Journalist-historian Thomas Frank was in Raleigh in September 2008 a few weeks before the elections that ousted the Republican Party and put Democrats in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress.
Frank's new book at the time was The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. How? Frank wrote that they deliver government so terrible—and corrupt—that it makes their point that government is and always must be terrible—and corrupt. Agencies are decimated, their functions outsourced to profit-seeking cronies. When the results suck (except for the cronies), "government"—the very idea of it—gets the blame.
As Frank chronicled, this was the conservatives' S.O.P. circa '08. See, e.g., FEMA/ Hurricane Katrina/ New Orleans preparedness and response.
In a word, they were shameless.
Even Frank, able muckraker though he is, didn't foresee how totally shameless and absurd—or brilliant—the conservatives could get. As Wrecking Crew went to press in mid-2008, the U.S. and world banking systems were heading for the cliff, soon to be wrecked by the standard right-wing combo of feckless government regulators and greedy profit-seekers, this time of the Wall Street-derivatives-trading variety. The collapse of Lehman Brothers (the once blue-chip firm, by then a whorehouse of (un)collateralized debt, filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008) and the giant TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bank bailout that the Bush administration rammed through Congress in the last two weeks of September heralded the worst economic crisis this country has seen since the Great Depression.
At which point the claxon of death was surely sounded for conservative rule.
Except, of course, that no such death knell was heard. Frank's new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, tells the fast-paced story of an indomitable conservative movement that refused to die. That refused even to be blamed. That managed to blame the Democrats (or government, which amounts to the same thing).
Frank has reviewed this play before, as a widely published columnist, founding editor of the influential (and soon to return) Baffler magazine and in his seminal book from 2004, What's the Matter with Kansas? So the story line of the latest right-wing revival was not new to him:
Somebody stole your job? Your house? Your country's economy? We got your criminals right here: It was those liberals who forced all the banks to make bad loans to undeserving people (read: people of color; poor people) with their Community Reinvestment Act and their Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The fact that these dramatized bogeymen had as much to do with the financial crisis as a kid with a joint does with the drug cartels is of no never mind to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity and all the rest who ran to the battlements under the banner of—that's right—the Tea Party.
It was "the classic switcheroo," Frank writes, "with one fear replacing another, theoretical emergencies substituting for authentic ones, and a new villain shuffling onstage to absorb the brickbats meant for another." The narrative, he goes on, is enshrouded in "thick smokescreens of deliberate bewilderment" provided by—right again—Glenn Beck and the gang at Fox News.
In the end, the producers of this spectacle were rewarded by a landslide victory in the 2010 elections.
It didn't hurt, Frank notes, that your average American couldn't tell you what a securitized debt instrument is, let alone how trillions of dollars "worth" of credit default swaps vaporized into thin air—but not before Wall Street salesmen had pocketed billions of real dollars for selling them.
What's the matter with Kansas? In 2004, Frank found, it was that these red-state yeomen and yeowomen, notwithstanding that Republican policies were killing their rural towns and jobs, couldn't resist the GOP's anti-gay, anti-abortion sideshows.
In 2012, he writes, what's the matter with the U.S. is that, notwithstanding that conservative policies tanked the country, a majority of voters are persuaded that somehow Barack Obama and his socialist mates done the deed.
I say that even Frank didn't know what was coming post-2008 because that's what he told me on the phone last week.
"I knew that the [conservative] movement wasn't going to go away," he said. "I did not expect they'd bounce back as quickly as they did. And I was astonished that their revival took the form that it did."
At its heart, the Tea Party took the form of a billionaires' protection racket wrapped up in a lot of populist propaganda about the plight of the little people, also known as small business owners or job-creators. Frank cuts through it with insight and humor, except that the results aren't funny and we're still down 15 million jobs in America.
Such fake populism couldn't succeed, though, except for the absence of any genuine populism on the other side—indeed, for the absence of another side. "It's the other side's failures, looking back, that really astonish me," Frank added.
After 2008, Frank believes, "people were ready for an age of heroic liberalism" and for Obama to be a truly transformational leader. Instead, Obama adopted Bush's TARP bailout intact and installed the same old Wall Street gang (Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and—informally—Bob Rubin) as his economic team. "Democrats really failed to speak to the new angry sensibility in the country," Frank said. "It's as though they can't speak that language any more ... and Obama's personality is almost precisely wrong for the populist moment—he really has trouble turning on that emotion."
When Obama went along with TARP, it was a blunder of historic proportions, Frank says. Indeed, the relevant parallel he draws in Pity the Billionaire is to the bank failures of the Great Depression and the different responses of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt to them. Hoover, who went first in 1929, bailed out the banks, no questions asked. In the '32 campaign, Roosevelt ripped Hoover for it and, after replacing him as president, made continued bank bailouts contingent on fundamental banking reforms (reforms that, unfortunately, were undone during the Clinton and Bush II presidencies).
Obama, ignoring the lessons of the New Deal, took the Hoover path, letting the Wall Street crooks—and their methods—off the hook. It set the stage for Obama's highly compromised health care "reform," his failure to achieve energy reforms and, well, his failure—and yes, the Republicans do want him to fail—to turn the economy around.
"FDR was highly critical of Hoover, just as the Tea Party is of Obama," Frank said on the phone. "They just flipped the script."
Flipped it to read that the GOP, and not the Democrats, would protect the people's interests.
Will the Occupy Wall Street movement, combined with the House Republicans' terrible performance, cause the script to flip back in 2012? Maybe. The historian in Frank doesn't know yet. But he's got a lot of pundit in him too, so you can ask him yourself when he returns to Raleigh next week.