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“Pity the Billionaire”: Thomas Frank on the “Unlikely Comeback of the Right” Ahead of Iowa Caucus

StoryJanuary 03, 2012
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Bestselling author and Harper’s Magazine columnist Thomas Frank argues that as President Barack Obama fails to provide a coherent, progressive economic alternative, the right has staged an unlikely comeback — despite the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis for which its trademark policies were largely responsible. Frank’s new book is called “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.” “[Conservatives after 2008] didn’t take the pundit’s advice: they didn’t move to the center, they didn’t moderate themselves. They did the opposite,” Frank says. “They purged their moderate wing, moved dramatically to the right with the Tea Party movement, and enjoyed this incredible success in the 2010 elections.” Frank says whether the conservatives will succeed in 2012 is still “anyone’s guess” and says Obama should “start getting some of the rhetoric of the Occupy movement in there. He needs to start talking about the 1 percent. He needs to start talking about what has happened, and why, over the last 30 years.” We also speak with The Nation correspondent John Nichols about the Occupy movement in Iowa. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While Republican candidates campaign for a chance to beat President Obama, the President is also facing criticism from progressives. President Obama plans to address Iowa Democrats, who caucus tonight through a live satellite feed, and share his ideas about the importance of the 2012 election. For months, Obama’s re-election campaign has been working with Iowans to train volunteers and keep up interest in the President’s agenda.

However, the writer and social critic Thomas Frank suggests Obama has so far failed to provide a coherent, progressive economic alternative that challenges the unlikely comeback of the right. According to Frank, the American right not only retains legitimacy but has thrived despite the 2008 economic collapse and ongoing recession. And he’s written a new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. Thomas Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and then wrote The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. He is a regular columnist for Harper’s.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, as well as John Nichols, still on with us from Des Moines. And Thomas Frank, as you observe this first caucus, the first test of the 2012 election, your thoughts as you talk about the unlikely comeback of the right. It doesn’t look like that in Iowa.

THOMAS FRANK: You mean—you mean because it’s likely, or it’s such a mess?

AMY GOODMAN: Because it seems to be in such crisis.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, They just came off a big victory in the 2010 elections. And what I mean by “unlikely comeback” is, when the economy fell apart in 2008, you know, on President Bush’s watch, and with all the sort of signature—the, you know, signature Republican conservative policies that they had put in place over generations, deregulating banks in this way and that, you know, letting the financial sector do just whatever they wanted, the whole thing, you know, exploded in our faces. And this was very clearly the product—you know, it was their doing. It was the product of their policies.

And so, when the Republican Party—when it fell apart for them in 2008, it made a lot of sense, you know, to pundits and observers and, you know, people like me in journalism, and everybody started writing about the—you know, this is the end of the conservative movement, the Republican Party is going to take them, you know, years and years and years to rebuild. And in two years, the funny thing is, first of all, they didn’t take the pundits advice: they didn’t move to the center, they didn’t moderate themselves. They did the opposite: they purged their moderate wing, moved dramatically to the right with the Tea Party movement, and enjoyed this incredible success in the 2010 elections, you know, sort of this amazing comeback. So, whether that will—whether they’ll keep rolling on with that in 2012, I mean, that’s anyone’s guess, of course. But so far, they’ve—you know, they really are on a roll.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance, though, then, as we roll forward from 2010 to 2012, of the Occupy movement, of the uprising in Wisconsin that John Nichols reported from?

THOMAS FRANK: Oh, yes, I was there. I saw—I reported on that, as well. It was—that was a very inspiring moment for me. You know, in my lifetime, I’ve never seen 100,000 people, you know, protesting something—what was essentially an abstraction, you know, that the governor of Wisconsin wanted to take away collective bargaining rights. It was really—it was an impressive—an impressive thing, an amazing show of solidarity. And if that kind of a momentum continues, you know, hopefully, you could see a very—you could see a changed political landscape in the next few years.

