"No one fools Thomas Frank, who is the sharpest, funniest, most intellectually voracious political commentator on the scene. In Pity the Billionaire he has written a brilliant exposé of the most breath-taking ruse in American political history: how the right turned the biggest capitalist breakdown since 1929 into an opportunity for themselves." —Barbara Ehrenreich
"Tom Frank has the Tea Parties in his sights! Brisk and searing and deeply informed by the lessons of history (shocking notion!), Frank's latest guide for the perplexed is nothing less than a precious gift to us. Read it, and finally—You. Will. Understand." —Rick Perlstein
"Thomas Frank has crossed the Styx and returned to sing of the tortured, tormented souls of the Tea Party and their sufferings in the Socialist America they have conjured from thin air. This he does with grace, style and humor, which not all of his subjects share. Be glad that in this election year you can read Pity the Billionaire instead of turning on the television or the radio or your computer. Pity the Billionaire? Hell. Pity us all." —James K. Galbraith
“Thomas Frank is the thinking person’s Michael Moore. If Moore, the left-wing filmmaker, had Frank’s Ph.D. (in history from the University of Chicago), he might produce books like this one.” –Michael Kinsley, The New York Times Book Review
“A feisty and galvanizing book… This is the kind of analysis - historically astute, irreverent and droll - that makes Frank such an invaluable voice. As he's done in a series of perceptive books, Frank cuts through the partisan blather and explains how money and cynical ideas shape a certain kind of contemporary politics. "Pity the Billionaire" is further evidence that he's as good at this as any writer working today.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“An astonishing story…Frank is one of the best leftwing writers America has produced.”–The Guardian
“Thomas Frank writes English and not the chat of the pundits and mainstream columnists. He has learned things from Twain and Mencken, but the cartooning in this book is if anything restrained…The country is in suspense, from causes of which Pity the Billionaire gives a highly convincing account.” –Guardian Books
“A spirited, acerbic, stylish exploration of the Republican resurrection.” –Boston Globe
“Thomas Frank lays out with biting wit how today's conservatives co-opted that symbol and forged a pseudopopulist front to defend the enablers of market failure… A guide to help real populists elude their saboteurs.” –Mother Jones
“An insightful, bitingly humorous book.” –Kirkus Reviews
“No figure on the American left knows more about the American right than Thomas Frank: columnist, editor, and hawkeyed observer of conservatism high and low.” –Christian Science Monitor
“Frank’s wit is as sharp as ever, and his eye for detail and his ability to capture a scene reminded me of reading zoologist Dian Fossey on a group of strange political primates.” –Washington Post
“A road map for everyone who wonders, while watching the hodgepodge of Republican presidential candidates: How the heck did all this happen?” –Fortune
“Forget “What’s the matter with Kansas?” The question Frank goes on the road to investigate this time is: What the f**k is wrong with America? Short-sighted fiscal policies have tanked the economy Great Depression–style, millions are jobless, foreclosures are at record highs, and pizza has been declared a vegetable. Why aren’t the adorable heads of the conservative-right wingdings behind much of the mess stuffed on pikes outside the White House? Is a good portion of the country suffering from Stockholm syndrome? Did somebody put something in our tea? What, pray tell, are the victims of these catastrophic policies thinking as they stand outside Arby’s banging out “She’s a Grand Old Flag” on their tin cups? Read the book. Tom Frank, as ever, makes some wickedly clever observations and produces some surprising answers.” –Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
About the Author
Thomas Frank is the author of Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas?, and One Market Under God. A former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and a monthly columnist for Harper's. He lives outside Washington, D.C.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Signs and Wonders
This book is a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans rose up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest terms. It is about a country where fears of a radical takeover became epidemic even though radicals themselves had long since ceased to play any role in the national life; a land where ideological nightmares conjured by TV entertainers came to seem more vivid and compelling than the contents of the news pages.
Seen from another perspective, this is a chronicle of a miraculous time, of another “Great Awakening,” of a revival crusade preaching the old-time religion of the free market.1 It’s the story of a grassroots rebellion and the incredible recovery of the conservative movement from the gloomy depths of defeat. Inevitably the words “populist” and “revolt” are applied to it, or the all-out phrase chosen by Dick Armey, the Washington magnifico who heads one of the main insurgent organizations: a “true bottom-up revolution.”2
Let us confess that there is indeed something miraculous, something astonishing, about all this. Consider the barest facts: this is the fourth successful conservative uprising to happen in the last half century,* each one more a-puff with populist bluster than the last, each one standing slightly more rightward, and each one helping to compose a more spellbinding chapter in the historical epoch that I call “the Great Backlash,” and that others call the “Age of Reagan” (the historian Sean Wilentz), the “Age of Greed” (the journalist Jeff Madrick), the “Conservative Ascendancy” (the journalist Godfrey Hodgson), or the “Washington Consensus” (various economists).
Think about it this way. It has now been more than thirty years since the supply-side revolution conquered Washington, since laissez-faire became the dogma of the nation’s ruling class, shared by large numbers of Democrats as well as Republicans. We have lived through decades of deregulation, deunionization, privatization, and free-trade agreements; the neoliberal ideal has been projected into every corner of the nation’s life. Universities try to put themselves on a market-based footing these days; so do hospitals, electric utilities, churches, and museums; so does the Post Office, the CIA, and the U.S. Army.
