Writer Thomas Frank

The social critic, out with the new book Pity the Billionaire, discusses the Tea Party movement and which way the pendulum is swinging in the Republican Party.

Writer and social critic Thomas Frank is the author of the best-selling analysis of conservatism, What's the Matter with Kansas? He founded The Baffler, a magazine devoted to cultural criticism, and has contributed to several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, where he was an opinion columnist, Harper's and The Nation. A Kansas native, Frank earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. In his latest text, Pity the Billionaire, he examines the peculiar mechanism by which dire economic circumstances have delivered wildly unexpected political results.


Tavis: Thomas Frank is a noted editor, columnist and author whose previous books include “The New York Times” best seller “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” His latest is called “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.”

He joins us tonight from Washington. Thomas, good to have you on the program.

Thomas Frank: It’s my pleasure, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking whether or not there is anything that’s happened since this book came out that challenges your basic thesis, because – and I ask that for the obvious reason that this political season is changing like the speed of light, the speed of sound.

Frank: (Laughs) Yeah.

Tavis: So let me start by asking you whether or not anything in your thesis has changed since the book came out.

Frank: Well, not – the thing is, Tavis, that it’s a look back at the last three years, and so the last three years aren’t changing. But yeah, you’re right; the world around us is changing like crazy.

So the way I think about it is that what “Pity the Billionaire” is about is about hard times conservatism. It’s about the way that the conservative movement sort of re-fashioned itself as a protest movement for hard times.

Okay, look, the economy looks like it’s recovering right now, and so what happens? Suddenly Rick Santorum (laughs), suddenly the culture wars candidate is the frontrunner or close to it in the Republican primary and we’re all talking about “What’s the Matter with Kansas” again. It looks like the culture wars all over again.

Still, as a description of the last three years, I think “Pity the Billionaire” pretty much nails it.

Tavis: What does this moment say about the struggle the GOP is having to define itself again? You look back over the last three years, I guess another way of asking this question is given what’s happening now, what’s your sense of what the next three years will look like vis-à-vis the GOP trying to identify itself, discover who it is or announce to us who they want to be.

Frank: Look, the GOP did a very, in my view, unusual thing back in 2008 and 2009. The George Bush presidency was widely regarded as a failure, George Bush was very unpopular.

In addition to the Iraq war and all those scandals, then you had the collapse of Wall Street and the bailout of Wall Street, and this was all extremely unpopular. The pundits here in Washington pretty much across the board, Tavis, were saying that the Republican Party had to become moderate, had to put the conservative days of George Bush behind it, and they did the opposite.

They took a hard turn to the right and they said, in fact, George W. Bush wasn’t conservative enough for them, and the real answer was to reach out for this kind of free market utopia. That’s what the Tea Party movement was all about.

Here’s the really strange thing about that, Tavis. That strategy worked for them. They won a fantastic, sweeping victory in 2010, in the off-year elections. So what’s happened is that they have learned a – well, they’ve learned a lesson that I don’t think (laughs) is a particularly good lesson.

They’ve learned that always moving further to the extremes is the way to win, and that they only seem to be able to criticize one another from a perspective of conservative authenticity.

You look at Romney and Santorum fighting right now and the commercials that they’re running against one another, and all they ever accuse one another of being is a fake conservative. That’s the only sort of form of criticism that is permissible in that party now.

Tavis: So go back to the midterm elections of 2010, when the president, by his own admission, took a shellacking. If I said to you that the Tea Party may have won the battle but I’m not convinced in the long run they’re going to win the war, because I don’t think that this is necessarily sustainable, you’d say what?

Frank: Their plan is, their strategy is not particularly healthy for the country, and I don’t know, if after they’ve done enough structural change, or you might say enough structural damage, if it’s even possible to come back – for people like me, Tavis, I’m kind of the last remaining New Dealer.

I don’t even know if it’s possible for people like me to come back after a couple more victories like that one. (Laughs)

Tavis: To your point that you’re one of the last New Dealers, what do you make in retrospect now of all the magazine covers and all the stories written and all the columnists who were so, shall we say liberal, pardon the pun, with their comparison of Obama and FDR?

Frank: Well, I think that was a mistake. Although Obama came into office with – it looked like he had the winds of history behind him, he certainly had the popular adulation. You remember the crowds down on the National Mall when he was inaugurated. We’d never seen anything like that.

It sure looked like Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. It looked like the man who had the answers. But unfortunately, rather than really understanding where we were economically, Barack Obama came to Washington in the classic sort of D.C. Democratic delusion that the real problem in this country was partisanship, and that he was going to overcome that in some grand sort of statesmanlike way and bring all the parties together in a grand bargain.