Now, there is something—there is something similar between the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement and between the protests in Wisconsin and the Tea Party movement, although people on the right don’t want to admit it, and people on the left don’t like to admit it either. But these are all populist movements, OK? These are movements that are disgusted with elitism in one form or another. And the problem is that—with the Democrats, is that they—the official sort of Washington, D.C., you know, White House Democrats, the people who are inside the consensus, as they like to say, don’t really understand that. They haven’t grasped that, you know, the picture of American politics has changed. It’s not about the center versus the extreme. It’s not about left versus right. It really is about common interest against—as opposed to, say, special interest.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring John back into this conversation, John Nichols in Des Moines. While we’re talking about the Iowa caucus, let’s go back to Wisconsin for a minute. What’s happening with the recall of Governor Walker?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I’m glad to be on with my friend Tom, who actually drove around Wisconsin with me during the February and March protests of last year. And that energy has continued in Wisconsin. There is an effort to recall Governor Scott Walker. It is, as Tom suggests, a populist movement, using an old tool of the progressives and the Populists from a century ago—the recall—forcing a new election. And the recall movement announced weeks ago that it had gathered over 500,000 signatures. So it’s well on its way. It’s going to certainly achieve the number of signatures needed to recall the Governor.

AMY GOODMAN: It needs…?

JOHN NICHOLS: There are still two more weeks to gather signatures.

AMY GOODMAN: It needs…?

JOHN NICHOLS: And so, I anticipate that they will get into the range of 700,000 to 800,000 signatures gathered to force a recall of Governor Walker.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many do they need, John?

JOHN NICHOLS: Oh, I’m sorry. They need 540,000 to force a recall. But you want to have a large cushion on that, because the Governor will challenge those signatures. I think that there’s very little question that they will achieve a much higher number, again, in that 700,000 to 800,000 range. And significantly, a huge number of those signatures are coming from rural areas, including from counties that were won by Scott Walker. At least one county that voted for Scott Walker for governor, more people have signed recall petitions than voted for Walker in 2010. That really is evidence of sort of a populist fervor, precisely the sort of thing that Tom Frank talks about, where people who maybe did swing to the right, or at least to the Republicans, in 2010, at least some of them appear to be swinging very hard against the Republicans as this recall gets going.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the Occupy movement in Iowa? I mean, here over the weekend, on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of people went down to try to retake Zuccotti Park, and scores of people were arrested there through the night over New Year’s Eve. In Occupy Iowa, who are the people who are involved? Are they Republicans, Democrats, independents? Who are they? And they’re getting arrested every day.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Occupy Des Moines, which is sort of the core grouping, but now there’s Occupy Cedar Valley and other groupings around the state, has really been—it’s a remarkable playout of the Occupy Wall Street protest. These are people who picked up very quickly on the energy that you saw in Zuccotti Park and brought it to not just Des Moines, but rural Iowa. And some of it is rooted in a long-term group here: Iowa Citizens for Community Involvement, Iowa CCI, just a terrific organization that’s had a lot of energy for a long time, and you’ve featured them on this show. But also, there’s just a tremendous number of young people. I went to the Occupy offices here in Des Moines. They have a large office that they’ve taken a space. And it was packed with a multigenerational group of folks, a lot of young people, even 14-, 15-year-old high school students, all the way up to 70-, 80-year-old retired pastors, a lot of people from the faith community. And also people like Ed Fallon, who is a former state representative and one-time candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of Iowa, who really has embraced this movement, was actually one of the first people arrested in a protest at the State Capitol. And so, it’s a diverse movement here, pulling together a lot of people who weren’t involved in politics, as well as some people who have been involved for a long time. And they have many different interventions, not just protests, but also there are some folks who will be going to the caucuses to caucus uncommitted, to send a signal to both the Democratic and the Republican parties that they’re unsatisfied with the leadership of President Obama and the Republican contenders on core economic issues.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, thanks so much for joining us, as we, of course, will cover the Iowa caucuses and bring you the latest tomorrow on what takes place tonight.

Thomas Frank, the headline, our top headline today, was not the Iowa caucuses. It was that President Obama has signed into law a $662 billion military spending bill that authorizes the government to indefinitely detain American citizens without trial. So you have this on one track, and then you have the discussion on the networks, you know, Obama’s—you know, you have Obama against this disarray of Republicans. But the real fact of what is moving, chugging along in Washington, this is your major point.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, hasn’t changed, has it? It just—it’s the same stuff, and it goes on from year to year to year. And look, I just finished writing an essay that’s on a slightly different subject, but you’ll see what I’m getting at. You’ve had, over the course of the last decade, a series of just disasters for the intellectual class in this country, for journalists, for academics, you know. First it was the dotcom disaster, you know, the Enron disaster, which discredited so many people. The Iraq War—remember, all the—everybody falling for Ahmed Chalabi in 2003 or 2002. Then you had, you know, the housing bubble, everybody believing in that nonsense. Just one after another, these things destroying the credibility of the governing class in Washington and their—you know, the people who write the sort of stenographic journalistic coverage. And there is no change. There’s no accountability for these people. I mean, one blunder, one screw-up, one titanic mistake after another, and there is—there is no accountability. It’s positively maddening, you know. Where is the change? You know?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if—say, if Mitt Romney were president, that the policies would be any different than President Obama?

THOMAS FRANK: Some of them would, certainly. You know, he—well, OK. Yes, there’s a lot—he’s—I was about to say he wouldn’t have passed the national healthcare bill, but, of course, he might well have done that.

AMY GOODMAN: He was the model. Well, he was the model for it.

THOMAS FRANK: His was the model. That’s exactly right. And so, that’s a—yeah, that’s actually—that’s a very interesting question. Would he have done anything differently? I don’t think he would have ended the Iraq War as promptly as Obama. There’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, he had said that the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan a while ago.


AMY GOODMAN: Not so long ago, months ago. And it caused—

THOMAS FRANK: This is—Romney said this?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes—quite an uproar. And now he’s changed his position.

THOMAS FRANK: That’s funny, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And he said that Obama pulled out of Iraq too soon. But we’ve seen him change on so many different issues.

THOMAS FRANK: That’s right. But he has—he has, very successfully, in the last couple of weeks, has adopted the kind of Tea Party language of, you know, ring the alarm bells, you know, tyranny is here, you know, the socialists have taken over, that sort of thing. He’s been saying that for the last couple of days. And I think—you know, you talk about the disarray in Iowa. Iowa is always a mess. It’s going to sort itself out very soon. It’s—look, the candidate is obviously going to be Mitt Romney. He’s the only one who’s got—he knows what he’s doing. He’s good at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Whether or not he wins Iowa?

THOMAS FRANK: I think he’ll either come in first or second there. And he’ll certainly win New Hampshire. And he’s got the most money, by far. I mean, look what he did—or, not he, right? He didn’t do it to Newt Gingrich; it was a PAC headed by—a super PAC headed by people that used to be his employees, right?

AMY GOODMAN: And he said—when told to tell them to stop, he said, “That would be illegal if I were to tell whoever these people are to stop.”

THOMAS FRANK: It actually would be. That’s right. It would be illegal for him to tell them to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he’s not supposed to communicate with the super PACs.

THOMAS FRANK: That’s right. So—but he’s got the—you know, he’s got the operation in place. He’d done this before. He knows what he’s doing. He talks a good game. I’ve seen him speak several times. He’s very impressive. Some of these other guys, like Rick Santorum? I mean, I don’t know what’s going on there, except for that, you know, they’ve run out of, you know, the anti-Mitt. They need somebody to be the anti-Mitt, and they’ve run out of candidates, and, you know, he’s the last one, so…

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about what you see as the tremendous victory of the right, not just through the 2010 elections.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, they shouldn’t even have a chance here. You know, these people—these people should be as discredited as Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party were in 1936. Do you remember? I mean, of course, we don’t personally remember. But when they ran Alf Landon for president in 1936, and it was just this incredible blowout by the Democrats, one of their greatest victories of all time. That’s the trajectory we should be on right now. The old order was just, you know, massively discredited by what happened under George W. Bush. And it’s the Democrats’ — you know, it really is the Democrats’ failure that they haven’t—that they haven’t driven that message home.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for 30 seconds, then come back to this discussion. Thomas Frank is our guest. His new book is called Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. This is Democracy Now! Back in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Thomas Frank, author of Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. Last month, conservative radio talk-show host Glenn Beck gave Rick Santorum a ringing endorsement on his program, comparing Santorum to George Washington.

GLENN BECK: I don’t endorse candidates. I don’t get involved in politics. I don’t make donations to any politician. Rick Santorum is a friend of mine, but I choose my friends carefully. And I would never tell you that somebody is a friend of mine, if I didn’t have great respect for them. I will tell you this. People ask me all the time, “Who is out there?” I tell them the same thing: I don’t trust any of them. But if I had to trust the reins of power with one person that is currently in this field, and because I think the next president has got to be Abraham Lincoln, he has got to be somebody who knows exactly who he is, knows exactly where he stands, and is willing to, in the end, turn those reins of power back over—the temptation and the pressure is going to be absolutely enormous. If there is one guy out there that is the next George Washington, the only guy that I could think of is Rick Santorum.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Glenn Beck. Talk about the significance of Glenn Beck, forced off of Fox. You’re talking about the comeback of the right and the significance of the role he plays, the role the Koch brothers play.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, those are some of the biggest actors in what I’m talking about here. But I just wanted—I was struck by what Glenn Beck was saying there, that whenever you listen to him, even if it’s a short snippet like that, there’s always this incredible sense of dread that hangs over every sentence he utters. He said that, you know, the temptation for the next president to not turn over the reins of power back to the public is going to be great? What is he talking about? Dictatorship? That’s like—that’s—and Santorum is the one guy in America that can resist the urge to become a dictator? I don’t—I don’t get things like that. I mean, I do get it. I just finished writing a whole book about it.

There is a way that Glenn Beck really caught the cultural sensibility of 2009 and 2010, you know, this very unlikely—the first time I ever tuned him in, in 2008, he was on CNN at the time, and I was—you know, I had the same reaction to him that I just had when you brought up Rick Santorum. It’s like, how could this be? You know? Who would hire this man to be on television? It just seemed preposterous to me. And he really caught the wave in 2009, that when the—after the thing that really—you know, the economy fell apart in 2008, and you had the government stepping in with the enormous bailouts, you know, this completely unaccountable just spending of taxpayers’ money to get their Wall Street buddies off the hook, you know, stand the banks back up and let them go back to their—and this was—this was a shocking moment. You know, it’s the kind—I say in the book that it was the sort of moment that crushes the faith of a nation, you know? And Glenn Beck was there with this very dark vision that he has where things are always, you know, we’re on the verge of tyranny, there’s conspiracies everywhere. And there he was with this trademark vision of his, and it really seemed to catch the public mood in those days. And so, in my mind, he was one of the most important figures in the comeback of the right, because he really gave the—you know, iif you would go to Tea Party rallies in those days, and I went to a bunch of them in order to write the book, the language you would always hear from the podium and the theories you would hear from the podium, the peculiar ideas, the visions of history that you would hear from the podium, were all recycled stuff from the Glenn Beck program. He was really the—he was really the one with the ideas.

The Koch brothers, of course, well, there you’re talking about the funding. And the funding is going to become increasingly important as we go forward. But several of the main Tea Party organizations were—they were funded by these two brothers down in Wichita, Kansas, fellow Kansans of mine. And, you know, they tend to be pretty much behind the scenes. They don’t make a lot of public appearances. They make barely any public appearances. But one of the—a very interesting Koch document that I came across—it was in their company newsletter, you know, it’s not that hard to find—was one of the Koch brothers saying in either 2008—late 2008 or early 2009, the sort of characteristic conservative dread of that period, that, you know, the wheels had come off the economy, and we were in for another New Deal. If we don’t look out, we’re going to get another Roosevelt, and he’s going to inflict on us a new regulatory state, you know, new antitrust actions. You’re going to see the labor movement come back. It’s going to be like the ’30s all over again. And the ’30s, of course, were a nightmare time for conservatives. And so, you know, they reacted to that early. And, you know, before we ever got a—before any kind of new New Deal ever even got off the ground, they were out there, you know, taking shots at it.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk more about the Koch brothers, especially because you are fellow Kansans.

