Rendezvous with Oblivion
Thomas Frank is an author, political analyst and historian who, among other books and many articles, previously penned What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) focusing on the rise of conservatism in a mid-west working-class pocket of America. Such content seems to be the natural precursor to his latest book, a collated series of essays and articles which makes up Rendezvous with Oblivion.
Rendezvous with Oblivion covers a range of years from the beginning of the Obama administration to the more recent election of Donald Trump to the white house. It is a cohesive and rather scathing review of a number of topics related to modern American life; recent economic policy, the soaring cost of education and the false hope of bipartisan cooperation.
Frank is undeniably and unapologetically liberal in his political opinions, and yet he remains starkly critical of recent democrat occupancies in the white house. This is perhaps one of the more refreshing qualities of Frank’s writing: he is, despite his obvious ideological leanings, rather staunchly non-partisan. While the book’s cover boasts the face of President Donald Trump, Frank reserves his criticisms not for conservative institutions so much as for liberal ones.
Frank provides an alternative to political rhetoric and jargon, opting instead to consider more specific policies that reflect this current political moment. Take for instance his chapter ‘Home of the Whopper’, where Frank spotlights fast-food workers on strike in North Carolina. The economic landscape is bleak – these jobs are not reserved for high schoolers but rather parents of young kids who struggle to earn a living wage in a full-time job. These workers look to government subsidies like food stamps to round out their income because the wage that a corporation like McDonalds or KFC provides simply isn’t enough to live on.
And take for instance the way Frank writes of the rising popularity of the McMansion in the 1980s. He ties it not just to a growing fascination with ‘gaudy’ architecture but rather with specific tax policy of 1981 which led to putting glorifying personal wealth ahead of affordable housing policy. Although these economic policies lay the groundwork for Frank to present the starkness of wealth inequality, there is much more to what has led to this ‘sinking society’ he describes.
The picture Frank paints of many U.S institutions is an incredibly bleak one – soaring costs of textbooks and elite college prep courses which prevent tertiary education from being democratised, for instance. Frank presents the starkness of the economic landscape, but beyond this, he makes some rather biting criticisms for what he regards as ‘the poverty of centrism’ – Obama-era willingness to put the noble compromise ahead of policy reform, for instance, an attitude that perhaps hindered healthcare reform and discouraged democratic voters.
Despite Donald Trump on the cover, the book is not so much about the current president’s policies or leadership as much as it is about what exactly laid the groundwork for him to be able to enter the highest office in the world. The reasons are multiple – Trump’s condemnation of trade policies like NAFTA, for example, which sent working class American jobs overseas. And then there was a democratic party not so concerned with these issues, with Hillary Clinton as its presidential candidate, aligning more with professional liberals than the aforementioned voters who might’ve been squashed by a policy like NAFTA. Though Frank, of course, does not suggest that Trump is the antidote to these ills, nor that racism and bigotry played no part in his election, calling it ‘a broad streak of … ugliness in the Trump phenomenon’ (p. 202).
Rather, Frank suggests that those on the left, the Democratic establishment, more specifically, need to reform so that Donald Trump is not re-elected. To forget corporate political donors and to move on from political compromises that short change leftist policies, damaging working class USA. Frank’s greatest ability is in not laying blame on one particular cause, choosing to stay away from simplistic explanations for Trump’s rise to power. Rendezvous with Oblivion is a cohesive and increasingly relevant commentary with advice that needs to be heeded as 2020 approaches.