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Thomas Frank: How the Right Wing Hijacked Rage Over the Economic Collapse and Swindled America

Frank discusses one of the most important political developments of the Obama presidency: how the crash of 2008 served to strengthen the political right.

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Still, I think that the conservative idea of revolting against the ruling class by holding up the market as an ideal is completely backwards. There is a ruling class in this country. But the notion that the free market is an act of rebellion against it seems pretty fanciful.  I can say it stronger than that. It is absolutely preposterous.

At one point you talk about “a cognitive withdrawal from the shared world.” It seems like the modern digital communication revolution encourages this. “A cognitive withdrawal from the shared world” — that sounds like a description of the Internet.

This is where we’re going. You can now believe things that are demonstrably false and never be challenged, directly or indirectly. You can withdraw. That’s the end that the Internet is constantly pushing us toward. That’s what modern marketing is all about.

So it’s a technological phenomenon, but it’s also an ideological phenomenon, a product of the times we’re in. You saw this in the ’30s, especially on the left. People would be so committed to this economic utopia [communism]. They believed in it, and their faith in it was so great … It is a product of economic collapse. People are desperate. They think their entire way of life is crumbling around them, and they reach for … a utopian system where everything is explained.

This is the genius of Fox News. It is fun to watch, and if you agree with them, it’s very gratifying to watch — and on a level deeper than most TV entertainment. The message is “You’ve worked really hard. You played by the rules and now they’re disrespecting you. They won’t let you say the word ‘Christmas.’”

You finished this book around the time Occupy Wall Street started. Were you surprised by the emergence of the movement?

I was surprised. I thought the left’s moment had passed. That was almost exactly three years after the crash of September 2008, and it seemed like the expiration date had come and gone. I’m very pleased, but in a lot of ways the horse has already left the barn.

Is it possible for the Occupy movement to reverse the gains of the right?

I hope so, but I honestly don’t know. At the end of the day I doubt it. My liberal friends have been doubting the right for decades. They’re always saying, “There’s no way these guys can recover now after this screw-up. People will never come back to them after this.” But they keep coming back.

The right does seems to be a little bit on the defensive at the moment. The dominant narrative of last summer — government spending is the problem — has been lost. Occupy Wall Street has injected a change in discourse. People aren’t defensive when they talk about inequality.

Tell me about it. When I started writing about inequality 10 years ago, it … was not something for NPR Book Talk. It was not quite within the bounds of the acceptable. Now it is. And that’s a huge change.

The main thing that has to change is that Democrats and liberals have to be able to speak to the outrage, and that requires a complete change in the way they look at the world. The problem is that they’ve been going the other direction for 30 years. Ever since the right-wing backlash began, liberals have been making their own move to professionalism. [To voice outrage] would require them to reverse course. I would like to see that happen, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen.