Galston’s Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy. So you see this, where we are now, and, and we’ve been seeing this for two, three years now as well I mean we ran through a bunch of headlines having to do with populism itself, but there’s this sister headline, sister article, that has appeared again and again in the media that has to do with the failures and terror of democracy itself when left in the hands of the plebes.

Adam: All right. So yeah, there was um, The New Yorker, the day before the election, there was a headline, “The Case Against Democracy” that was by Caleb Crain.

Nima: And then right after the election, The Washington Post published, “The problem with our government is democracy.”

Adam: Al Jazeera. December 28, 2016. “The trouble with democracy.”

Nima: A big Brookings report from May 31, 2017, entitled, “More professionalism, less populism: How voting makes us stupid, and what to do about it.”

Adam: The Los Angeles Times — noted troll James Kirchick — headline: “The British election is a reminder of the perils of too much democracy.”

Nima: Vox then chimed in later that month — June 2017 — with, “Two eminent political scientists say: The problem with democracy is voters.”

Adam: The New York Times, June 29, 2017, “The Problem with Participatory Democracy is the Participants.”

Nima: Then The New York Times was back January 25, 2018, “Politics Shouldn’t Be Like Open Mic Night.”

Adam: Where they argued that there’s way too many people involved in politics and that there should be more closed primaries.

Nima: Right. How can anyone be involved? You can just step up to the plate and be taken seriously?

Adam: God forbid. The New Republic, July 29, 2017, “Why American Democracy is Broken, and How to Fix It.” They argue there’s too much of it.

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Adam: Foreign Policy, April 26, 2018, “Why Democracy Doesn’t Deliver.”

Nima: And then possibly my personal favorite from recently, uh —

Adam: Because this one’s contemptuous of the poor and Arabs. It’s got a nice combination.

Nima: (Laughing) Yeah, it’s great. Uh, The Washington Post published an article by an educator at a couple Israeli institutions as well as American institutions May 31, 2018, entitled, “The Middle East Doesn’t Lack Democracy. It Has Too Much.” And the article basically explains that when the Arabs and the Persians and the other, you know, assorted browns in the Middle East get to decide who their leaders are it poses threats to American and Israeli hegemony. So that’s really terrifying. Uh, one particular quote from that opinion piece again from The Washington Post is, “The main source of stability in the Middle East remains the dictatorships and monarchies where the popular will has little impact on government policy.” And as an example of that, this guy Fromer writes, “The only governments that openly maintain stable relations with Israel are Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority,” and then there’s a parenthetical that says, “(Saudi Arabia has also cooperated with Israel through back-door channels to curtail Iranian influence.)” So yeah, you see that that’s actually the focus. It’s not about, it’s not about the rights of the people, it’s not about the populations in the Middle East voting potentially for their own best interest, but how to maintain quote unquote “stability,” which really has to do with maintaining a very friendly environment for both Israel and the United States in that area of the world.

Adam: And extreme centrists who are, of course not in the populist catch-all, who are part of the, you know, blue check mark and then favorite sort of crowd, statistically speaking, they have the most contempt for democracy. You can see there was a study published in The New York Times that found that centrists were more skeptical of democracy in every country. Um, so we’re going to have that in the show notes. But for example, the European average found that when they ask people, the percentage of people say democracy is a very good political system, over 50 percent, 52 percent of self-described left-wingers said it was good, whereas only 42 percent of centrists said it was good. And the United States, just 33 percent of self-described centrists see democracy is a good system, whereas just over 63 percent in the United States that it was. This is a trend you find across countries, Austria, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, that centrists are people who described themselves as being centrist are contemptuous of democracy and self ID. They will tell you they’re contemptuous of democracy.

Nima: Yeah. And these include the bastions of happiness that we hear all the time. You know, where the government takes care of people, where people get education and healthcare. Oftentimes Scandinavian countries, so, you know, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, all those, Netherlands even, are the places where again, the self-described centrists think less so than the left and the right that democracy is a quote, “very good” political system. So again, you know, who are the arbiters of this?

Adam: Yeah. And this is something that you can see also, there’s, there’s fear about far-left and far-right-wing trolls on social media, but there is a Pew Research study done earlier this year that said, “Suspected Twitter bots tweet a greater share of links to popular news and current event sites with ideologically centrist audience then links to sites with conservative or liberal audiences.” So even our Twitter trolls are now centrist.

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: And there’s probably a really good reason for that, which is that, um, a lot of establishment or establishment aligned black bag marketing firms or PR firms, or even some organizations or think tanks almost certainly run networks of Twitter bots. They have for years. We know the Clinton campaign did. So that doesn’t surprise me that the sort of sole domain of bots and fake news is not of course from the far-left or far-right from the Russians trying to quote unquote “sow discord,” it’s almost certainly done by people trying to promote the centrist agenda as it were.

Nima: Right. Unless of course, you know, Putin is furiously typing away in the Kremlin and sending out Brookings reports.

Adam: Which would actually completely own if it just became, uh, if he, if he became like a total, like normie [unintelligible] type who’s like, ‘Guys, you know, I thought about it and I really, I really think that, uh, this new study from the Center for American Progress is right on.’

