Pity the Billionaire

I trekked up to 82nd Street and Broadway the other evening to see Thomas Frank talk about his new book PITY THE BILLIONAIRE (which I am about halfway through). I’ll be doing a handful of bookstore appearances myself next month, and I wanted to see how it’s done. Despite being viciously and brainlessly trashed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, Frank was just as cantankerous and brilliant as ever.

Frank has the same ear for irony, bad faith, and the aporetic as the literary deconstructionists I used to encounter in graduate school in the 1970s, but the discourses that he so mercilessly decodes are the foundational tenets of the revenant right: “Constitutionalism,” “Free market capitalism,” “Entrepreneurialism.” His new book, he writes, is “a chronicle of a confused time, a period when American 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….Seen from another perspective, this is a chronicle of a miraculous time, of another “‘Great Awakening.'”

Here he is on the blue collar repudiation of the Democrats that powered the Republican landslide of 2010:

In a demonstration of “resistance to Obama and his agenda,” the demographic that had been moved by capitalism’s last systemic crisis to hand the presidency to Franklin Roosevelt four times in a row now resurrected the politics of Herbert Hoover.

It was an astonishing reversal, to be sure, but it was hardly the guileless upsurge that its fans have made it out to be. Most of the people involved were well-meaning citizens caught up in the spirit of the times. But the larger political operation in which they enlisted themselves has been like a gigantic game of three-card monte, in which the deck is shuffled and one card takes the place of another. Before our eyes, imaginary terrors have been substituted for real ones. All that remains is for the nation to pay up.

This, of course, is my subject too, though I tend to focus on the epiphenomenal fringe–the KKK rather than the Koch brothers; the Council of Conservative Citizens rather than the Chamber of Commerce. My bad reviews (hopefully Michiko has gorged herself on Frank and will ignore me) will accuse me of shamelessly playing the race card; if anyone is a hater, they’ll say, it’s the author of this book, who willy nilly accuses anyone who isn’t 100% behind the Obama agenda of racism.

But I don’t at all. What I accuse the right (and in some cases the left) of doing is waving bloody flags, of using emotionally-charged stories and symbols to promote their own mostly practical interests. Paranoia isn’t a political position per se; it’s the pre-conscious human condition. It describes what’s going on in the depths of our reptilian brains, which interpret every rustling sound as a hungry bear or a saber-toothed tiger pacing just beyond the firelight; which sees every stranger as a murderous rival who wants to murder or rape us and enslave our children. It’s because we carry so much of that kind of instinctive baggage that we need to be socialized–it’s why civilizations build schools and churches and the like. Any politics that encourages those atavistic impulses should be deplored.

I’m not a particularly partisan person, when you get right down to it. I voted for Obama, of course, but I can think of lots of things to hold against him. I don’t believe that Democrats have a monopoly on virtue or even good sense. But consider the craziness that was going on in Iowa all fall. What astounds me is how determined the mainstream media seemed to be to NOT acknowledge how much raw hatred was in the air.

Ron Paul, a long time Bircher, has appeared countless times on Alex Jones’s 9/11 denialist radio show and allowed racist, homophobic, and conspiracist screeds to be printed over his name. Pundits furrowed their brows and said, “yes, but he doesn’t seem hateful.” In the meantime, as disparate groups as white nationalists, Christian dominionists, and Ayn Rand libertarians claimed him as their own.

Herman Cain’s implicit brand proposition was that he was the antidote to Obama’s black skin—his race would magically cancel out Obama’s affirmative action advantages. He would be one of “our blacks,” as Ann Coulter so charmingly put it.

Newt Gingrich leaped into the presidential race calling for a ban on Shariah law and mosque-building with the same zeal that Henry Ford attacked the Jewish Kahal in the 1920s; Rick Perry tried to revive his foundering campaign with an appeal to defeat the homosexual agenda and beat back the people who were making war on Christmas.

Rick Santorum promised us that the day will come when women will be forced to give birth to their rapists’ children and Michelle Bachmann held out hope of a country reformed according to “Biblical” principles. And the moderate Mitt Romney, the pragmatic businessman, summoned the spirit of the anti-FDR American Liberty League the other day when he told an Iowa rally that “President Obama wants to make us a European style welfare state, where instead of being a merit society we’re an entitlement society, where government’s role is to take from some and give to others….If they do that, they’ll substitute envy for ambition, and they’ll poison the very spirit of America and keep us from being one nation under God.”

In another day, they might have called that McCarthyism; in a political climate that’s as thick with the New Hate as it is, hardly anyone even notices.

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3 thoughts on “Pity the Billionaire

  1. Just listened to the Media Matters podcast w/Bob McChesney interviewing Frank about the new book: sounds great. Having read his last 3 books on this subject, this one will of course be a must read for me.

    If I had to choose just one quote to epitomize how bizarre conservative pseudo-populist economics are, it would be the line from What’s the Matter with Kansas where Franks says its like the French Revolution in reverse, with the sans culottes taking to the streets and demanding more power for the aristocracy.

    1. My only problem with Frank is that I can’t stop quoting him. I include that wonderful passage about the French revolution in reverse in The New Hate (I remember reading it on your blog some years ago too). The other line I keep coming back to is the one where he compares the central role of right wing indignation to the guitar solo in heavy metal. If I could write half as well as he does, I would be a happy man.

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