On Thomas Frank and Arthur Goldwag

Say what you like about the Treasurer Wayne Swan – his timing is impeccable. As I was sitting down to plan this review, he was standing up at the National Press Club to attack the ‘tiny handful of people … who mobilise their considerable wealth against policies designed to benefit the majority’. Taking aim at the mining billionaires who’d campaigned against the government’s resources tax – Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart – the Treasurer worked a rich seam of populism: ‘I think we need a lot of straight talking in this debate because it shines a light on something that everyone of us holds dear in this country: the notion of a fair go.’

No doubt there was an element of demagoguery and opportunism in Swan’s remarks, but for me the most interesting thing about them was their mildness. Four years on from the GFC and the socialisation of corporate debt, you’d expect a bit of class rhetoric from left-of-centre politicians. But these are strange times, and it wasn’t long before the ‘tiny handful’ of billionaires had formed itself into a formidable fist. Cheered on by the Federal Opposition, Forrest took out full-page newspaper ads deploring the Treasurer’s ‘extreme claims’, while Clive Palmer, fresh from a ceremony in his honour, accused him of trying to divide the country. Only Gina Rinehart remained above the fray, possibly because she’s planning to respond in verse.

If so, she may draw inspiration from a scene recounted in Thomas Frank’s outstanding broadside Pity the Billionaire. The date is 19 February 2009 and CNBC journalist Rick Santelli, broadcasting from a trading-room floor in Chicago, is railing against President Obama’s plan to help US homeowners avoid foreclosure. To cheers from the trading-room personnel – the very people whose ingenious greed had brought the global economy low – Santelli calls for a ‘Chicago Tea Party’ to push back against the power of the state and reassert the primacy of the market. It is a moment of inspired cognitive dissonance – one that will give birth to a grassroots phenomenon unique in US history: a mass conversion to free-market theory as a response to a crisis of capitalism.

Written in a buttonholing, gloves-off style, Pity the Billionaire says what needs to be said about the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US: that its leaders and ‘theorists’ are as disingenuous as its millions of followers are wrongheaded. Widening his eyes and dropping his jaw like a character in a Warner Brothers cartoon, Frank makes no secret of his exasperation. Indeed, he’s almost impressed by the audacity of the right’s ideological ‘switcheroo’ – the ‘reverse Marxism’ by which the villain of the piece is recast as its hero, its gallant white knight. ‘Before 2009,’ he writes, ‘the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.’ Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the populist right in contemporary America.

At the heart of Frank’s analysis is a comparison of the political sentiments that emerged as a result of the Great Depression and the current orgy of populist stupidity exemplified by politicians such as Sarah Palin and abominable showmen such as Glenn Beck. In the 1930s, Frank suggests, the ‘rugged individualism’ extolled by President Herbert Hoover yielded to a mood of social solidarity. By contrast, the years following the GFC have been more like a ‘Great Awakening’ in which capitalism has taken the role of religion. Bowing down before the holy trinity of deregulation, privatisation and free trade, the Tea Party ignores the role of capitalism in bringing the US economy to its knees and calls not for more state intervention but less.

In this they are like those deluded leaders, typical of the Soviet era, who place the blame for all setbacks and reversals on the compromises made in a policy’s implementation. Except, of course, that for the majority of Tea Partiers the problem is not incompetent policy but the existence of a policy at all. Thus we come to one of the strangest aspects of Tea Party ideology: the notion that the government’s bailout of the banks was really a power grab by the state. This power grab has subverted the essence of true capitalism, which, if left to its own devices, would deliver a better world for all. The idea that capitalism entrains inequalities that it is the responsibility of the state to curtail is one that either doesn’t register or, if it does, is flagged as socialism.

In this, the Tea Party has much in common with right-wing movements from previous eras. Indeed, as Arthur Goldwag shows in his history of the populist right, The New Hate, such movements demand some other ideology, or racial or religious group, against which to define themselves. This can be communism, as in the 1950s, or Catholicism, as in the nineteenth century. But the role of such ‘others’ is always the same: to serve as the scapegoat for society’s ills and the obstacle to its rejuvenation.

To this extent, the history of the far right is also the history of conspiracy theory. Employing what Richard Hofstadter calls the ‘paranoid style’ of politics, conspiracy theorists always stress the influence of shady elites. Goldwag provides an exhaustive survey of the various ‘panics’ to have broken out at what he calls the ‘frontier of wing-nuttery’, where communists, Freemasons, Catholics, Jews and Muslims have all taken their turn in the stocks. Now it is the liberal state that is considered to be transcendentally evil, but there are many other elements in the mix. The idea that Obama is a secret Muslim is one of the crazier theories at large. Or witness the recrudescence of anti-Semitism – flaring from the rubble of the GFC and by no means restricted to the far right.

For Goldwag, anti-Semitism provides a template for all conspiracy theories. Structurally different from other forms of racism in that it tends to stress the dominance and not the inferiority of the target group (no one accuses Mexicans of trying to rig international finance), anti-Semitism allows the far right to dissolve its ideological contradictions. Goldwag gives the example of white supremacists: ‘If whites are as innately superior as they say they are, then why have they been reduced, as they insist they have been, to a pitiful, powerless minority in their own lands?’ The answer is as elegant as it is absurd: when it comes to civil rights, it’s the Jews who run the show.

Goldwag’s book makes a wonderful compliment to Frank’s more openly polemical analysis. While Frank stresses the unique aspects of the Tea Party movement, Goldwag stresses its continuity with the past (the ‘new hate’, he argues, is the old hate repackaged). Between them, they get to the heart of a movement that it’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand. Both books are excellent, but together they’re essential.

Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
Harvill Secker; $34.95; 225pp

Arthur Goldwag, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right
Scribe; $32.95; 368pp

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First published in The Australian.