Nima: (Laughing) It’s really on point.

Adam: If he just trolled them by like joining Twitter and tweeting out like, #ff Neera Tanden. So yeah, the, so what you see here is a sort of repeated pattern of projection, right? Where the extreme center who is very pro-technocratic, very obviously the center-wing of the Democratic Party was Clinton’s core support network. And they were very pro super delegates, very anti opening up the Democratic Party to non-elites. They literally conspired to undermine Bernie Sanders.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Whether or not it actually affected the outcome we can never really know. And so that there’s this projection that they’re sort of protecting democracy from democracy, right? They have to destroy the village to save it, uh, that we have to make it harder for people to participate in democracy in order to have a robust one.

Nima: Right. ‘Only the cream of the crop may select those judged good enough, right enough to lead us all!’

Adam: Right. Because everyone’s just to sort of, the masses are just foaming, fake news addled zombies who can’t be trusted because the Russians created a group called “Woke Blacks” that they somehow infiltrated the African American community and therefore they cannot be trusted.

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Adam: Um, and again, this need, this sort of effort to, to lump in people like Jeremy Corbyn with Donald Trump it speaks solely to the issue of tone. We touched on this in the, in the episode with Ms. Feinberg a few weeks ago on the civility fetish, right? It’s they’re like a dog. They can understand tone but not content. And like this is why this tone policing and centrist wagon circling-

Nima: Right. Anger, spite, yelling too loud without ever listening to what they’re saying.

Adam: You’re never allowed to ask whether or not there’s whether or not their anger is justified, right? Like middle class protests astroturfed by the Koch brothers in 2009 and 2010 raging against bank bailouts for poor people, that’s not justified. But, you know, Occupy Wall Street where you go and you say, ‘Man, my student loans are thirty grand and the whole system’s rigged.’ Like, yeah, that’s sort of broadly justified. And again, this delineation between being angry in a justified way and being angry in a way that is astroturfed and serves the interests of the super rich is animated by racism and anti-Semitism. Those need to be separated and this populist discourse deliberately makes it so you don’t separate them.

Nima: Right. So that Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and the US’ Bernie Sanders and Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. They are all quote unquote “firebrands,” right? You hear that term all the time. They’re fiery speakers and they get their popular support by tapping into this fury and this anger and being loud and aggressive and that that is seen as the same thing as like a Geert Wilders from the Netherlands. Um, these kind of extreme Islamaphobes, extreme anti-immigrant politicians and kind of demagogues and it’s equating this idea of actually calling out power structures and providing opportunities to dismantle them or at least to challenge them and equating those with the ultimate in punching down. The ultimate in beating up on the most marginalized and vulnerable already and calling that the same kind of populism as opposed to outright nationalism or demagoguery.

Adam: Yeah. And again, the term is also used to patronize Latin American leftists all the time, right? Because what it’s never made clear to me is how the Center for New America crowd wants left-wing populists in Latin America to redistribute wealth.

Nima: Well, they don’t. (Laughs)

Adam: Like, ‘Oh, well it’s a cult of personality or people encircle Chávez.’ It’s like, well, yeah, like the vast, you know, a great chunks of the country that are poor aren’t literate and a lot of them don’t speak Spanish, like they’re indigenous and they have to have like charismatic leaders to help change the system. Right. I mean, look at, look at Venezuela before there was a Chávez, right? There was, he reduced poverty by half, extreme poverty by two thirds. You know, this, these things require some degree of populism. Some degree of a charismatic leader because really what they want is they want the sort of faceless corporate state, right?

Nima: Well, they want like the School of Americas graduates to… right?

Adam: Well, they want a faceless corporate state that has no charisma. That isn’t by definition conservative because it’s, you know, the IMF and McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and Oh, there’s not really any one charismatic, you know, there’s some, there’s some like, you know, white guy in a suit who sort of says the bare minimum. That’s really what they want.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. Dole Fruit approved!

Adam: Right. Who is, god forbid, a populist, and you see this all the time in Latin America when they’re like, Maduro going to win the election by telling the masses, you know, he’s, he’s a dangerous populist. He’s telling the masses that if they don’t vote for him, they’re going to lose their, their social programs. But like, that’s true.

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: Like, historically when you vote for right-wingers or vote for even centrists, they will gut your massive socialist programs. Like that’s kind of the deal with counter socialism.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It’s appealing to people as painted as, as a sort of trick. Um, you know, like Bernie Sanders is just offering handouts. It’s like, well, yeah, I mean, so what?

Nima: (Laughs) But if you actually investigate what’s behind the rhetoric, one side is actually trying to deliver on that and the other is most often using fear tactics and saying ‘you’re going to lose your jobs to the immigrants,’ um, etcetera, etcetera.

Adam: Right. Which is bullshit.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It’s a fake handout.

Nima: Right.

Adam: I mean, it reminds me of the, there is an episode of Blossom where, um, where Joey-

Nima: (Laughing) I love that’s where you went.

