Book review: Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:40pm

Pity the Billionaire: The Unlikely Comeback of the American Right
by Thomas Frank

The title and subtitle of Thomas Frank's book give you a pretty good idea of what to expect: a horrific catalogue of the tea party's hijacking of populist outrage at the crash of 2008, when audiences were invited to save their pity and their sympathy for the very architects of that crash.

There are plenty of revealing asides, such as the spending advice in a 2007 edition of Trader Monthly, which recommended buying a US$300,000 turntable for the chance to give "a huge middle finger to everyone who enters your home".

Frank does not pussyfoot around the implications we can draw about the soul of such a person. "A trader was not just an uberconsumer but a bullying, self-maximising, wealth-extracting he-man: a lout, in full."

It is, for some chapters, a depressing read, but a compelling one, and useful to place the otherwise mystifying ascendancy of the tea party movement, and its subsequent near-takeover of the Republican party, in context. Frank has a breezy way with comparative history: his description of the differences between how Roosevelt managed the 1929 crash, and how the 2008 disaster was handled, is concise - and enough to make you weep.

There is hope: the Occupy movement, the reclamation of populist outrage (the 99 per cent vs the one per cent); and (although Frank's book came out too early for this) the astonishing crassness of just about everything Mitt Romney said during his election campaign. Then again, when you have people claiming universal healthcare is tantamount to communism or euthanasia, or that Europe, in its adoption of "socialism" after the second world war, became a stranger to freedom of speech and thought ever after - and any number of flat-earthers and Fox News ranters peddling similar distortions - you have to worry. This is a deeply troubling book but as a clear picture of the problem, it's important.

Guardian News & Media