What’s to blame for our disgraceful turn toward fascism? “The scourge of populism,” your Ivy-educated tutor answers confidently. But the liberal framing of populism as an uprising of unruly rednecks in MAGA gear, writes founding editor Thomas Frank in his introduction to Issue no. 42, is a betrayal of “the faith in ‘the people’ that built unions and fought World War II.” He recalls producing The Baffler’s first populism issue in 1999, when the right’s coopting of the term “was a historical mystery that needed to be unraveled and understood.” Now, of course, analysts across the political spectrum take right-wing populism for granted, accepting it as gospel rather than a dangerous perversion of the populist ideal. Editor in chief Chris Lehmann corrects these liberal policy mavens and pseudo-intellectuals and restores populism to its historical roots.
Kathryn Olmsted takes a fresh look at Richard Hofstadter’s old idea of the “paranoid style” in American politics, and Liza Featherstone exposes a culture of consultancy that discourages political participation outside of the voting booth. Speaking of election time, J.W. McCormack explores the bizarre history of the U.S. campaign song, warning ominously that “we will all grow old watching campaigns lay their withered hands on The Cure, Belle and Sebastian, and the Butthole Surfers as they upgrade their inventory, but, in the end, the song remains the same.”
Hope springs eternal, however, and in Detroit we find Anne Elizabeth Moore uncovering the vast fundraising operations of the so-called “Pink Wave,” a new crop of women candidates without much new messaging to offer. Sean Patrick Cooper spills the beans about his stint as a ghostwriter of memoirs for the uber-rich. John Ganz also finds himself in the recovered-memory business, recounting how the paleoconservatives of the nineties found an avatar in David Duke and laid the groundwork for our current political nightmare.
In the arts, where we can count on a watery gruel of “poptimism” being served up day after day, things aren’t looking much better. Jennifer Piejko surveys the landscape of contemporary public art in “The Duckie and the Anal Plug.” Tom Carson looks back at a classic film that seems, at first glance, to explain Donald Trump’s rise and finds only more liberal smugness. Kyle Paoletta lambastes what passes for criticism in the saturated era of “Peak TV.” Chris Reitz assesses the state of country music today and finds a lamentable crassness in the way its artists write about wealth and class. Where prior generations sang wistfully about longing to escape poverty and the corrosive effects of wealth, today’s country song narratives have a clear aim: hit the lotto and buy a boat (not to mention a $300 Yeti cooler).