Adam: Where Joey thinks he found a new way of cheating by memorizing the material the day before and like, no one has the heart to tell them that that’s not cheating, that’s just studying because he thinks he liked trick the system. And so it, he goes this whole time like memorizing the information and learning it. And he’s like, ‘Oh man, I’m really getting one over them.’ Like people think like populism or giving people what they want is somehow a trick.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And it’s like, no, that should be what democracy is.

Nima: Like, isn’t that the thing?

Adam: It’s taking from the rich asshole and giving to the poor person because guess what, there’s more poor people than there are rich assholes. And like that’s, that’s a way you sort of equal the system. And, and I, I do think that’s the kind of rub with a lot of this populist discourse.

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Adam: That somehow they’re like playing the game on god mode and they’re not really playing fair. It’s like, well yeah, because you know, you convince people for years that if they just voted for corporate centrist democrats, all would be well and it turned out that was bullshit. And now people are like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go with the guy who’s promising me free healthcare.’ And you’re like, ‘Wait, wait, wait a second, you can’t do that.’ And, and so they have to sort of trick you into thinking that this somehow pejorative. And of course they do that by conflating it with the warped right-wing foe class warfare.

Nima: Exactly that, like nativism and radical, right-wing politics are the same as appealing to what people in societies need and want.

Adam: God forbid, um, on that note, we should definitely bring in our guest.

Nima: Absolutely. We will be speaking with Thomas Frank, journalist, political analysts and historian, author of many books, co-founder of The Baffler magazine. He’s going to join us in just a moment. Stick with us.


Nima: Joining us now is Thomas Frank, journalist, author and historian. We are so thrilled to have him on the show today. Tom, thank you so much for joining us on Citations Needed.

Thomas Frank: It’s my pleasure.

Adam: So, you’ve written a lot about populism. You’ve written about it for several decades, what it means and the kind of slippery definitions. Um, this is obviously a major semantic issue, but when people say something semantics, they oftentimes mean it as a sort of dismissive, like, ‘Oh, its just semantics,’ but of course semantics are super important. I know because we’ve been fighting a war on an abstract noun for 15, 18 years now. You argue that Trump and other right-wing hucksters are quote, “A sort of inverted populism in which Republicans use the words of Thomas Jefferson to sell plutocracy and the will of the people is confused with the operation of the market.” Can you say what you mean by that and how you personally define populism as a concept?

Thomas Frank: Yeah. When I wrote that, so I was referring to Reagan. And uh, Reagan, Gingrich, George Bush Jr., Nixon. There, there was a whole raft of conservatives, you know, conservatism is really the story of our time. And uh, when I was younger conservatives, you know, and they have this sort of sunny populist way about them where they identify with the common man. They’ll often use that exact phrase or the common, they don’t say “common man” anymore because that’s kind of sexist, but you know, some other way of putting it. But all the sort of old, old style phrases that we associate with like a Franklin Roosevelt or a Harry Truman only it’s always in service of the exact opposite. And the idea is that many years ago I wrote a book about an idea that I had called “market populism,” basically the majesty of, of the people, you know, which is all important in a democracy, the majesty of the people had sort of been transferred to the market and the market was supposed to, thought to act with the will of the people. This was a very common, uh, sort of trope in the 1990s during the first tech boom. And I wrote a whole book illustrating this in all of its like outrageous permutations, but you can trace that through Reagan and Gingrich, that whole, that whole gang of people, there’s a different kind of right-wing populism that I associate with Trump and with Richard Nixon that is less sunny, you know, that’s more sort of paranoid. And uh, you know, imagines the people to be beset by this kind of evil liberal elite. You’ve heard this phrase before, this is, I mean, basically all of conservatism in our lifetime, and this is very important to remember, has been a kind of populist conservatism. And this is, you’d say, okay, well that’s obvious, but that’s a really important point and I’m going to tell you why in a minute. Well, hell, I’ll tell you why right now.

Nima: Sure.

Thomas Frank: It’s because while the right-wing has been embracing populism, embracing this populist way of talking, never embracing the thing itself. Okay? Never, ever, ever doing that, but embracing this kind of populist proletarian way of talking, the Democratic Party, you know, which is the traditional bearer of populism, has been running as fast as it can away from that way of speaking. In fact, there was a movement in the Democratic Party called the Democratic Leadership Council that back in the 1990s used to denounce populism all the time. And they would say, ‘Populism is what we have to stamp out in the Democratic Party. Populism is the great loser tradition in American politics.’ Uh, that sort of thing. And they succeeded. They stamped it out, and now it has left the Republicans as the ones who very naturally speak this populist message. But it’s, it’s crazy because it’s completely upside down. It’s of course the opposite of what populism originally was, which was a rebellion against market forces, you know, against capitalism.

Adam: Yeah. One of the things we sort of argue at the top of the show is that the term has sort of been deliberately morphed and been abused to the point where it’s sort of I don’t think even that useful anymore. You sort of make the normative position that we need to embrace the term and like recapture it. Is that, is that a fair?

Thomas Frank: You have to or you’re going to have to come up with a different term.

