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Fred Thompson and the appeal of phony populism

By the time Fred Thompson decides whether or not to join the presidential fray, you will have heard the story of his red pickup truck at least a dozen times. The truck in question is a 1990 Chevy, which the famed statesman-thespian rented during his maiden Senate campaign in 1994. The idea was that Thompson would dress up in blue jeans and shabby boots and drive himself to campaign events around the state. Upon arriving, he'd mount the bed of the truck and launch into a homespun riff on the virtues of citizen-legislators and the perils of Washington insider-ism. For good measure, he'd refer to himself in the third person as "Ol' Fred" and the Chevy as "this ol' baby."

There was no real reason to think the tack would work. In fact, Thompson's own campaign manager dismissed it as "gimmicky and hokey." Thompson, after all, had spent the previous two decades as a well-paid Washington lobbyist and sometime screen actor. He was about as close to being a salt-of-the-earth Southerner as Truman Capote, and it was a stretch to think average Tennesseans wouldn't pick up on the dissonance. And yet the gambit proved wildly, dismayingly successful. Thompson was down big when he initialed his car-rental agreement. He won the race with more than 60 percent of the vote.

It's tempting to credit Thompson's success at populist play-acting to his numerous tours in Hollywood. If ever there were a millionaire who could persuade voters of his regular-guy bona fides, it would be the man who, in The Hunt for Red October, lectured Alec Baldwin on how "the Russians don't take a dump ... without a plan." But Thompson is hardly the only Republican to have ridden phony-populism to elective office. In 2003, Haley Barbour, perhaps the most accomplished Washington lobbyist of his generation, pig-in-a-poked and dog-won't-hunted his way to the Mississippi governor's mansion. (One of Barbour's signature tricks was to have himself paged at Ole Miss football games.) And, of course, a certain Northeastern Brahmin reinvented himself as a brush-clearing country boy en route to winning the White House in 2000. These days, phonies win with such regularity in American politics that you've got to look beyond any particular candidate to find an explanation.

Liberals, who go positively batty over such acts of political fraud, have no shortage of theories. The author Tom Frank laid out a popular one in What's the Matter with Kansas, arguing that the ersatz populists use hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage to divert attention from their plutocratic proclivities. There is clearly something to this, particularly in states like Kansas, where vast concentrations of economically marginal voters routinely elect tax-cutting social conservatives. Barbour, for his part, employed a variant of this diversionary strategy by using coded racial messages to court downscale whites. (Among other things, he frequently cited the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, a black state legislator named Barbara Blackmon, in his public comments, even though there's no such thing as a "ticket" in Mississippi politics; candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run in separate elections.) But the explanation only goes so far. Thompson actually ran for Senate as a pro-choicer, and George W. Bush went easy on the fire-and-brimstone in 2000, when compassion was the order of the day.

A rival explanation comes care of my colleague Jonathan Chait, who once proclaimed his hatred for Bush's "pseudo-populist twang" and views Bush (correctly) as a "pampered frat boy masquerading as" a "rough-hewn Texan." Chait mostly blames the press for enabling this scam. Republicans, according to him, realized long ago that political reporters are much more interested in making vague characterological pronouncements than reporting on matters of policy, or even relating concrete biographical details. The GOP exploited this quirk by placing character at the center of its campaign strategy. The party took care to surround its candidates with the right atmospherics and to impugn their opponents whenever possible. By contrast, Democrats believed themselves to be on the right side of most issues and so they never invested much in these efforts.

Again, there is much to be said for this analysis. Had every story written about the 1994 Tennessee Senate race begun, "High-priced Washington bag-man Fred Thompson, speaking from the red pickup truck he rented to shore up his populist credentials, announced yesterday that ..." the outcome might have been different. On the other hand, it's hard to believe the average Tennessee voter didn't know Thompson had long since ditched his back-country lifestyle for the more cosmopolitan climes of Washington and Hollywood. (His opponent certainly didn't hesitate to remind them.) Likewise, it's hard to believe voters didn't make the connection between the ranch-dwelling George Bush who ran for president in 2000 and the preppie establishmentarian George Bush who'd occupied the White House eight years earlier.

The flaw in both Frank and Chait's theories, I think, is the premise that voters want bona fide populists but are somehow ending up with fake ones instead. But what if voters want exactly what they're getting? What if they knowingly vote for fake populists because fake populism is a highly appealing proposition?

Liberals like Frank and Chait assume that what most Americans want from politics is a modest improvement in their lives: Affordable health care, retirement security, good schools for their children. Under this paradigm, voters should prefer a politician whose life experience has taught him how difficult it can be to get by without such staples. The fake populist is maddening because he professes to understand their concerns but has zero life experience (or at least recent life experience) that would make such understanding possible.

But suppose most working-class voters want something entirely different from what liberals assume. Suppose they don't want to be slightly better off than they are today. Suppose they want to be rich. And the way they evaluate candidates, who are frequently rich themselves, is by wondering: Is this the kind of rich person I'd like to be? Now ask yourself: If you were a working-class voter in Middle America, what kind of rich person would you want to be? Would you want to be the kind of rich person who eats at pricey French restaurants, plays classical guitar, and vacations among the cognescenti in Sun Valley, Idaho? Or would you want to be the kind of rich person who noshes on peanut butter and jelly, reads Sports Illustrated, and kicks back at a ranch in the middle of nowhere?

The difference between you and the first kind of rich person is a vast cultural chasm. The only difference between you and the second kind of rich person is a chunk of cash, albeit a hefty one. If you somehow became rich overnight, there's no way you'd be accepted among the first group, but you could easily imagine yourself as part of the second. And that's more or less what Fred Thompson and George W. Bush are suggesting when they throw on the shit-kickers and turn up the drawl. Sure, they're phonies. But if you were rich, you'd want to be the same kind of phony, not a John Kerry kind of phony. (Though, come to think of it, Kerry's actually pretty authentic as a rich guy.) Liberals see richness and hominess as contradictory. But, for many working-class voters, they're complements. They like their rich people homey, and their homey people rich.

Not long after winning his Senate seat in 1994, Thompson got in his rented red pickup and drove all the way to the entrance of the U.S. Capitol. By way of explanation, he told a reporter he'd hoped to unleash the "doggonedest traffic jam that Washington, D.C., has ever seen from all those staff members trying to get out of town." It might have sounded strange to hear this from a rich Washington lobbyist who'd recently owned an apartment only eight blocks from the White House. But that analysis misses the point. The kind of rich person willing to force the Washington establishment to admire the rear of his Chevy is, for many people, exactly their kind of rich person.