I think one of the many things that he missed, and I say this as somebody that’s sympathetic to him and I think that he can still recover and be one of our great presidents, but he doesn’t understand that argument is normal, and people disagreeing with one another is normal, as long as we can keep it within bounds. But it’s not something that you’re ever going to overcome.

Tavis: Which way is the pendulum swinging for the GOP right now? The subtitle of your text is, of course, this “Unlikely Comeback of the Right,” but I’m not sure I know, Thomas, which way the pendulum is swinging right now.

Frank: Are they still on a roll? I don’t know. The way they’re slamming one another with these TV commercials, it’s hard to see how anyone comes through that and still is strong enough to challenge President Obama after they’re done hammering one another like that.

But on the other hand, the fact that you need so much money to run for president now, and we’re talking about Newt Gingrich or whoever it is going to their own sort of pet billionaire and getting the billionaire to write a check to their campaign, the fact that you have to have a pet billionaire really changes the equation, and in some ways, it doesn’t matter if you have a Republican in there or a Democrat.

Of course it matters, right? It’s not completely indifferent, but the power of money puts certain choices off the table for us as a society, and so the kind of things that Franklin Roosevelt did are not even really available to us anymore.

Tavis: So to the point you just made now, how much is this super PAC decision – that is to say the opening of the floodgates that this Citizens United decision that the Republicans have taken full advantage of, and much to the chagrin of those of us who thought the president was going to stand firm, or hoped he’d stand firm – I’m still blown away by the image that I recall of him chastising the Supreme Court a year ago while they sat on the front row –

Frank: That’s right.

Tavis: – at his State of the Union speech, then, as I’ve said before on this program, he does a 180; now he’s going to do the same thing that Republicans are doing.

So to your point now that everybody has their own pet billionaire or at least a super PAC to which they can send their pet billionaires, how much muddier is this going to make the water?

Frank: A lot muddier. There was a cover story in “New York” magazine a while ago that really nailed it. It was “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” was the headline, and that’s exactly right.

I read a “BusinessWeek” story that really bothered me about Obama’s campaign manager going to New York City to meet with a bunch of Wall Street types to encourage them to give money to the president’s super PAC.

He essentially – according to this story he promised that even though the president was going to be a “populist” this year, he would not attack Wall Street by name. He would leave that off the table.

Essentially – and remember, attacking Wall Street, this is what – like I said, I’m the last New Dealer or something like that. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy – this is what the Democratic Party used to be. This was one of the things that they did, is they were highly critical of Wall Street’s leadership of the economy.

President Obama is willing to put that off the table in order to raise money from these guys. It’s like I say, certain reaches of our traditional politics are becoming off-limits to us.

Tavis: Speaking of off-limits, Mitt Romney has suggested if, in fact, he’s the nominee – who knows at this point – but if he’s the GOP nominee, he’s been advancing, as you know, as often as he can this notion of the “politics of envy,” which ties nicely into your book’s title, “Pity the Billionaire.”

Frank: Yes, yes.

Tavis: Can that kind of strategy, or as George Bush might say, can that kind of “strategery” work for Mr. Romney and the Republicans that we’re engaging now in the politics of envy in America?

Frank: It seems like a natural thing for him to say, because he’s a quarter of a billionaire himself, so he’s a quarter of the way there.

I think about it all the time and it seems so unlikely to me that in the present circumstances, when people are so angry at Wall Street and so angry about the bailouts and the way the recession unfolded that they would turn to a man like that, who made his living as a venture capitalist, doing leveraged buyouts, it just seems impossible.

Then again, you look back at the last three years, you look at this Tea Party movement, and that was the whole idea there, was that the great sort of tycoons and capitalists and billionaires, they were the real producers of society and the rest of us were these kind of parasites.

Speaker of the House John Boehner himself, a couple of months ago, said that the entire slump that we’re in, the whole economic slump that we’re in was a result of that the job creators of America had gone on strike because they were so sick of being badmouthed by politicians and having the politicians regulate them, right, and make them pay taxes, and they were so sick of it that they had gone on strike, and that was why we were having a recession.

So if we want to get out of the recession, you know the answer – we have to be nice to those people. We have to pity the billionaire. We have to stop regulating them.

Tavis: That is, in fact, the name of the new text from Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” The new one is called “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.” Thomas, thanks for the text and good to have you on the program, sir.

Frank: It’s my pleasure.

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Last modified: February 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm