The American Aftershock: An Interview with Thomas Frank

By Eric BeenMarch 16, 2012

WHEN THOMAS FRANK CO-FOUNDED The Baffler in 1988, according to the introduction of the recently relaunched opinion journal’s first anthology, Commodify Your Dissent, its crucial mission was to “restore a sense of outrage and urgency to the Literature of the Left.” And, over the past fifteen years, Frank has continued to follow this ethos in his own work, publishing one progressive-leaning barrage after another on America’s political and cultural contradictions. In his first book, 1997’s The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Frank made the convincing case that some of the most iconic signifiers and artifacts of the counterculture were concocted by Madison Avenue rather than as a reaction against it. Next, in One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, he gave a scathing account of how America’s business elite used the dot-com bubble of the 1990s to make a case that the free market is the perfect mode for organizing society. In 2004, Frank published his best-known work, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. There, he charged Republicans with duping the working class by using cultural issues to get them to vote against their economic interests, a critique sustained in The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, a survey of how conservatives have financially prospered from intentionally dilapidating Washington.


In his latest investigation, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Frank fleshes out how and why the recent economic meltdown has inexplicably revitalized the Right when it should have led, in his mind, to the reevaluation of “conservative dogma” and the “laissez-faire utopia.” It’s a rejoinder, according to Frank, that doesn’t have a precedent in American history. “Before 2009,” he writes, “the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.” I spoke with Frank about Pity the Billionaire on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, while he was visiting family in Kansas in between dates on his book tour.


          — Eric Been



The Evolution of Conservatism


While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues — summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art — which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements — not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars — that are the movement’s greatest monuments.


— from What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America


But the conservative flowering that has taken place since early 2009 is different. For the first time in decades, the Right wants to have the grand economic debate out in the open. The fog of the culture wars has temporarily receded … When I first started writing about market populism many years ago, it was almost exclusively a faith of the wealthy. To write about it was to write about propaganda … But then came a near-catastrophic failure of the economic system, and 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.


— from Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right


Thomas Frank: Market populism — which I defined in my 2000 book, One Market, Under God, as the belief that markets were a popular system, a far more democratic form of organization than (democratically elected) governments, and which I viewed as primarily a faith of the wealthy — is now all over the place. When I wrote about it 12 years ago, it was a phenomenon that you saw in management theory and things like investment books. It wasn’t something that rallied the masses the way it does today. We should be more precise than that: It’s a movement that looks populist, that talks populist, that acts populist. And to all appearances, that’s what it is: a hard-times protest movement. Only the content of the populism is this free-market ideology. That’s very strange for all sorts of reasons. The most obvious is that free-market ideology is an experiment that was a colossal failure. And to have people rally to it in a moment of complete breakdown? That’s just bizarre.


There’s no doubt in my mind that the culture wars will come right back when the economy picks up, but economic issues are in the forefront now, and we’re fighting over them. Look at the Republican primary, with Newt Gingrich criticizing Mitt Romney for his role in Bain Capital. The Republican candidates are leading a crusade against regulation. And that’s what motivates Republican voters right now, getting them up in arms.


The other thing to point out is that the Tea Party is not a working-class movement. When I went to these rallies, it became really obvious that the Tea Party is a movement of small business people. That’s really who they are. I didn’t see a lot of blue-collar union guys. But we know that from the election results in places like Wisconsin, where the state had gone for Barack Obama and then shifted and went for the Republicans. There was this huge tidal wave in 2010, and it threw out all these liberal members of their congressional delegation. This was the big swing vote, the white working class. They completely changed sides. Not because they were going to Tea Party rallies, but because the movement gave the Republicans a populist, hard-times facade. They looked and sounded like a protest movement from the 1930s but at the core, they’re the complete opposite.