And now, after all this has been going on for decades, we have a people’s uprising demanding that we bow down before the altar of the free market. And this only a short while after the high priests of that very cosmology led the world into the greatest economic catastrophe in memory. “Amazing” is right. “Unlikely” would also be right. “Preposterous” would be even righter.
In 2008, the country’s financial system suffered an epic breakdown, largely the result—as nearly every credible observer agrees—of the decades-long effort to roll back bank supervision and encourage financial experimentation. The banks’ stumble quickly plunged the nation and the world into the worst recession since the thirties. This was no ordinary business-cycle downturn. Millions of Americans, and a large number of their banks, became insolvent in a matter of weeks. Sixteen trillion dollars in household wealth was incinerated on the pyre Wall Street had kindled. And yet, as I write this, the most effective political response to these events is a campaign to roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain, and to clamp down on federal spending.
So let us give the rebels their due. Let us acknowledge that the conservative comeback of the last few years is indeed something unique in the history of American social movements: a mass conversion to free-market theory as a response to hard times. Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession’s victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from “red tape” and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.
The Consensus Speaks
The achievement of the thing is even more remarkable when we remember the prevailing opinion climate of 2008. After the disasters of the George W. Bush presidency had culminated in the catastrophe on Wall Street, the leading lights of the Beltway consensus had deemed that the nation was traveling in a new direction. They had seen this movie before, and they knew how it was supposed to go. The plates were shifting. Conservatism’s decades-long reign was at an end. An era of liberal ascendancy was at hand. This was the unambiguous mandate of history, as unmistakable as the gigantic crowds that gathered to hear Barack Obama speak as he traveled the campaign trail. You could no more defy this plotline than you could write checks on an empty bank account.
And so The Strange Death of Republican America, by the veteran journalist Sidney Blumenthal, appeared in April of 2008—even before the Wall Street crash—and announced that the “radical conservative” George W. Bush had made the GOP “into a minority party.”3 In November, Sean Wilentz, the erstwhile historian of the “Age of Reagan,” took to the pages of U.S. News & World Report to herald that age’s “collapse.” The conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama had said pretty much the same thing in Newsweek the month before. That chronicler of the DC consensus, Politico, got specific and noted the demise of the word “deregulator,” a proud Reagan-era term that had been mortally wounded by the collapse of (much-deregulated) Wall Street.4
The thinking behind all this was straight cause-and-effect stuff. The 2008 financial crisis had clearly discredited the conservative movement’s signature free-market ideas; political scandal and incompetence in the Republican Party had rendered its moral posturing absurd; and conservatism’s taste for strident rhetoric was supposedly repugnant to a new generation of postpartisan, postracial voters. Besides, there was the obvious historical analogy that one encountered everywhere in 2008: we had just been through an uncanny replay of the financial disaster of 1929-31, and now, murmured the pundits, the automatic left turn of 1932 was at hand, with the part of Franklin Roosevelt played by the newly elected Barack Obama.
For the Republican Party, the pundit-approved script went as follows: it had to moderate itself or face a long period of irrelevance. And as it failed to take the prescribed steps, the wise men prepared to cluck it off the stage. When the radio talker Rush Limbaugh made headlines in early 2009 by wishing that the incoming President Obama would “fail,” the former Bush speechwriter David Frum slapped him down in a much-discussed cover story for Newsweek. Judged by the standards of what would come later, of course, Limbaugh’s wish sounds quaint, even civil; at the time, however, it seemed so shocking that Frum depicted such rhetoric as “kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally.” Venomous talk might entertain the party’s bitter-enders, Frum acknowledged, but the price of going in that direction was the loss of the “educated and affluent,” who increasingly found “that the GOP had become too extreme.”
The GOP’s strange drive toward self-destruction was a favorite pundit theme. When former vice president Dick Cheney announced that he preferred Limbaugh’s way to the route of moderation, the New York Times columnist Charles Blow laughed that Cheney was “on a political suicide mission. And if his own party is collateral damage, so be it.” When certain conservatives proposed a test to detect and punish heresy among Republican politicians, the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker called it a “suicide pact.” The respected political forecaster Stu Rothenberg concluded in April 2009 that “the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not ‘close to zero.’ Not ‘slight’ or ‘small.’ Zero.”5
Dustbin? No Thanks
What the polite-thinking world expected from the leaders of the American Right was repentance. They assumed that conservative leaders would be humbled by the disasters that had befallen their champion, George W. Bush; that Republicans would confess their errors and make haste for the political center. The world expected contrition.
What it got was the opposite, delivered on the point of a bayonet. Instead of complying with the new speed limit, the strategists of the Right hit the gas. Instead of tacking for the center, they sailed hard to the right. Instead of seeking accommodation, they went on a quest for ideological purity. Instead of elevating their remaining centrists to positions of power, they purged them.
Now, the idea that the disasters of the Bush years spelled the end for conservatism was reasonable enough if you accepted assumptions that were thought to be obvious in those days: When a political group screwed up, people didn’t vote for it any longer. When elected officials wandered too far into the fields of ideology, some mysterious force of political gravity always pulled them back to the “center.” And so it was simple. The Right, under its beloved leader, George W. Bush, had disgraced itself; now it was the other team’s turn at bat. Political epochs were supposed to run in thirty-year cycles or something, and the GOP’s thirty years were up.
That Republicans might seek a way out of their predicamen...