Can You Spare a Tax Break? Thomas Frank’s ‘Pity the Billionaire’
How did the Tea Party turn the Great Recession into another opportunity to grind down government and reward the rich? Progressives let them.
Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Comeback of the RightPublisher: Metropolitan
Length: 240 pages
Author: Thomas Frank
Publication date: 2012-01
Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.
—Pity the Billionaire
The American left has been perplexed by the anger of the right, particularly after being sucker-punched by the culture wars of the '90s. Right around the time of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, traditional policy battles morphed into something less tangible. On this new battleground of outrage politics, led on the right by shouting venom-sprayers like Rush Limbaugh and “think tanks” who created facts to order, bewildered liberals were cut to pieces. They were like Robert de Niro’s Ace Rothstein in Casino in the scene where a man is picking a fight with him in a bar. While Ace tries to puzzle out where the aggression is coming from, Joe Pesci’s Nicky just attacks the guy. To wildly oversimplify things, in modern-day America, the left thinks and the right acts.
Convinced that the working and middle classes still identified them as the best group to look out for their interests, the left (well, Democrats) were like French soldiers confidently manning the Maginot Line in 1940, unaware that the Panzers had already bypassed their static defenses and were making for Paris. The right had figured out that identity politics were what mattered. Give a voter your policy proposal and they’ll think about it. But tell them that the other guy in the race (along with other, vaguely defined elites lurking in universities and hoity-toity coffeeshops) looks down on them and their “values”, and pretty soon they’ll be begging for the chance to vote for you.
This is the fundamental logical disconnect that Thomas Frank first tried to parse in 2004 with What’s the Matter with Kansas? In that seminal dispatch from a decade that stretched the limits of surreality in American political discourse (unmatched until, of course, the current decade), Frank tried to figure out why so many people from his home state voted time after time against their economic interests. All the evidence said that Republicans were going to fray the safety net, run roughshod over workers’ rights, and ensure that wages kept dropping. Nevertheless, residents of a once-progressive state backed the agents of their own pain.
Frank never quite arrived at a satisfactory answer, though he did show how all those economic concerns were ultimately trumped by one highly emotional and spiritual one: abortion. In the end, nothing mattered except that one band of politicians was willing to stand up and claim: We will save unborn babies. That, once in office, those politicians never actually rolled back those abortion rights which their supporters so vehemently opposed, never seemed to matter. Hope sprang eternal. Meanwhile the safety-net shredding went on.
In his newest book, Frank continues his project of analyzing the demolition-derby tactics of the modern right, only this time his bafflement (he is a good liberal, after all) has a related focus. Pity the Billionaire studies one of the great curiosities of our time. In this instance, it’s the headache-inducing sight of many citizens of a country still reeling from a recession, primarily brought on by a wildly unregulated financial industry, apoplectic with rage not at those who brought the calamity about, but those who were trying, albeit meekly, to keep it from happening again. As Frank writes, the conservative insurgency of the last few years “has capitalized on the nation’s anguish to create a protest movement that virtually promises to make the anguish worse.”
Many were more baffled, of course, why so many of those protestors couldn’t spell their signs correctly or insisted on hanging tea bags from their tricornered hats. But to his credit, Frank doesn’t take the easy way out of the lefty finger-pointer (the mini-industry of Tea Party mockery having filled that void left by the departure of the last President George Bush). Instead, he tries to figure out why it was that the antiestablishment rage of early 2009 was not able to be channeled by some firebrand progressive.
No, the call to arms was issued in February 2009 by a CNBC reporter, Rick Santelli, infuriated that buried deep inside the TARP bill was a provision that was supposed to help homeowners with underwater mortgages more easily make their payments. Thus avoiding foreclosure. Thus ensuring fewer people were thrown out on the street. Thus helping keep the nation looking less like it was falling to pieces. Within just a few months, the Tea Party was a bona fide political uprising, railing against government intervention, government regulation, practically government anything. Through this funhouse-mirror distortion of the crash of 2008, it was actually government that caused the problem, and the threat of new taxes that would ensure a recovery would never happen.
Frank details, fortunately at shorter length than many other writers already have, the ways in which corporate powers like the oil billionaires Charles and David Koch Astroturfed it all. After all, what business wouldn’t take advantage But instead of writing off all the Tea Partiers as conspiratorial racists and loons, like many other progressive writers have, Frank tries to actually figure out where the anger came from and why it turned on such strange targets. His answer is short, unfortunate, and spot-on.
The Tea Party, their allies, and the conservative machinery that egged them on and kept the message going after the initial fury began to fade, was the only game in town.
"Much of this desperate bamboozlement looks pretty transparent today. Still, the duplicity led to exactly the grassroots phenomenon that its promoters imagined. The thinking at its core was sloppy, maybe, but in its general tenor it hit precisely the right note for those anxious days. While the world was coming to pieces in the storm, the newest Right acknowledged our terror and offered a utopian ideal, a beacon of authentic Americanness that glowed like a lighthouse through the swirling muddle."
Further, once Frank digs into much of the Tea Party’s writings and listens to the rhetoric at the rallies he attends (nice to see a writer of a particularly political bent still willing to go out and actually do real research among the opposition), he finds out something else. The first is that for all its pretense to NASCAR blue-collar grit, the Tea Party movement is a pretty middle-class thing. Its language is thick with management-speak and its concerns nearly identical with those of entrepreneurs and freelance consultants. Small business people, in other words.
This is an important point. For while most progressives prefer to point out the hypocrisies and cringing illogic of the modern right—ever-screaming “socialism” as they are—this doesn’t address the underlying source of their anger. In other words, for small business people highly at risk in an uncertain economy, the government is always going to be an easy target (“It’s hard to convince a man sweating over a fifty-page income-tax return that the state has gone away or that markets are now in charge”). And in hard times like the Great Recession, people are looking for targets.
According to Frank, it just so happens that this time, unlike right after the Great Crash, corporate interests and their conservative allies got to the well of anger before the progressives did. Once there, they could keep the well full by utilizing the well-oiled machine of right-wing outrage. They convinced those still suffering from the effects of the last market crash that the way forward was to ensure the safety of those “job creators” at the top, whose concerns (payroll, confusing regulations, the damn unions) were not that different from the small businesspeople thronging Tea Party rallies and hurling abuse at their representatives in town-hall meetings.
They did, Frank argues, in a void. Because while impotent rage enveloped the unemployed or underemployed, indebted, and overmortgaged nation, the left was either quiet or murmuring soft words of assurance that the experts were in charge now, and all would be well. Frank notes Jon Stewart’s 2010 anti-Beck rally as a case in point: "Conservatives were out in the cul-de-sacs of America following their strategy from the seventies—'organize discontent'—and here were the liberals, on the mall in DC, trying to save the day by organizing civility."
Pity the Billionaire isn’t Frank’s best work. While it reads briskly and is snappily composed, it sometimes feels like it was put together in a hurry. The book has the sense of an author reaching for a grander theory that he just doesn’t have the space to articulate. Kansas and One Market Under God were standalone masterworks, whereas Pity the Billionaire is more like another link in the chain. What is here, though, is crisply argued and stark in its conclusions. Frank’s coolly put-together arguments and flashes of brimstone impatience together make a strong brew of thoughtful but outraged progressive discontent. It's a quality in short supply today.