A former Congressman who’s boasted about being “good at rancor” says the belief of people on both the right and the left that government is almost irrelevant to the country’s challenges is what fueled Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency.
When real-world results don’t seem possible, what some voters begin to value is “psychic income,” said former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat who represented portions of Boston’s suburbs from 1981 to 2013.
That plays to Trump’s strength, Frank said Tuesday night at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
“He’s not much of a legislator, his foreign policy’s a mess, but he’s the insulter-in-chief,” Frank said, adding later that “what corrupts in a democracy is impotence.”
Frank has begun a week-long residency at Duke so that students and professors alike can pick his brain about the issues of the day, and about his long career in politics. He’s met with classes in the Sanford School, and on Wednesday is scheduled to sit down with students at the Duke School of Law to discuss the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which revamped the federal government’s post-recession regulation of the financial sector.
The former lawmaker visited UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015 to deliver a lecture there. That appearance saw him deliver the “good at rancor” line, as his counter to speculation that he’d retired from Congress because he was fed up with its tone. He said then that he’d stepped down merely because he’d reached his 70s and was “worn out.”
The problem now is that people making demands on us don’t want real-world results. They want psychic income.
Frank hit some of the same points at Duke that he did in Chapel Hill about what he sees as the trigger for the country’s turn toward cynicism, namely the economic transition that began in the 1970s and “put working people who did not have any particularly skills or education at a disadvantage.”
Free-trade policies contributed to that, he said, singling out the the 2001 admission of China into the World Trade Organization as a move that “had a statistically significant effect on hurting American workers.”
The 2008 recession compounded matters, along with an Internet that’s “the greatest source of misinformation by far in the world,” he said.
The crisis fueled the rise of the Tea Party movement on the right and the Occupy movement on the left, with both putting more value on delivering validation to their followers than on making the hard compromises that further their ostensible goals.
Frank drew an unfavorable contrast with the example of the Civil Rights movement, where activists worked incrementally to build the case that Jim Crow couldn’t actually deliver on its “separate-but-equal” promise. And he noted that the rollback of Jim Crow on the federal level took not one, but three major acts of Congress in 1964, 1965 and 1968.
“The problem now is that people making demands on us don’t want real-world results,” Frank said. “They want psychic income.”
Frank’s comments came on the same day that Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona announced on the floor of the Senate that he’d decided against running for re-election because he objects to “the daily sundering of country” and “the coarseness of our leadership.”
Flake voiced optimism that “this spell will eventually pass,” and Frank did too.
Trump’s behavior and incompetence “has made government look good by comparison,” Frank said.