As the Tea Party grew, becoming the official populist response to the economic disaster, opportunists both political and economic saw the gathering crowds and the spreading outrage as their very own ship, sailing benevolently into port. Indeed, the categories of "politics" and "profit" became so thoroughly scrambled on the resurgent Right that by September of 2010 it was possible for Mike Pompeo, a Republican candidate for Congress in Wichita, Kansas, to describe the political movement itself as "a restoration of the great American entrepreneurial spirit."


 from Pity the Billionaire


This all comes out in ugly ways, like with lobbying. For instance, Rick Santorum wasn’t technically a lobbyist — he never registered as one — but, in every other way, he was. Newt Gingrich, too. Men like that are supposed to be above it. They don’t ever become lobbyists, but they basically were. They called it consulting or something like that. But this goes from that highest level of lobbying down to the most humble Tea Partier. There are all kinds of people who use the Tea Party as a way to make a fast buck. They have these conventions with a trade show attached and they’re selling things. They’re saying you should buy this in bulk, become a franchiser, you can sell to your local Tea Party group. The whole movement is brimming over with ideas about how to make a profit. I make fun of it, but having a movement made up of entrepreneurs is a recipe for having a pretty strong movement. A movement that gets going fast, that knows what they’re doing, that’s extremely competitive, and that doesn’t fool around. This is their strength.



Role Models


Over the last hundred years, the United States has been transformed from a nation of small capitalists into a nation of hired employees; but the ideology suitable for the nation of small capitalists persists, as if that small-propertied world were still a going concern. It has become the grab-bag of defenders and apologists, and so little is it challenged that in the minds of many it seems the very latest model of reality.


— C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (quoted in Pity the Billionaire)


When I read Mills’s White Collar, that’s one of the moments in the process of writing my own book when the light went on in my head. I’d never read it before. He was a famous sociologist 50 years ago, and his book is about all the different parts of the American middle class, or upper-middle class, if you will. Mills conducted an enormous study of small businesses in all these different cities around America. Very interesting. A painstaking sociological study. And that was the conclusion he came to, that this is how utopian capitalism is promoted to people: through small business. We all love small business, and when we think about capitalism we think about the mom and pop store down the street, or an entrepreneur with a great invention trying to get ahead. But in reality, what small business does is camouflage big business’s agenda. In the last 50 years, it’s acted that way.


I realize, however, that, for anyone who did not live through those years, it is hard to imagine them accurately and, in consequence, to understand the direction that the interests and activities of American liberals took.


 Edmund Wilson, The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn Of the New Deal


I’m a big fan of Edmund Wilson, especially his Depression-era reporting. He’s an educated guy who went to Princeton, was the literary editor at The New Republic and in the 1920s studies symbolist literature. Very highbrow. And then the Depression came along, and he started doing real reporting for the first time. He would go around the country and cover strikes and write about coal miners trying to form unions and things like that. The American Earthquake contains some of the most finely observed pieces of journalism that I know of. I’ve always been a huge fan of these essays.


So now our generation gets our own brush with this kind of catastrophe and, of course, my mind immediately goes back to Wilson. I wanted to write the same kind of essays as him, and I told all my friends that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out and cover hard-times protest movements. And what’s the first thing someone tells me about? “Oh Tom, look at this. There’s going to be this Tea Party rally in downtown Washington D.C.” This was the week after the Rick Santelli rant on CNBC. So I went there wanting to do the Wilson thing. At the time I was a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, so I had a platform for doing it. Today I’m a columnist for Harper’s Magazine, and that’s still what I want to do there. I have been doing it. I went out and covered the stuff in Wisconsin. So that’s how it began. Here’s a hard-times protest movement, which echoes the 1930s in all kinds of ways. But the politics of it are completely upside-down! So that’s not where I ended up, but it’s certainly where I started.


Wow, Ayn Rand. Dead and buried forever. But she’s come roaring right back. People are not looking so much at the origins of the crisis, but the response to the crisis.


