Pity the Poor Billionaire: Interview with Thomas Frank
David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.
Thomas Frank is one of the Left's most strident and articulate voices—the New York Times called him "the thinking person's Michael Moore." A journalist by vocation (he co-founded The Baffler in 1988, wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal from 2008-2010, and currently writes a monthly colum for Harper's Magazine), and historian by training (he earned his PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 1994), Frank has become a prolific writer of social and cultural history and criticism. His 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America was on the New York Times bestseller list for eighteen weeks and earned him international acclaim.
His latest book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, was published in January by Henry Holt. I spoke to Mr. Frank via telephone about the book and contemporary politics.
Pity the Billionaire begins with this basic question: how did the Right manage to revive itself from seeming near death in 2008 to the cusp of power in 2012? First, though, I want to get our definitions straight: what is the Right today?
Well, that’s a really good question, because there’s this debate over the meaning of the word conservative, and I don’t really think that the modern Republican Party is conservative movement. I think it’s a movement that believes in markets. Its North Star, so to speak, is free-market theory. The operations of the market are not mindful of tradition; it’s not about conserving the system, the social order, or the economy that we had. Markets deal in constant revolution, the crushing of old industries, and the rise of new ones. It’s not conservatism in that Edmund Burke sense.
Where does the Tea Party fit into this landscape?
They’re a very interesting phenomenon. In my mind, they are a replica of a hard times protest movement that has been more or less deliberately ginned up by the conservative institutions in Washington D.C., which subsequently took on a life of their own. Today they aren’t as visible as they used to be, but then again they don’t really need to be. They won some big victories in the 2010 election, and a lot of their big ideas have been embraced by conservative institutions. What’s fascinating about them, though, is that they are a social protest movement that demands that we free up the markets even more, that we dedicate ourselves even more resolutely to free-market idealism.
In essence, your thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas? was that monied corporate interests were using the culture wars to drive a wedge between working-class whites and their own economic interests, which were best served by the Democratic Party. But what you’re saying now is that the Tea Party is a populist movement that actually agrees with those corporate monied interests.
That’s right. This is different than the culture war stuff. I should say that the culture war stuff will come back. I think we’re in a temporary hiatus—that’s typical for times when the economy is very bad—but it’ll be back, no question about it.
I don’t think the Tea Party movement is a working-class movement, though it uses a lot of populist language (producers vs. parasites, that whole strain of thought). When I observed it firsthand, it didn’t strike me as a blue-collar movement at all; it seemed like a small-business movement, a movement of entrepreneurs. Tea Party conventions will often have trade shows attached to them, and at the trade shows they’re selling each other stuff! There’s a lot of entrepreneurship involved into the political movement itself—guys selling stuff to other guys, and people selling stuff to other Tea Party members on the ground that they can turn around and sell to their colleagues.
In the book you spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck. He’s fallen out of favor with Fox News and establishment conservatives, but you dissect him and his bombastic language, his affinity for conspiracy theories, and especially his unorthodox historical views. Where do his views come from (historically speaking), and why did you write about him?
I wrote about him because I believe he’s a very significant historical figure. During that period of 2009-2010, he really seemed to have the nation’s ear, and he was the preeminent voice of hard times protest. He was on the cover of Time, his show had an incredibly high rating for a cable news program at 5:00 pm, he had bestseller after bestseller (and I believe he has one now). Yes, he’s not on Fox News any longer, but in his brief moment of glory, he was extraordinarily influential. If you go back and look at interviews with Tea Party supporters in the past year, or if you watch videos of Tea Party rallies, or if you go to a Tea Party rally yourself, the things that you hear from the podium and the people attending are the distinctive Glenn Beck takes on history—like his hatred of Woodrow Wilson, for example. You hear that everywhere now. But there’s dozens of examples like that.
He does not seem to put much credence in standard historical takes on the past. It’s not even clear to me that he knows about standard historical interpretations of, say, the Roosevelt administration. Instead, he’s got all of his ideas from something else. We know some of the books he reads—they tend to be fringe writers like Cleon Skousen and other marginal books that historians do not consider to be serious books about history. All of these books, though, have a really great theory to them, a really fun angle. That’s where Beck seems to get his ideas.
And what sorts of angles are in these books?
Conspiracy and doom. The idea that we’re heading to some sort of imminent catastrophe. And let’s give the guy [Beck] some credit—that was the mood of the moment. People wanted to hear about onrushing doom.