Adam: Right

Thomas Frank: And, you know, yes I know it is confusing and there’s all of these competing definitions now and the and the definition that I wrote about recently in The Guardian is way beyond anything that we just discussed, which is basically they associate populism with this kind of racist tyranny, you know, with like say the government in Hungary or Poland or something like that. The sort of right-wing parties in Austria, you know, they sort of really, really awful people and they say, ‘Well, that’s populism.’ Well, here’s the deal. I’m from Kansas. Kansas is the populist tradition. That is what politics, where I come from, that’s what it’s all about, is this idea of the common people versus the elite that is deep in the, uh, in the grain out there and you know, you don’t have to dig very deep to find that that’s in the grain everywhere you go in this country. But populism originally meant something very specific in Kansas, which was a, there was this very left-wing, third party movement in the 1890s that took over the state, sort of swept the state, kicked out the ruling Republicans and you know, it was the original farmers revolt. The farmers tried to reach out to labor unions and other groups like that, uh, weren’t all that successful, but they made the effort. And then after about six or seven years it died out, but it scared the hell out of the ruling elite in Kansas and all over the western part of the U.S. and in the south as well. It scared people real badly. Interesting thing is what you find is from that day to this, there’s been this continuous strain of people who denounce populism and who insist on mischaracterizing, characterizing it, and I would say in some cases deliberately so, but if you go back to the 1890s, it was standard issue to equate the populists with the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution because, you know, they didn’t have communism, they couldn’t call them Communists because that after the Russian Revolution hadn’t happened yet. So they had to have a different way of denouncing them. (Laughs)

Nima: Yeah, they needed their own bogeyman term.

Thomas Frank: That’s right. So they’d call them Danton and Robespierre, you know, and they’d compare them to that. Uh, this was commonplace, this way of talking. Uh, you know, it’s funny you think about William Jennings Bryan who ultimately became the kind of hero of the populist movement to think of him as a, as a Robespierre, it’s just, it’s hilarious. But that’s what, that’s what they said. So “Populism” with an uppercase P means something very specific. And it ultimately, that’s where the word comes from. The lower case p populism, it derives from that movement, uh, and then it’s all downhill from there.

Nima: It seems most often these days, especially in the, in the media, we see “populism” as a term being used almost as a bludgeon against democracy rather than an embodiment of it. Can you kind of talk about how that inversion has happened and what in its essence at least maybe one of the more, you know, original definitions of populism has everything to do with democracy, not, not everything against it?

Thomas Frank: Yeah, absolutely. So first of all, there’s this, uh, you used the word bogeyman earlier and that’s exactly right. You know, the American media or the international media, this is, this is very much a European thing now too. They get upset about an idea or a word and they, they go to town on it. And one of the things that they insist on now is that populism is undemocratic or anti democratic and it’s a kind of mob rule. It’s like demagoguery. And uh, what populism originally meant, it had this, uh, the populists were in love with the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and with the idea of citizens participatory democracy, that ordinary American people should have a say in governing. This was important in the 1890s because it was a time when, I mean it was even more, you know, we think about Washington and lobbyists and pay for play and all that nowadays. It was, you know, ten times worse in the 1890s. I mean the government was massively corrupt. Not only was it massively corrupt, people thought you were a chump if you weren’t corrupt and the populists where these kinds of, you know-

Nima: Like, like a Boss Tweed version of it.

Thomas Frank: But much worse. So, I mean, you go back and read, there’s a lot of great books about that period in American life, but it was really the low point. I think Trump is not even close to these people. He’s getting there (laughs) you know.

Adam: Give him time.

Thomas Frank: Yeah. The kind of people that ran this country from the end of the Civil War up until about 1900 were just unbelievably corrupt. You know, just one scandal on top of another. And like I said, you were a chump if you weren’t on the take. Lincoln Steffens built an entire journalistic career out of talking to these people and they would be very open with him and they bragged him about their corruption. Anyhow, populism was a, uh, was a revolt against that. Um, it was, uh, you know, like I said, a left-wing movement that was critical of capitalism. But it was also about reform, about political reform. Now it was some things that it was not, it was not anti intellectual. These people were, you know, they read books. They were much less fearful of like European socialism, let’s say, than were other Americans at that time. They were also really into scientific agricultural techniques. If you read their newspapers, if you read their newsletters and stuff like that, they were really into stuff like this. They were not anti intellectual. They were not anti big government. They wanted, if you read the populist platform from 1892, they wanted the government to take over the railroads, to take over the telegraph system, they wanted to nationalize a whole bunch of things and they wanted the government to be seriously involved in the economy basically to help out farmers and workers. So they were not what I should say and they’re legatees, the people who followed after them, you know, there’s a long reform tradition. They were not what, when we use the word populism today and talk about, you know, racist tyranny, the tyranny of the majority, these kind of evil right-wing, almost fascist parties in Europe. That’s not what they were. Uh, they were nothing like that. And its, its problematic to me that people even use the word populism to describe such an awful thing. And so this is what I wrote about in The Guardian. If you read these books now by these Europeans about or even by Americans about the boogeyman populism, they often make no reference to the reform movement that the word originated with, no reference, like zero, or even to the sort of latter day, uh, people who use the populist rhetoric but weren’t all there like Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman who were very populistic. It’s crazy. It’s like that whole thing has just been, uh, as, as though it never happened.