 Jennifer Burns, Ayn Rand biographer, as told to Politico


The story of a group of business leaders fighting big-government oppression, Atlas Shrugged has been popular since it was first published, especially among the sort of self-pitying mogul types who see themselves in the book’s tycoon heroes. For free-market true believers, the tome is their very own Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, more accurately, their Caesar’s Column … Rand’s revival makes perfect sense in our upside-down age.


 from Pity the Billionaire


The popularity of Ayn Rand is one of the many ironies and paradoxes of this story. There are hundreds of them. It’s one of the more poignant ones. Alan Greenspan was a part of Rand’s inner circle, and has always considered himself to be a Rand-style libertarian. Of course, the libertarians don’t return the respect, but nevertheless, that’s what he thought of himself. All these Wall Street types in the 1980s were huge fans. And to think that after they crashed the global economy we’d come around and say, “Ayn Rand is the greatest novelist of all time.” It’s pretty amazing.


There have been a lot of articles written about why the sales of Atlas Shrugged took off big-time in early 2009 after the bailouts. I think the reasoning they give is that the book predicts the Obama administration’s heavy-handed taking over of the economy and socialism and bailouts and that sort of thing. But that’s only the case if you think the Obama administration is socialist, and of course I don’t think they are. The book’s real appeal is that it’s the story of the Great Depression. It’s a counterfactual version of the Great Depression where it is caused by what conservatives think it should be caused by. So instead of being caused by financial shenanigans and crazy bubbles on Wall Street and everything else that followed in the 1920s, 1930s, and presently, the Great Depression and the recent meltdown are caused by government meddling in the economy. The book is published in 1957, but has all these weird 1930s signifiers in it, like the whole business with trains. In the fifties, trains were dying. That was the era of the interstate highways and airlines. There’s a moment in it where the characters are riding this cross-country train, and this is a set piece from the 1930s when they were inventing the streamliner trains: they’d take them on cross-country journeys at high rates of speed, and it’s exactly what she described in the book. It’s a book about the Depression. It starts with a guy asking for a dime, you know? That’s how it starts.


There is no escape from the conflict between the classes.


— Angelo Codevilla, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (quoted in Pity the Billionaire)


Codevilla’s book is very interesting. It’s an expansion upon a piece that ran in the magazine American Spectator. I think Rush Limbaugh read a big piece of it over the radio the day the book came out. The point we need to make is that conservatives talk a good game about social class. They appeal to class anger and class anxiety very ably. In the old days they’d say the liberal elite was another way of talking about class, but it became much stronger and more open with this “ruling class” language. The phrase totally caught on. And now it’s supposed to be off-limits when Democrats talk about it. You can’t talk about Mitt Romney that way, no sir!





[T]he primary reason that repudiation didn’t happen, that the banks didn’t get the big slap-down [Frank] wishes, was the government’s response to the crash. The stock market plunged, and the housing market collapsed, and government got involved. You can love the Troubled Asset Relief Program or hate it, but whatever you think, it prevented the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression. Things got bad and stayed bad for a long time, but the complete 1930s-style collapse, complete with 25-percent unemployment, never came.


 Dante Chinni, The Washington Post review of Pity the Billionaire


What Chinni says is largely true, but the bailout is part of the story. The Tea Party really fastened on the bailout as a moment of complete outrage and obscenity. By and large they’ve had that field all to themselves. Until a little while ago, they were the only ones complaining about that stuff. Complaining is the wrong word. Expressing public outrage about the bailouts. When they do that, they often seem to be protesting Wall Street. The first Tea Party rally I went to, which I described in the book, they were holding signs denouncing Citibank, Bank of America. That’s what it looked like. But, of course, it was much more than that.


Do I think the Obama administration could’ve done things differently? Oh yes, absolutely. The one thing they could have done is handled the bailouts another way. I think this is the big mistake the Obama administration made. There are other ways to rescue the financial sector and make sure we don’t go into a Great Depression number two other than propping those guys up and letting them go about their business as though nothing happened. Ways that involve firing management at the banks, or breaking them up like they did in the 1930s. Regulating those banks more. Propping them up and letting them do what they did before is so irresponsible. And yet that’s what we did. That is mistake number one.


