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Exploring Why Americans 'Pity the Billionaire'

Thomas Frank examines campaign of the Far Right

Feb. 6, 2012
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With Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan), Thomas Frank continues his corrosive critique of right-wing ascendance in American politics. In What's the Matter With Kansas? (his native state), he explored why ordinary people vote against their own economic interests and for politicians who favor the rich, and in The Wrecking Crew he portrayed conservative governance as one of bungling and corruption—that favored the rich.

Pity the Billionaire
examines why the American populace has reacted politically to the recent Great Recession in a manner opposite to the way Americans reacted to the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Depression-era Americans reviled the upper class that had steered them into disaster” and demanded change. Now, many embrace not change, but rather a continuation of Republican economic policies, the very people and ideas, he contends, that got America into the mess—all of which favored the rich.

Eight decades ago a foreclosure would have been an occasion for the community to rally around a neighbor seen as a victim of a ruthlessly unfair economic system. Now at Tea Party rallies signs can be seen reading, “Your Mortgage Is Not My Problem.”

This right-wing-inspired glorification of the unrestrained free market, as he sees it, has proved a monstrous fraud and swindle that will only make the country's anguish worse. “The revival of the Right is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster.”

Frank delves into what he calls the “holy trinity” of deregulation, privatization and free trade that allowed Wall Street to wreck the economy. Wall Street got bailed out, but not the millions of people it ruined. That angers people, and yet they do not call for a change in the conditions that brought it about.

The reasons they do not are complex, in the author's view, but basically they involve what might be called a devilishly ingenious campaign of deceit, misdirection, inversion, befuddlement and confusion on the part of the Right. He is a careful and witty writer and documents his assertions and explanations assiduously.

A few examples of what he says the campaign has been able to do:

  • Portray Democrats as both pawns of the banks and also the persecutors of them.
  • Erase class distinctions in such a way that the interest of a wealthy mine owner in removing safety regulations is seen to serve workers by getting rid of “government meddling” that is “ruining American jobs.” Or portray a Wall Street trader as simply one worker among many, with financial concerns no different from those of a restaurant waiter or a construction laborer.
  • Deflect anger against big business by pretending that deregulation and tax cuts and NAFTA will help the “little guy” and small businesses, though big business is really the chief benefactor. (Frank also points out that, contrary to myth, small business is not and for more than a century has not been the main source of new jobs, but propagating the myth serves the Right's purposes.)
  • Most of all, champions of the Right play the victim and incite groundless fears—of “concentration camps” for conservatives, “death panels” for grandma, a president not legally entitled to be president. Self-pity is central; depicting themselves, not minorities or the poor or other disadvantaged people, “as victimized in any and every situation…is essential to their self-understanding.”
  • The author is not hopeful. The Right cries alarm over the country's descent into “socialism,” but the alarm is part of the fear-mongering, for he emphasizes that absolutely nothing has changed. He blames President Obama for taking the path of Herbert Hoover by linking his fortunes with Wall Street's. He blames Democrats for not vigorously and unqualifiedly championing liberal policies the way New Dealers did.


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