Nima: So, drafting off of that, there’s this idea which I think has been promoted recently by people like Cas Mudde, about how populism is more divisive than unifying as an entity, as an -ism, as an ideology, which it, which it really isn’t, but can you kind of also talk about how then even in that post 1890s populist sense what happened with labor and unions and the kind of bringing together of working class people that it isn’t really a very divisive idea.

Thomas Frank: So if you want to boil populism down from a uppercase ‘P’ to a lowercase ‘p’ and make it, just talk about the rhetorical style, what it means is it’s the language of working, working people in revolt against upper classes. That is what it is. And it’s divisive if you’re talking about like them, you know, working people not liking capitalists. Yes, that is true. And I’ll give you some really good examples with that. And they, they, the populists and the people in the populist tradition, yes, they denounce big business all the time. By the way, the purest bearer of populism today, aside from like individuals here and there would probably be the labor movement, the AFL-CIO, if you want to see what populist rhetoric looks like, it’s the AFL-CIO and these you can say that, that that’s something like that is divisive, but look at their logo. You know, it’s two people shaking hands. The whole idea of this movement is if working people get together, then they can challenge big business and win. That is the idea. Oh, and there’s and there’s also famous examples, the populists were not necessarily, they weren’t ahead of their time on say racial matters. They were pretty much guilty of the same things that everybody else was guilty of at that time, but there is one bright spot in their history where in the south they tried, in the beginning, they desperately tried to get black farmers together with white farmers on the grounds that they’re all in this together and they have the same enemies and the same causes and if they get together they could win. And weirdly, that worked for about two years before the white southern, what do you call the bourbons, the, you know, the ruling class of the south just came down on these people like a sledgehammer, you know, it was a very famous story. If you study southern history, it’s like the one bright spot from the end of Reconstruction up until the 1960s was this moment in the 1890s where this was tried. Now it ended very badly. It was awful. I mean with mobs and vigilante justice and like horrible things. But it started out, it was a good idea. Anyhow, so that’s what populism is about. Uh, and yes, that is divisive if you’re talking about, um, the ruling class. Can I give you my favorite example of populism?

Nima: Please.

Thomas Frank: It’s an example that just, it, it tells you so much about the movement and also about how it has gone off the rails. If you’re ever out in Western Kansas, um, and you’re driving down I70 or something there’s a town called Lucas. It’s about an hour off the freeway, but go to it. There’s a concrete sculpture garden that this guy made back in about 1900 to about 1910 at the very end of his life, he was an old man at the time and he decided to spend his retirement years building a concrete sculpture garden to illustrate two things, Bible stories and the principles of populism. And so, you know, and it’s fascinating because the two get merged, you know, all over the place and they, they run together in his mind and it’s what you call naive art, you know, it’s not like high-end, you know, Michelangelo or something. It’s, it’s this guy didn’t really know what he was doing, but he did it anyway. And my favorite sculpture, and this is a, a man being crucified, the title of it is Labor Crucified, and the guy on the cross is wearing his working cap, right? And there are four figures that are nailing him to this cross and it’s a banker, lawyer, doctor and preacher. I always loved that because it goes both, this is where populism, this is the fascinating thing about it, it goes, yes, it is divisive, its against those four figures, right? Doctor, lawyer, banker and preacher, but the banker is the only one up there that is really the capitalist. The others are professionals, members of the professional class, and in the eyes of populism, they too were just, they were also against working people. And you see where this is going here?

Adam: Right.

Thomas Frank: As the Democratic Party has identified more and more and more with the professional class they’ve made themselves, which is an elite group, that they’ve opened themselves up for populist attack. Uh, and so what the Republicans have done is they’ve tried to shift that attack from capitalism, the original enemy, you know, the guys who own the railroads, the guys who own the newspapers, the guys who corrupted the politics, they’ve shifted the focus of populism from that enemy to this other enemy. You know, preachers, doctors, lawyers, democrats, liberals.

Nima: Immigrants, Muslims.

Thomas Frank: Yeah. Well, then, yeah, then you go down the list. Yeah. And you get into the racist stuff.

Adam: I think the issue of race is an interesting one. Um, you mentioned the AFL-CIO, which of course has a long history of problems with race versus, let’s say the IWW which didn’t have a racial criteria for joining or gender criteria and all you needed to be was a wage laborer, where that would be a sort of more robust version of populism-

Thomas Frank: Yeah. And there was a lot of overlap by the way.

Adam: Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah. I don’t want to be too unfair, but yeah.

Thomas Frank: Oh, okay. But if you go back, the main populist newspaper in Kansas was this thing called The Appeal To Reason and he, after populism died, he became an outright socialist and it had this enormous circulation, but he was a big supporter of the IWW. There is that continuity. I mean, it goes from these people, when populism died, a lot of them became swell. Eugene debs was a populist, uh, became a socialist.

Adam: And I think that when you talk about holding onto the concept, the word of socialism, and you said earlier that we need to name something else, I think the elephant in the room is the word that Bernie Sanders embraced, which was socialism.

