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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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In his new book, “Pity the Billionaire,” Tom Frank turns his mordant eye on the unlikeliest political development of the Obama presidency: how the crash of 2008 served to strengthen the political right. The deregulation of Wall Street, championed for 30 years by right-wing leaders, had led to an economic catastrophe so frightening that the country elected a liberal Democrat to the presidency. Yet two years later, the most conservative faction of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, had taken effective control of the House of Representatives, the regulation of Wall Street had stalled, and the champions of economic deregulation in Washington had emerged stronger than ever.

Frank, author of the bestselling book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” provides a pithy and nuanced explanation of what he calls the “hard-times swindle.” He spoke with Salon from his father’s home in Kansas City, Mo.

Early in the book, you describe the moment in the spring of 2009 when free-market economics had been so thoroughly discredited that Newsweek could run a cover story proclaiming, “We’re all socialists now.” What happened? Why did that moment dissipate?

I saw that cover so many times [at Tea Party events]. For these people, that rang the alarm bell. I think the AIG moment [when the bailed-out insurance behemoth used taxpayer relief to dole out huge bonuses to its executives] was in some ways the high point of the crisis, when [the politics] could have gone either way. There was this amazing public outrage, and that for me was the turning point. Newsweek had another cover, “Thinking Man’s Guide to Populism,” and I remember this feeling around the country, that people were just furious. Somehow the right captured the sense of anger. They completely captured it. You could say they had no right to it, but they did. And one of the reasons they were able to do it was because the liberals were not interested in that anger.

I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it.

Looking back on it, I feel like people like myself were part of the problem. We sort of assumed with the Democrats in power, the system would correct itself.

One of the problems with liberalism in this country is that it’s headquartered in Washington and its leaders are a very comfortable class of people. Washington is one of the richest cities in the country, maybe the richest. It’s not a place that feels the crisis, that feels the economic downturn. By and large, the real estate market stayed OK. The city continued to boom. The contracts continued to flow. What we’re talking about here is the failure of modern liberalism. At one time it was a movement of working-class people. The idea that liberals wouldn’t feel economic pain was ridiculous. That’s who liberals were. No more. 

You write that after Obama took office, “market populism was the only utopian scheme available to disgruntled Americans.” There was no liberal utopian scheme that said, “Here’s how we get out of this.”