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Thomas Frank is an earnest liberal confounded by conservatism’s revival under Obama.
Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely
Comeback of the Right
By Thomas Frank
(Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co., 225 pages, $25)
Thomas Frank, who for a time filled the Al Hunt token-liberal slot at the Wall Street Journal, now writes the Easy Chair column for Harper’s magazine, a task previously reserved for genuine American men of letters, among them William Dean Howells, Bernard DeVoto, and the irascible Lewis Lapham (not related to Silas), strongly opinionated and ideologically wrong-headed, but an authentic man of letters, nevertheless.
Is Frank, a writer of strong political feelings but modest output and talent, fit to carry their water? Not on the evidence presented in this book, a semi-coherent critique of capitalism and a somewhat disjointed effort to explain how right-wing politicos and free market proponents have teamed up with corporate moneymen to delude ordinary Americans and create phenomena like Tea Parties.
He loathes the whole idea of free markets. “Now, there is nothing really novel about the idea that free markets are the very essence of freedom. What is new is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free market theory has proven itself to be the philosophy of ruination and fraud.”
Nor does he have any sympathy for those middle Americans who run small businesses, and what they represent. He sarcastically dismisses, with something like contempt, the idea that they’re our most important job providers, and mocks such assertions made in a decades-old Ronald Reagan speech:
“Oh,” writes Frank, “they’re the salt of the earth. The roots of the grass, the dreamers of the dream, the vox of the populi, the common man in all his righteousness.”
An odd outburst, especially from a man who apparently grew up in a normal middle-class home in Kansas. But no matter. That’s a matter for the psychologists.
In his 2004 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas, Frank made a splash among liberals looking for proof that what seemed to be an ascendant conservatism was just a bad dream, by arguing that clever conservative leaders had manipulated American working people and middle class voters from voting their interests by distracting them with issues like abortion and affirmative action, which he apparently believes mean nothing at all.
Then came the crisis of 2008, the election of Barack Obama, Democratic victories in both houses, with capitalists and champions of free enterprise on the run, and big government, just as in the FDR years, about which Frank lovingly writes, was once again in the driver’s seat, “with the part of Franklin Roosevelt played by the newly elected Barack Obama.” Happy days were here again.
However, with the congressional elections of 2010, it seemed that the great unwashed were blaming excessive governmental intrusion for the country’s great malaise, instead of placing it on capitalists and free marketers. Writes Frank: “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; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national Hero.”
How to explain it? This conservative revival, Frank tells us, was really the result of a “hard-times swindle,” with pitchmen for the right-wing political-financial complex this time round encouraging frightened Americans, too stupid to understand how they were being manipulated, into blowing liberal and liberal-sympathizing members of Congress of both parties out of their comfortable sinecures.
Who are these pitchmen? Oddly, of all the villains available, he singles out as chief spokesman Glenn Beck who “would become the voice of American discontent” (a voice seldom heard these days, and of questionable reach to begin with). Beck scampers through this book like a deranged leprechaun, pitching a wacko gospel of free enterprise to the yokels.
And as the intellectual pitchperson, Frank nominates Ayn Rand, whose philosophy of objectivism, he seems to believe, animates American conservatism, and is sufficiently important to warrant, in this short book, a full-fledged deconstruction of Atlas Shrugged.
That job had been done decades before, better and more intelligently, and with the blessing of Bill Buckley, by Whittaker Chambers in National Review. The Chambers review effectively insured that Ayn Rand, despite a small band of disciples that included Alan Greenspan, would never become a significant influence in the conservative movement. But then, Frank steers away from any discussion of the mainstream conservatism, limiting the discussion to easily demolished caricatures like Beck, nameless Tea Party protesters, and obscure bloggers, never mentioning any major conservative figures. (He does refer to TAS twice, but only in passing.)
So what are we to take away from his analysis of the philosophy of Ayn Rand?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?