I mentioned that the Tea Party is made up mostly of small-business people. Small-business people, once upon a time, were part of the progressive coalition. We’re talking 100 years ago. A lot of them supported the New Deal. The reason they did that was because the progressives were going to enforce antitrust laws, which were regarded as a way the market worked. You made it fair, made the playing field level, and allowed small business to compete, and the way you did that was by breaking up monopolies. We don’t do that anymore. Every now and then there’s a high-profile case, but mostly this is something that’s just gone by the wayside for 30 years. And Obama could’ve easily said, “We’re bringing this back.” That would be a big appeal to small business. Another thing would’ve been NAFTA. The Tea Party hates NAFTA. The labor movement also hates NAFTA. These guys could have gotten together on that. Obama used to say he wanted to renegotiate NAFTA during the campaign. He never did anything, but he used to say that. Why not do it now? Why not do some basic retail politics? This is not hard stuff to figure out. I’m not a political scientist, I don’t do this stuff for a living, but there’s a real lack of creativity among the Washington Democrats. They just keep blundering down the same road, trying the exact same things over and over again. It’s really disheartening.


Adding to this sense of being out of date is Mr. Frank’s constant harping about Glenn Beck, who left his perch at Fox News last summer, and his by now familiar observations about the Tea Party …


— Michiko Kakutani, review of Pity the Billionaire in The New York Times


Glenn Beck was on the cover of Time magazine in 2009, for Pete’s sake! To say that it’s off-limits or dated to write about him doesn’t make any sense. Might as well say you can’t write history because it’s about the past. The man was influential, there’s no question about it. He was hugely influential. His moment is over now, but we’re living with the consequences. When you talk to Tea Party people, they are repeating things they learned from Beck. He was enormously influential with them. He still does have his radio show, and in my mind, he’s still alive and well.


For Frank, are government regulations ever excessive? Does he see no merit at all in free trade? Frank surely doesn’t oppose free-market capitalism as a general principle, however much he may dislike Glenn Beck. Or does he? It would have been nice to know a bit more about where Thomas Frank is coming from.


Michael Kinsley on Pity the Billionaire in The New York Times Book Review


My answer to Kinsley is that free-market capitalism is essentially impossible. The market has rules by nature. There’s no such thing as a market with no rules. It would degenerate immediately into people robbing each other, obviously. About whether or not I believe in capitalism, I believe in regulated capitalism. Was America capitalist in the 1940s? If the answer is yes, I believe in it. That’s the ideal time for me. The forties to the seventies: That’s when America really rocked, man.



The Future of the Left


Oh, but a country where everyone listens to specialists and gets along — that’s a utopia these new Dems regard with prayerful reverence. They dream of bipartisanship and states-that-are-neither-red-nor-blue and some reasonably-arrived-at consensus future where the culture wars cease and everyone improves their SAT scores forevermore under the smiling, beneficent sun of free trade and the knowledge industries.


 from Pity the Billionaire


I’m talking about what Democrats are in the process of becoming. I don’t think it’s a completely done deal yet. They could still turn around and make a strong appeal to working-class voters. The situation is screaming for it. They ought to and there’s a good chance they will do it. But by and large, Democrats in D.C. have said this is the way the parties are trending: white working-class voters are becoming Republican and professionals are becoming Democrats. And they’re very happy with that. Not with losing votes, but with gaining votes of professionals. And I think it’s a little deeper. The Democrats really identify with the professional class. They think of themselves as technocrats, as problem solvers, not as people who get out and give a grand ideological attack like William Bryan or FDR. Their selling point is they can run things better; they can make sure the machine works. And hey, that’s great. I want the machine to work. But that’s not going to appeal to the public. You can’t sell the stimulus package as a way to make the economy work better. You have to be able to talk on a more emotional level.


