Pity the Billionaire: the Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right

Misreading how America bought in to the Tea Party.

Pity the Billionaire: the Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
Thomas Frank
Harvill Secker, 224pp, £14.99

Ever since What's the Matter With America? (2004), it has been Thomas Frank's task to explain how politicians have convinced ordinary Americans to agitate against their economic and social self-interest. That meant documenting the late stages of the culture wars, when white working-class Americans were prepared to sacrifice the welfare state and labour rights to align with a rich elite who played to their distaste for abortion, homosexuality, secularism and immigration. It meant outlining "market populism", a strand of philosophising among the elite, who justified themselves while undoing the social compact by arguing that market forces most truly represented the popular will and the order of nature and God.

Frank's new book, Pity the Billionaire, is an interim report on the fortunes of those ideas. After the Wall Street meltdown of 2007-2008, the George W Bush years ought to have been repudiated as a warmongering, deficit-inflating fraud and messianic capitalism should have retreated. But Frank's sense is that nothing changed. His object of scrutiny is the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party, by his account, entirely rejected the old culture war topics of values and morality. It made hypercapitalism the only morality, as "market populism, the sole utopian scheme available to the disgruntled American, went from being a CEO's dream to the fighting faith of the millions". Thus the book addresses a paradox lately on many people's minds and perhaps best expressed in the title of Colin Crouch's The Strange Non-Death of Neo­liberalism, published last year by Polity Press.

Frank retells the now-familiar story of how the Tea Party began in February 2009 with the business cable network CNBC broadcasting a tirade about the government's Troubled Assets Relief Programme by one of its reporters, Rick Santelli. Posing among commodity traders in Chicago, the reporter attacked the government bailout, not for the free money that it gave to bankers, but for the aid it offered to householders facing foreclosure. He promised a "Chicago Tea Party" to emulate the 18th-century Bostonians who helped spark the American Revolution against British taxation and colonial rule. The clip was repeated on the internet and emailed around the world thousands of times.

Frank was present at what he says was the first public gathering of the Tea Party, in Washington, DC eight days after Santelli's rant:

That original Tea Party rally sure didn't look spontaneous or grass-roots to me when I showed up. In fact, it had every appearance of being one of those staged protests that happen all the time in Washington . . . I had heard about the plans for the gathering not from some radical handbill picked up on a street corner, but in an online message from an editor at the American Spectator . . . The event was swarming with well-known conservative movement personnel. The blogger Michelle Malkin took a turn with the microphone, as did Joe the Plumber . . . Lots of people were in suits, and some were wearing name tags from the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was going on a few subway stops away.

Much of Pity the Billionaire demonstrates the preservation, in the Tea Party, of a top-down, money-driven conservatism that has been dogma on the American right for decades. The story didn't change. And it was only tethered to the new conditions by quite fragile-seeming arguments. If the government had bailed out Wall Street, then the government must be in cahoots with Wall Street (fair enough) - and, in the step that didn't follow, the government must have been dictating Wall Street's actions. Capitalism, left to itself, is infallible. It must have been government regulatory interference that caused the banks to push sub-prime loans, inflate the real-estate bubble, and hide this ticking time bomb from itself in opaque and un­regulated derivatives.

Wherever laissez-faire seemed to have failed us, Tea Party spokesmen could see that real laissez-faire had not yet been tried. It was an
inversion of the old apology for communism, in which dictatorships, famine and disaffection occurred only because real communism hadn't yet been seen.

Frank insists that the fakery he identifies in the Tea Party's origins and representative, quasi-official writings then provided the vehicle for real hard-times emotion. "[T]he duplicity led to exactly the grass-roots phenomenon that its promoters imagined," he writes. He notes a bizarre episode that occurred after the conservative television talk-show host Glenn Beck praised the national chamber of commerce, which lobbies on behalf of US business. "Such a deluge of small donations followed Beck's appeal that it crashed the chamber's servers." Once conservative publicists advertised how to disrupt Democratic "town hall" events in 2009 with harangues denouncing creeping socialism in the national health-care bill, a wave of freelancers took up the call. "It followed the same trajectory from contrived to genuine as did the Tea Party movement itself."

The difficulty is that Frank never convinces the reader of the meanings and motives of the "genuine" part of the movement. Consequently, his repeated assertion that the Tea Party animus does affect the "masses" or the "millions" ends up reproducing exactly the kind of publicity-seeking rhetoric he says is fake.

The Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol and her research student Vanessa Williamson have done helpful demographic and interviewing work suggesting that the Tea Party consists primarily of middle-aged and senior citizens, economically comfortable, already conservative Republican, and more likely than the average to be evangelical Christian. What matters about the Tea Party is not that it represents the grief of ordinary Americans at vanished savings, lost jobs and underwater mortgages. On the contrary, it has articulated the fears of a small propertied class, past the age of educating children or raising families, which worries that it will have to pay a price for the rest of society, and which nurtures a pre-existing rage at immigrants and a liberal black president.

Frank sees that the people at the rallies are richer than most, and he knows from polls that they are already Republicans. Coming as late as it does, nearly three years after the birth of the Tea Party (and after a classic such as Matt Taibbi's Griftopia, which combined ridicule of the Tea Party with an elegant anatomy of the neoliberal financial and moral collapse), Pity the Billionaire lacks the excavation of ordinary people's stories that so powerfully communicated the social motives for proletarian conservatism in What's the Matter With America?.

Yet it also comes at the beginning of something new - the moment when, with the rise of Occupy Wall Street, precisely the kind of anti-neoliberal and anti-party-political movement that Frank said should have emerged in 2008 has finally appeared. Reading through his frequent invocations of the history of the Great Depression and his castigation of our times for producing no Bonus Army, no FDR and no Farmers' Holiday Association, one notices that none of these instances of old-time social-welfare insurgency began before 1932 or 1933 - in other words, three or four years after the 1929 economic crash. And that is exactly where we are today.

Mark Greif is a founding editor of n+1