You also discussed Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in a fair amount of detail. You called that book “the story of an alternative Great Depression in which everything happens the way market-minded conservatives would have it happen … and the novel itself is in many of its details an artifact of the Great Depression.” You also referenced Jennifer Burns, who just wrote a biography of Ayn Rand, who said that she was shocked that Rand has suddenly become popular again in the past two years. You also mentioned Amity Shlaes and other conservative historians who led the way in the 2000s in reassessing the New Deal and FDR. Is the rediscovery of Rand after 2008 the political vindication of those conservative historians’ efforts?
I think so, but I think that Rand’s renewed popularity arises mainly from the text itself. I had never read it before; I never went through the Ayn Rand phase that a lot of people go through in high school and college. I read it with fresh eyes, and while I was reading it I read a lot of reporting from the 1930s. It struck me that Atlas Shrugged had a lot of the same themes—it might well have been one of those works of journalism from 1932. It seems to be a counterfactual Great Depression. It’s the Great Depression as it should have happened from Rand’s extremely ideological point of view.
There are all sorts of clues to the book’s provenance, but I just came across an even better one that I didn’t include in the book. In 1937, a lot of the top officials in the Roosevelt administration started blaming the recession of 1937—which was basically caused by the administration stopping deficit spending—on what they called a “capital strike,” a strike by the very rich. And historians generally regard that argument as a kind of conspiracy theory—not only do historians have a pretty good idea of what caused the recession, a capital strike is one of those things that sounds impossible. That’s the only example of people talking about this sort of thing until Rand comes along and writes a novel about it.
In your last chapter, you pillar the Democratic Party and Barack Obama for becoming technocrats who have failed to respond with anything resembling ideological gusto to the financial crisis and who are increasingly like the wealthy donors—investment bankers, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, etc.—who fund them. How, in your view, did the Democratic Party transform into this?
It’s been a long-term process, and I want to make clear that it’s not just Barack Obama. I actually hold him in pretty high regard to this day. But if you look at the various leaders of the party going back twenty or thirty years, they all imagine themselves as technocrats. I think it’s part of the long-term change in the Democratic Party. They don’t think of themselves as the party of working people anymore—they think of themselves as the party of professionals and academics. They’re the party of people who think they know better.
This is not only a mistake in that they walk into a very compelling populist critique year after year, Democrats also close themselves off from making the kind of ideological appeal that needed to be made after the financial meltdown. We’ve had regulatory failure after regulatory failure in the past few years—on Wall Street, with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with coal mine explosions in West Virginia—and all of that can be laid at the feet of regulatory agencies that did nothing or had been compromised in some dramatic way. And the Democrats are identified, whether like it or not, as the party of government. Obama cannot go out there and talk forthrightly about why government failed, and why we should want to have a government that can do it right. That’s the most basic question there is, and he just leaves that question open to take care of itself.
Most Democrats do the same thing: they can’t understand how they might come under ideological assault over these sorts of things. They subscribe to the political science view of politics, where you have a party on the left, a party on the right, and everything will naturally balance out. Under that logic, you don’t need to make an argument, you just have to stand somewhere on a scale.
While the Democrats portray themselves as the party of technocrats, that implies a certain expertise, and part of that applied to government is regulatory expertise. But when it comes to the financial sector, for example, it’s the financial wizards of Wall Street are the experts.
We’re living in a time of epic failure of the elites—the people who are supposed to watch the economy for us. If you ever do a proper search of professional and academic scandals, there are hundreds out there, and they’re outrageous. They put the Jack Abramoff scandal to shame. There was one where Muammar Gaddafi hired a PR firm to promote his regime, and they lined up all these academics to write articles for them and snuck them into magazines and newspapers all over the English-speaking world. Think about the failure of Enron: the failure of accountants. Think about the financial crisis: the failure of bond rating agencies. Those Wall Street scandals from ten years ago? The failure of boards of directors. Everywhere you look, the people who are supposed to be watching out for the public interest have been subverted by money. It’s an epidemic, and Democrats can’t even talk about it.
What about Occupy Wall Street? The rallies themselves have petered over the winter, but they’ve clearly had a political impact. Witness the discussion about economic inequality and the pressure Mitt Romney has been under over his immense wealth and finance career. Are we going to keep having this conversation?
We have to keep having it for the health of our nation. One of the things we’ve learned from the Obama administration is that we can’t rely on Democrats to provide leadership by themselves. They have to be pushed from outside, and the only movement that has shown any willingness to do that has been Occupy Wall Street. Ordinarily you’d rely on organized labor, but they’re fighting for their lives these days. OWS is the only group talking about this. I don’t know what form it will take next year, but I sincerely hope they do come back. Their anger isn’t going to go away. It’s up to the different movements to try and reach out to that anger. They finally provide the Tea Party movement with some competition.
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