THOMAS FRANK: Yes, but I’ve never met them. I’ve met a lot of their people. You know, they’re everywhere, when you talk to people in Kansas politics, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: But the power of their money in politics, and why. I mean, you go back to the Depression in Pity the Billionaire.


AMY GOODMAN: And you were just talking about why there was such a different trajectory coming out of the Depression than dealing with 2008, and the role of the Democrats in taking it off what you see as the rails now.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, there’s so many different ways of looking at that. And the one that always comes back to me is that in the Depression, you know, the entire old intellectual order was discredited. OK? And they—people—you know, the whole sort of civilizational ideal of a figure like Calvin Coolidge was just tossed out the window. The 19th century ideal of the state, the sort of laissez-faire ideal, was destroyed. And, you know, Franklin Roosevelt was a great president, but he was also—he was also pushed by the intellectual climate of the time, the popular climate of the time, the political climate of the time. And today, tough, it seems like—I mean, money had a lot of influence back then, of course. You had a figure like William Randolph Hearst, who was very far to the right and was able to mobilize people—essentially choose political candidates however he wanted.

AMY GOODMAN: Publisher.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, I’m sorry, he was a publisher of a large chain of newspapers, very similar to, you know, certain people that we have around today, very similar kind of operation. But for some reason, the money in politics wasn’t able to buy its way. You’d think in 1936, when Alf Landon was the Republican candidate, who was the governor of Kansas, as a matter of fact, you know, not a bad guy ordinarily, but he swung way to the right in 1936 in order to appease his backers, in order to please them and give them the—let them hear the sort of extreme right-wing messages they wanted to hear. And he lost in this dramatic landslide. He lost in a huge way. He didn’t even win Kansas. You know, that’s tough for a Republican to lose Kansas, and even though he had money behind him, you know, to a great extent. Franklin Roosevelt was able to get his message across.

I don’t know if that’s going to happen this time around. I don’t think it is. Money has—money is playing the game in a much more sophisticated way this time around. You know, you have something like Fox News. It’s a much more sophisticated operation than William Randolph Hearst, although also very similar in all sorts of ways. And you have, you know, the super PACs, which we keep coming back to.

AMY GOODMAN: What could Obama have done or do now differently? And what do you see?

THOMAS FRANK: I don’t want to—I don’t want to pretend that it’s all a matter of rhetoric, but Obama certainly could have—I mean, there’s all sorts of things he could have done differently. The main one is the bailouts. The bailouts, this was the toxic pill, you know, the toxic medicine that both parties swallowed, you know, and the Republicans, both the—you know, the people in the Bush administration who devised it, Hank Paulson, and the Democrats in Congress that voted for the TARP, including Barack Obama—he was a U.S. senator at the time—but then he—you know, he continued the bailout policies of the Bush administration. He didn’t change them.

One of the big things that I unearthed that was mysteriously almost forgotten when we were having the bailout debate in 2008 was that we had bailouts in the 1930s. We’ve been down this road before. President Hoover inaugurated a huge bailout program. And Franklin Roosevelt was highly critical of it. This was one of his big selling points in the 1932 election, was to criticize the Hoover administration’s bailout policies as crony capitalism. These are insiders bailing out their friends. And there were some really, really choice examples to choose from back in those days, that, you know, it was very easy for him to make that case. Obama, by contrast—and then once Roosevelt got in, he kept bailing out the economy, but he did it in a very different way than Herbert Hoover.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute.

THOMAS FRANK: I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going.

THOMAS FRANK: OK, what he did was he opposed Wall Street. He said, “No more money to Wall Street. We’re going to rebuild the economy by starting at the grassroots level. We’re going to rebuild small financial institutions.” Obama, by contrast, just completely kept the Hank Paulson model for doing the bailouts, which is, you know, money to Wall Street, give money to Wall Street.

AMY GOODMAN: And could he do anything different now?

THOMAS FRANK: I think he could. I think he could—you know, he needs to—he needs to start—he needs to start getting some of the rhetoric of the Occupy movement in there, you know? He needs to start talking about the 1 percent. He needs to start talking about what has happened to us, and why, over the last 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Thomas Frank, for being with us. Thomas Frank is a columnist at Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, also the author of, among other books, What’s the Matter with Kansas?

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