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Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right

How we got to this grim pass in our political and economic system

January 17, 2012

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right By Thomas Frank Holt, Henry & Company 240 pp


Reviewed by Jason Farago for The Barnes & Noble Review

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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.

In “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” his scathing 2004 classic on the politics of the American heartland, he shone a klieg light on the strange triumph of the right in what was once the epicenter of the American populist movement. In the Kansas of those days, wedge social issues from abortion to flag-burning served as the grease that helped the rich and powerful ram through spectacular tax cuts for themselves, normally at the expense of the very voters who'd put them in office.

But in Pity the Billionaire:The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, his new book, Frank shows how thoroughly conservatism has mutated in the past few years. Coastal observers of the Tea Party phenomenon often assume that the tacky tri-cornered hats and elevation of the Constitution to holy writ function as a cover for the same old right, obsessed with the traditional God-guns-gays trifecta. In fact, as Frank saw during months on the road, "the fog of the culture wars has temporarily receded" – and in its place, the foot soldiers of the right now focus their energy on the defense of radically free markets, exhorting capitalism at its most rapacious and government at its least effective.

What makes this new "hard-times conservatism" truly bizarre is that it arose in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the greatest failure of free market principles most Americans have ever lived through. Three years ago, every laissez-faire warrior from Alan Greenspan on down prostrated himself before Congress and the press, conceding that the system was broken. And yet from the ashes of the crisis arose not a third way, but a shrill, purified movement of hardcore anti-government activists. For Frank, it's as if "the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster."

Until Obama's election, this kind of purist market worship was the preserve of political and economic elites – "propaganda," to use Frank's blunt term, to keep
wealth in their own hands. Who knows if even they believed it? And yet in 2009 and 2010, a whole swath of Americans turned to "the sole utopian scheme available" to them, with effects that can only be called perverse. It's one thing for a CEO to declare that "corporations are people," if such an obscene claim leads to greater profits or power. Now, amazingly, the same line could be heard from ordinary voters. Even more strangely, middle- and working-class Americans were defending precisely the multinationals that had triggered the crisis and received the universally reviled bailouts. In the trough of the 2009 recession, Americans whose livelihoods had been destroyed by far-off bankers were actually rallying "to demand that bankers be freed from 'red tape' and the scrutiny of the law." At one surreal moment, Glenn Beck urged his followers to give away their cash to the US Chamber of Commerce, "the biggest, baddest business lobby in all of DC." They donated so much that they crashed its servers.


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