Now, there was something noble and even Depression-esque about [Jon] Stewart’s invocation of the common man [during the “Rally to Restore Sanity”], and I agree with much of what he said on that occasion. But it is more than a little strange to gaze out over a land laid waste by fantastic corporate fraud and declare that partisanship is what ails us and that reasonableness is the cure.


— from Pity the Billionaire


“The Rally to Restore Sanity”: That’s the kind of language that liberals gravitate to in difficult situations. Reason. Sanity. Moderation. Those things are all great. I’m pro-sanity! However, it completely misread the mood of the country at the time. The country was furious about the bailouts and the obscene misbehavior of Wall Street and our government. It completely misunderstands the situation we’re in by saying that we should face that anger and say we just need to get together and stop using harsh language against one another and restore civility. It’s a much bigger deal. The country’s mood was, and still is, very angry. I remember a slogan the conservatives had in the seventies: “organized discontent.” That struck me as very telling that conservatives are organizing discontent and the liberals were organizing sensibleness. That’s not much of a showdown. That’s bringing a knife to a gunfight.


We Are the 99 Percent.


 Occupy Wall Street


There’s no question that Occupy Wall Street had a tangible impact on the debate and the way we’re discussing issues in this country. But tangible political impact is something more. The Tea Party movement had an effect because they could elect all these very conservative people to Congress in 2010. Occupy Wall Street hasn’t done that. I hope they do, I hope the debate changes. I think that what they’ve done so far is very important. I think the “I am the 99 percent” campaign is awesome. Really resonated for me. People holding signs talking about their dire situations. That was really powerful. And they have finally given the Tea Party some competition. For three years, the Tea Party had this critique of bailouts and Wall Street all to themselves. They were the only ones out there. At least now you’ve got somebody else talking about it in a different way, and that’s hugely important. So I think what you’ve got is a hard-times movement in the Tea Party. And now suddenly you have the real deal. It’s anybody’s guess about how this will play out. But at least the other side has showed up to the debate. That’s great. I’m glad that’s finally happening.


But do I think they’ve made missteps? Occupy Wall Street’s great problem and great strength is that they’re unorganized. They’ll have to overcome that somehow, down the line. They’ll have to develop some sort of organization like everybody else does. You’ve got the unsavory types that attach themselves to protest movements and insist on fighting with police, and that’s always bad. But in general the only place I’d fault them is that they understand themselves in academic terms, almost as an expression of academia, and that’s a big mistake. Because that’s not how you speak to the public. In the old days, the model for liberal movements was always organized labor. The civil rights movement — that’s what they were copying. That’s very effective modeling. Sitting in, marching on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. in ’63. The labor union leader Walter Reuther was right alongside. But that’s not the model for these guys. The model for so many liberal efforts seems to be academia. It’s hard to have a conversation. Let’s do some research, let’s theorize this. Unfortunately I’d include myself in this. Look what I just did: I wrote my hard-times book in an effort to theoretically come to grips with the Tea Party movement.


Today, we are filing papers to launch our 2012 campaign.


 President Barack Obama


Does Obama deserve to be reelected? Oh man! You know, I don’t know how to answer that. The thing is, on one hand, he’s made so many missteps and errors but in general, he has the right idea. The stimulus package? That was the right thing to do. National health care? That was the right thing to do. He didn’t do either one of them right in the details, and the details are important. With national health care, he botched that. But he got something on the table. And that’s really great. He botched the bailouts but that wasn’t really his fault. He inherited that mess from George W. Bush. It’s his fault that he wasn’t creative in coming up with a different way of executing the bailouts. You had to do something. You had to rescue financial institutions in some way, but you didn’t have to do it the way he did. That opened him up for criticism. Of course, in a two-party system, the other side of the coin is always what determines your answer. Mitt Romney seems like a pretty good guy, as far as Republicans go, but on the other hand, if he wins, he’ll totally be the captain of the Tea Party movement. Because that’s who’s now in the saddle of the Republican Party.


LARB Contributor

Eric Been is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for The New York TimesThe Boston GlobeThe Wall Street Journal, The New Republic,, and several other publications.


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