Thomas Frank has earned a reputation as the H.L. Mencken of what passes for the contemporary American left. Beginning with The Baffler, the journal of cultural criticism he founded as a graduate student in 1988, he has wielded his wit as a scalpel to dissect the credulity, fecklessness and self-destructive delusions of wide stretches of the American public. His first book, The Conquest of Cool (1997), explored corporate America’s embrace of the rebellious, “anti-establishment” political and cultural movements of the 1960s—which often ridiculed the business world—and its alchemization of them into so many marvelous ways of huckstering its wares. Rebellion was leveraged to turn a profit, and thereby subdued. In his books and journalism since The Conquest of Cool, Frank has mainly lampooned the right, but in that first book he diagnosed a malady that crosses cultural and party lines: the attempts of the high and mighty to harness legitimate popular discontent in order to neutralize anger that otherwise might be directed at their own privileges and malfeasance.
Pity the Billionaire is the latest installment of Frank’s study in the arts and crafts of political derangement. Specifically it is a sequel to What’s the Matter With Kansas?, his 2004 bestseller about a classic Republican tactic from the culture wars: issuing jeremiads about the liberal assault on family values to persuade those Americans who benefit least from a Republican platform favoring big business to vote for Republican candidates. Pity the Billionaire examines a similar conundrum. In the teeth of the most monumental collapse of the capitalist financial system since the Great Depression, trailing wholesale economic devastation in its wake, something completely unexpected happened. Common sense and historical precedent foretold an upswell of resistance from the left—a demand that free-market capitalism be replaced, at the very least, with a tightly regulated market economy. That didn’t happen. Instead, in the past three years we have witnessed a populist uprising on the right, with the Tea Party insurgency having mobilized millions on behalf of the idea that what the country needs is the restoration of the laissez-faire global order that went down with Lehman Brothers.
This development defied the liberal, leftist and even the conservative political imagination. Frank notes that when the economic crisis hit, writers from Sean Wilentz to Francis Fukuyama were prophesying the marginalization of the Republican Party and a new day for progressives. Pity the Billionaire tries to answer the question of how what Frank calls “The Great Backlash” came to be and, implicitly, asks another: Why did the left turn out to be not just ineffectual but quiescent? He doesn’t really address this second question, except to imply that if only Obama had been more like FDR the left would have come back from the dead. The rise of the right today is arguably due, at least in part, to a vacuum on the left. As we all know now, but Frank didn’t at the time he wrote the book, that vacuum has been filled, at least for the moment, by the Occupy movement, although it’s hard to know what its lasting influence will be. Still, the animating question of Pity the Billionaire remains relevant, because the Tea Party continues to deploy enormous throw-weight within the GOP, and the movement’s credibility remains high among madder-than-hell “tenthers” and “birthers,” idolaters of the founding fathers, constitutional fundamentalists, creationists and other flat-earthers, free-enterprise zealots, guardians of moral correctness and all those vigilant patriots convinced we are but one stimulus package or tax hike away from some version of socialism.
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Frank argues in Pity the Billionaire that the Tea Party represents a break with the cultural populism that galvanized the Republican counterrevolution during and after the Reagan era. As in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Frank contends that ordinary people have been gulled by conservative elites into voting contrary to their own economic interests. But in Pity the Billionaire he claims that what he calls the “newest Right” veers away from proxy wars over family values and instead mounts the barricades in defense of free-market economics. Tea Party activists harbor the delusion that the bubble-driven economy that collapsed in 2008 was some approximation of state socialism rather than the closest thing to a free-market economy one might encounter anywhere on earth.