Thomas Frank: Yeah.

Adam: Now obviously that has a hugely loaded and divisive definition, but it seems like more and more people would prefer that term since populism (a) is now associated with racism and of course populism is just for white people, isn’t populism. It’s fascism.

Thomas Frank: Yeah. But no one would ever, no one is interested in a movement like that. I mean, that’s —

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: Right. What I’m saying. That’s what, that’s what Trump represents, right? He represents a kind of, you know, he famously went against the grain in the Republican primary and said he wouldn’t cut social security and Medicare, and then because those are not racialized programs, you know, he wants a very limited form of socialism, only for old white people.

Thomas Frank: It’s funny, but uh, the Republicans, they used to attack social security all the time. I imagine his party is very disappointed with him for not figuring out a way to go after.

Adam: Well, he’s surrounded himself with a bunch of people who want to privatize it so the trains are still on the track.

Thomas Frank: You got to remember that nothing that he said in that campaign, and he said a lot of things that were, he also talked about bringing back Glass-Steagall. He said a lot of things that were like, you know, that would be, that’s not a bad idea. A lot of this stuff he said about trade was, it was not wrong. You know, the way he’s, the way he’s implementing it now is crazy. But, uh, uh, what he said about trade at the time was not wrong. It’s just that, you know, and the Democrats were just totally open to this criticism because they themselves have walked so far away from where they started out. But uh-

Adam: If only there was some candidate who —

Thomas Frank: I know, I know. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? But the, I mean, the word socialism is also a good word. I embrace it. But, uh, I can see why most Americans would not, you know, it’s for them, it’s a frightening word. It means, means Russia, Soviet Union.

Nima: Right. A century of serious propaganda has really made that it, it’s, its own bogeyman.

Thomas Frank: And there’s, there’s another thing here, which is the word progressivism. And I have a definition of that and I’m sure the people that I’m criticizing would object to my definition of progressivism, which is reform from the top down as opposed to populism, which is reformed from the bottom up. Populism is working class people getting together and making change and progressivism is members of the professional class seeing that something is not working right and fixing it. And uh, they don’t get along populism and progressivism, they don’t like each other historically.

Adam: Yeah, I think progressivism has even morphed into a kind of, ‘I’m not really a corporate Democrat, but I don’t like the ‘S’ word.’ That’s sort of where you fall. It’s kind of this vague catch-all now, which I think is fine. I think sometimes vague words are okay.

Thomas Frank: Even when they agree on the issues, like say antitrust.

Adam: Right.

Thomas Frank: Populism and progressivism, they hate each other. It’s really strange. You know, there’s all of these famous stories from the early part of the 20th century about how the progressives basically stole populism’s issues. You know, they took all the issues that populism and had been about and swiped them and then proceeded to put them into effect, which is true. They did. You know, in the Roosevelt administration.

Adam: Yeah. That’s like the very end of Newsies where they have this, this, this, this, this, um, newspaper peddlers strike. There’s all this great left-wing propaganda in the movie and the play and then at the very end, the hero is Teddy Roosevelt. It’s like —

Nima: (Laughs)

Thomas Frank: (Laughs) Yeah.

Adam: They had to sort of put it in this conservative —

Thomas Frank: By the way, Roosevelt, there is an interesting guy. Um, in many ways, if Trump succeeds as president, that’s going to be the model that he’s following this kind of blustering blowhard, you know, who really believes in and being tough and um, you know, all that stuff, but who also made war on the trusts. But Roosevelt hated the populists. He was one of these guys who thought they were the French Revolution, you know?

Adam: Right.

Thomas Frank: Um, and, uh, anyhow.

Adam: When it’s your head in the guillotine, you know, you’re a little more sensitive.

Thomas Frank: Yeah.

Nima: And you’re like ‘Divisive!’ (Laughs)

Adam: Yeah.

Thomas Frank: He is the upper-class reformer, you know, there’s no better example.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Populism is going to divide my head from my body. So that’s, that’s the problem. You’ve, you’ve actually written recently about the misapplication of the term populism and how it really fits into this horseshoe theory most kind of embodied in a couple recent books. There’s the Yacsha Mounk book and the William Galston book. Can you kind of just tell us a little bit about what is so deeply unsatisfying about these much more mainstream analyses of the problem of populism and where we need to go from here?

