Thomas Frank is the author of “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right” (Metropolitan Books). He wrote several other books, including “What's the Matter With Kansas?” which spent nearly 40 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Frank, formerly an opinion columnist at The Washington Post and currently a monthly columnist for Harper's, is also the founder of the journal The Baffler. He lives outside Washington DC.
Aaron Leonard: The theme of your new book is that the current economic crisis has been paradoxically met with pleas for sympathy for the wealthy and the political activation of a social base of middle-class people who have taken up their call. Could you talk about how that phenomenon came about?
Thomas Frank: What has happened is very strange: that we would react to a financial crisis that was brought on by easily definable problems and react to it in exactly the wrong way, by making those problems worse, demanding more deregulation, that sort of thing. Various Republican candidates for president call for this every single day. It is flying precisely in the face of reality – the reality that we all agree on. The way they deal with that is by retreating into an alternate reality of their own. In some ways, “Pity the Billionaire” is about – though I did not have time to go far enough down that road – the social construction of reality. We are living in a time where we can no longer say, “Oh, we have this two-party system, and these people have one set of views, and these people have another.” It's something way beyond that now; one group has really seceded from a sense of reality.
The grander way of looking at this is to say this kind of thing happens all the time. That small business people – which is the group I identify with the Tea Party movement – often identify with people like the Koch brothers, or the billionaire class, the captains of industry, even though they really have very little in common with them. It certainly has happened before. The main reason, however, is the absence, at least for two years or so, of any alternative on the left, the complete failure of the Democratic Party, or anybody else, really to get out there and offer some alternative narrative. Not until Occupy Wall Street showed up did you even hear anybody saying these things.
AL: What is the significance of Occupy Wall Street compared to the Tea Party movement?
TF: The last chapter of “Pity the Billionaire” talks about how the right succeeded because of the absence of a competing narrative. Now, all of sudden, you've got a competing narrative. Occupy Wall Street, it's very disorganized, their views often seem confused and there are all sorts of reasons to object to it. But one thing that it does is completely change the landscape by offering this competing narrative of the bailouts – one that should have been there from the beginning, but better late than never. It has the potential to be hugely troublesome for the right. They were coasting on their initially largely unchallenged”answer” to the bailouts, which blamed “irresponsible borrowers” and other innocent people for causing the banking collapse. That is one of the reasons they were so successful. Well, that's going to be tougher for them to do going forward.
AL: You discuss the prevalence of demagoguery about socialism among the right (with Glenn Beck being the most shrill). It seems what they are really complaining about is social democracy – which, historically, has been a fallback for capitalism, a way of saving it. That was certainly the case in postwar Europe. Why does the right hate any kind of government intervention, any kind of social democratic element, so much?
TF: Conservatives in Europe have, by and large, accepted the social welfare state. In America, they never did. You had some Eisenhower-style Republicans who did, but the conservative movement never accepted it. They fought Social Security all along. It has never been legitimate to them. They live in a very different world than what you describe. The way you lay out the question makes a lot of sense in a macro-historic way. Capitalism has to have ways of rescuing people whose luck runs out. These people just don't see it that way.
Not surprisingly, class conflict in America has always been sharper and more violent than in Europe. Think about the history of the American labor movement. It was much more violent here than in Europe. The employer class in American never wanted to give an inch. You think of someone like Ayn Rand. She would basically be impossible in Europe. She could have written her books there – she was, in fact, a European – but she wouldn't have become this enormous celebrity, this guru of the right, in the way she has in America. Why? Business has always been much more powerful in this country than it has in other places. Maybe that is one of the things that makes us different from other industrialized countries. The American right has been convinced for a long time that they don't need to accept the welfare state in any way. You don't need a welfare state, is their claim. The market will fix everything.
AL: Toward the end of the book, you make an interesting contrast between Tea Party ideologues and the old left: you write that the old left, “saw freedom in the Soviet Union because they wanted to; Beck sees un-freedom in England because that's what he believes ought to be there.” I think that is a fair analogy, but the same could be said of many things – people hold to their beliefs as parents hold their children. For example, most people living in this country think it is basically “good” even after events like Hiroshima, My Lai, Haditha, Abu Ghraib…. Aren't those thinking America can somehow be fixed on its own terms, that it can live up to its “true democratic ideals,” also living a kind of illusion?
TF: That is a very interesting question. Maybe we are all deluded…. Things like My Lai and the invasion of Iraq: these are things people have, by and large, turned against. My Lai is not something anyone is proud of. The invasion of Iraq: people turned against Bush, and it turned on that question. I don't think it is monolithic in that way. The World War II example you cite, nobody thinks – and it was a horrible war – nobody thinks those were good things, but they think we were mainly on the good side in that fight.
You could extend that. Don't we all live in an ideological fantasy world? To a certain degree, we do. Everybody has a certain confirmation bias. Everyone likes to think that what they have just is really awesome and is the best possible car, computer etcetera. There are all kinds of ways in which we deceive ourselves. But there was something unique about the 1930s grip of utopianism on the mind of the old left. It is something remarkable that you can look at the Stalin regime and manage to blink out its massacres and the horrible things it was doing. This is what they are renowned for, this kind of self-deception.
I see the same thing in the Tea Party movement. They are able to blink out colossal bits of reality – chiefly, in this regard, the deregulation I mentioned earlier. That's the element of today's political scene that makes my head spin. I cannot believe that anyone would still stand up for deregulation after what has happened; it is incredible to me. And yet, they are doubling down on it and winning on that front for [the past] two years.
AL: What does the exit (at least for now) of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin from the main political stage say about the period we are moving into?
TF: Both of those people had different reasons for leaving the stage. Sarah Palin seemed to be interested in being a celebrity and making money. I used to say, “There is no way that woman can run for president in 2012, because it's hard, and you get asked a lot of questions, and you can't refuse to give a press conference. You have to talk to the press, and that would be really hard for her because she makes all these mistakes.” Well, she looks pretty good compared to the guys that are out there now!
Glenn Beck's departure is a big blow to the right. I used to go to these Tea Party rallies and listen to these people and watch them on TV; their argument all came from this guy. Their signs, what they said to reporters: it was all Glenn Beck's vision of history recycled through a different megaphone. Without him around as leader, they're going to have a lot of trouble, I think it's going to hurt them that he's not on FOX News any longer. You've got other people who want to replace him, but he is irreplaceable.