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Pickup Artist

Populist poseur Fred Thompson.

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 Tennessee. 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 as “Ol’ Fred” and the Chevy as “this ol' baby.”

There was no real reason to think the tactic would work. 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. Yet the gambit proved wildly successful. Thompson was down big to Democrat Jim Cooper when he initialed his car-rental agreement. He went on to win 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 bonafides, it would be the man who, in The Hunt for Red October, lectured Alec Baldwin that “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 Yale-educated Northeastern Brahmin reinvented himself as a brush-clearing country boy en route to winning the White House in 2000. These days, phony populists win with such regularity 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. 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.

A rival explanation comes care of my colleague Jonathan Chait, who largely 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 biographical details. The GOP has exploited this quirk by placing character at the center of its campaign strategy, surrounding its candidates with the right atmospherics and mounting personal attacks on their opponents. Democrats, by contrast, 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 GOP lobbyist Fred Thompson, speaking from the red pickup truck he rented to shore up his populist credentials, announced yesterday that ...” the outcome of his campaign might have been different.

But the flaw in both these explanations, I think, is the premise that voters want bona fide populists but are somehow voting for fake ones instead. 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 GENERALLY ASSUME that what most Americans want from politics is a modest improvement in their lives: affordable healthcare, retirement security, good schools for their children. Under this paradigm, voters should prefer a politician whose life experience has taught him how tough 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 atleast zero recent life experience) that would make such understanding possible.

But suppose most working-class voters want something different than what liberals assume. Suppose that, in their heart of hearts, these voters don’t aspire to be slightly better off than they are today; they aspire to be rich. And one of the ways 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 youwant to be the kind of rich person who eats at pricy French restaurants, plays classical guitar, and vacations among the cognoscenti in Sun Valley, Idaho? Or would you want to be the kind of rich person who snacks 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 hefty chunk of cash. If you somehow became rich overnight, there’s no way you would be accepted among the first group—and you probably wouldn’t want to be. But you could easily imagine yourself fitting in with the second group. 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. Liberals see wealth and hominess as contradictory, but, for many working-class voters, they’re complementary goods. 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 pickup and drove all the way to the entrance of the U.S. Capitol. By way of explanation, he told a reporter he had hoped to unleash the “doggonedest traffic jam that Washington, D.C., hasever 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 had 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 Americans, exactly the kind of rich person they want in office.