Thomas Frank: Well, first of all, they think it’s a problem. It is, is a huge mistake. Second of all, they’re completely ahistorical and by the way, Galston at least is someone who should know better, you know, he’s been around for a long time. He knows what populism is. He comes from the background of the Democratic Leadership Council, uh, which, you know, as I said earlier, spent years and years and years denouncing populism, ironically, denouncing it as a loser tradition that could never win. And, and, and here, the Democratic Party keeps getting beat by these right-wing populists, you know, who are swiping their rhetorical style, if not their actual issues. But I mean that’s the main thing is that they, they just used the term to describe what they want to describe and they completely ignore the historical background of it, which is, I’m sorry, I was in an earlier life, I was a historian, you know, that’s what I did. That’s just not acceptable. You can’t do that. You can’t write a book where you just use the term to mean something completely different from what it has meant in history and never explain why and never even acknowledge that that history exists. One of the most, uh, I mean, and there’s, these books are filled with bad examples of this, but one of them is in Yacsha Mounk’s book and he’s a lecturer at Harvard by the way. He says that the populist was this Austrian politician in the 1980s. And I read this. I’m just like, what the hell? What planet are you on, buddy? You know, it’s like the word comes, I mean, you can look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary where it comes from, it comes from this movement in the 1890s, you know, Richard Viguerie was writing a book about right-wing populism in 1983 and all of this history is just, is just ignored. Um, you know, that we’ve been in a right-wing populist moment here in this country since the 1980s. Can I take a step back here and give you guys my grand theory?

Adam: Please.

Thomas Frank: Beginning in the late sixties, as we all know that the two parties went in wildly different directions. The Republicans, uh, 50 years ago nominated Richard Nixon and he carried them off to the right, broke from the sort of Eisenhower tradition and went way to the right. Not all at once, very gradually, and in fact did a lot of liberal things as president, but his rhetoric was this was the man who pioneered right-wing populism. Actually, I say that, I immediately have to take it back because he stole it from a guy called George Wallace —

Nima: Sure. Of course.

Thomas Frank:— who was the governor of Alabama and who did, who, who was a open segregationist. Okay. This was a bad guy. He, if you go back and look at that ’68 campaign really invented all the tropes of right-wing populism that we know today. For example, calling out the press at rallies. That’s Wallace did that all the time. Trump gets that from Wallace via Nixon. Okay. Nixon stole it from Wallace. Trump’s steals it from Nixon, and that’s really where you’re right -wing populous tradition begins. Why did that work in 1968? Because at the same time the Democratic Party was deciding to reform itself and to abandon the populist tradition. Specifically what I mean by that is organized labor. That they were going to, the Democratic Party decided to divorce itself from organized labor at that very same moment. And we know why they did that, right? It was the Vietnam era. Labor was on the, uh, a lot of the unions were on the wrong side of that issue. And, uh, unions looked pretty bad, uh, back in those days, you know, the McGovern movement, they were very idealistic and they wanted to move away from that past. I understand all that. The mistake, the larger, you know, the mistake that you make when you decide to make yourself a party of, you know, kids at fancy colleges, the Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton set, you know, Gary Hart, that kind of group, when you decide to make yourself a party of those people instead of a party of working people, even if those, you know, those kids on the fancy college campuses are, um, have better politics, are better on the issues at the moment, which they were, uh, during Vietnam. Uh, even if that’s the case in the long run, you are separating yourself from working people and that is what happened. Uh, and that’s, it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. And today that, you know, the Democratic Party, uh, has this huge problem with, well I was going to say with white working class people, but it’s actually bigger than that with working class people across the board. You know, they can’t speak to them. They don’t know how, even when they are better on the issues, they don’t know how to, uh, represent themselves with these people. And uh, you know, you look at this utter demagogue now, Donald Trump, who pretends to, you know, care about ordinary people, you know, and does this kind of right-wing populist act. He doesn’t give a damn, you know, said he’s like, he’s going to do things that ruin these people’s lives. This is what I’ve been saying now for 20 years. I’m sick of saying it. But as the Democratic Party made itself into the vehicle of the professional class, the Republicans said, ‘Oh look, look what they’re abandoning. Look at what they’re abandoning.’ The Democrats were always the party of the people, the party of the working class, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They’re, they’re giving that up. Well, guess what, that’s, that is the high ground in a, in a, in American politics, that’s, you know, that’s how you win elections in this country. They grabbed for that with both hands. Now it’s always been a stretch. You know, Ronald Reagan is the big union buster and these are people that do, that will do anything to cut the taxes of the rich, you know, uh, anything to deregulate banks and they have ruined the life chances of working class people, but they speak the populist rhetoric and this has been going on for my, uh, ever since 1968 essentially for my entire lifetime. And what’s fascinating to me and I’ve written about it and written about it and written about it and I’m not the only one, lots of other people wrote about it before I did. The Democratic Party can’t figure it out. We’ve been saying this ever since then and they still can’t figure it out. Why is that? Well, it’s because you got guys like these books that we’re talking about that, that, you know, everything is so, excuse me, I almost cursed there.

Nima: No, you definitely should curse.

Adam: You’re, you’re allowed to cuss, man.

Thomas Frank: Everything is so fucking scrambled, you know, for them and they, they can’t understand it, they can’t figure it out and it is in your face. It is the simplest goddamn thing in the world. Read a little bit of history. It is obvious what is going on right now.

Adam: Well, I think it’s an issue of that there’s so many institutional reasons and filters why they are —

Thomas Frank: Incapable of figuring out. Yeah. Well, it’s costly. They don’t want to figure it out.

Adam: Yeah. I mean you get on the, on the book circuit and the, and the #Resistance circuit by talking about how we need better manners and more norms. Now we need to respect the CIA and the FBI.

Thomas Frank: Norms!? Isn’t that one just a hoot?

Nima: (Laughing)

Thomas Frank: You know why they do that, right? Because you look at poor Barack Obama. The thing is that Democrats can’t be critical of Obama. He is their peerless leader. I liked him too, by the way, voted for him twice. I was a big fan of Obama back in, oh wait, I thought he was going to be, you know, one of the greats and he was very admirable I think as president, you know, no big scandals to speak of. He did a lot of good things. There’s a guy who believed in norms and believed in doing everything by the, you know, the, the inherited procedure and for Democrats who are again, a party of the professional class that was like, yes, that is exactly how a president should behave. And it’s like no presidents shatter norms. That’s what they do.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Yeah. Norms and $2.50 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Thomas Frank: Yeah. Yeah. But of all the things to embrace, that’s like basically like saying ‘I’m a conservative, you know, all this stuff about being a liberal and being a progressive unit. Fuck all that. It’s norms. It’s basically a conservative, I believe in tradition.’

Adam: Yeah Obama was a moderate Republican and people kept trying to act like he was something else, but he wasn’t.

Thomas Frank: Yeah.

Nima: Before we go, Tom, are you working on anything new? Are you going to shed any new light on this particular populist topic?

Thomas Frank: As a matter of fact I am. I have just signed up to write a book about the subject of populism. Short, but sweet. Hopefully, hopefully it will be good. Hopefully it’ll, it’ll clear all this up. Enlighten people once and for all and get people angry. You know, that’s what needs to happen.

Adam: Well, the book and populism should be short. You’re not some egghead. It can’t be like a thousand pages.

Thomas Frank: But I actually am! That’s the problem. I am an egghead.

Nima: (Laughing) Well thank you so much. Thomas Frank, journalist, political analyst, historian, author of so many great, great books. Of course the always essential What’s The Matter With Kansas? and the much more recent Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to The Party of the People? Thomas Frank, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Thomas Frank: Hey, the pleasure was all mine.


Adam: Uh, that was informative. Always good to have an historian on to talk about history and not think that terms were invented ten minutes ago.

Nima: (Chuckles) Indeed.

Adam: Um, and also we forgot to mention he has a new book, it’s called Rendezvous With Oblivion at bookstores. Amazon.com, if you want to, if you want to help Bezos get even richer.

Nima: That’s right. Or buy it elsewhere. But yes, Rendezvous With Oblivion. We’ll say it again. Reports From a Sinking Society. It’s a collection of Tom Frank’s essays and it’s a must read as everything that he does is.

Adam: I may or may not be named dropped in it.

Nima: Possibly.

Adam: That’s why you check it out.

Nima: Adam’s a critic-level supporter of Thomas Frank. (Laughs)

Adam: It’s true. Well, it’s a long story. I think I’m in some footnote somewhere. Anyway. So yeah, it’s a good topic. I, before we go, I do want to say that I have one major objection to, there’s one thing in this world that’s made me reject democracy and made me become a monarchist and that’s that if you look at the Amazon reviews, Citizen Kane, which whatever, I know some people don’t like it, but it is objectively a very, very good movie, it has a 4.1 rating on Amazon, but Top Dog, a movie about Chuck Norris teaming up with a dog to save the Pope has a 4.3 rating on Amazon.com and they have statistically significant amount of reviews too. So I want to note that when I read that, I saw that-

Nima: That’s right. The problem is the people.

Adam: I briefly became a monarchist.

Nima: (Laughing) The stupid masses should have no control over anything.

Adam: No. After I saw that, I was like, ‘You know what? I think the monarchists are onto something.’

Nima: That is true. That is true.

Adam: Whoever the great great grandson of King George III is put them in charge. I don’t even care.

Nima: That’s true. That even like, that’s some obvious film history shit. Citizen Kane is objectively great and also obvious, so you don’t, it’s not like you’re asking people like, okay, tell me your thoughts about like The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s easy to give that a really high rating even if you’ve never seen it. (Laughing) You don’t have to know.

Adam: And you don’t even have to like Citizen Kane to think that it’s better than Top Dog.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: A movie about Chuck Norris teaming up with a dog —

Nima: To save the Pope.

Adam: To save the Pope.

Nima: Which actually is the story of our time. That’s what politics has now turned into. That’s the Trump moment. It’s Chuck Norris and the dog saving the Pope.

Adam: Top Dog’s not even good-bad. It’s just bad-bad.

Nima: Its bad-bad.

Adam: Anyway, I don’t know why we spent this much time on Top Dog.

Nima: Yeah, it’s no fucking Air Bud.

Adam: I think we’re probably going to sell more copies of Top Dog then Tom Frank’s new book.

Nima: Just by virtue of curiosity. (Laughing)

Adam: I’m in the pocket of Big Norris. Alright, let’s get outta here. We’ve wasted people’s, too much time.

Nima: This was terrible.

Adam: Agreed.

Nima: On that note, we will shift from Top Dog/Air Bud and thank our critic-level supporters for their amazing support through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. It is always so great to see your support and to get your support. Its keeps us going so thank you. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook/Citations Needed. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone for listening. Have a great one.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.