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America's Right-Wing Reinterprets the Crisis

by Thomas Frank Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2012 at 1:22 AM

A state is not a hardware store. It must contract debts in crisis times. Four years after the collapse of the US economy, the republicans send a former investment banker into the race who stands for a policy that got us into the real messThe right-wing was very successful in changing the discourse.


Interview with bestselling author Thomas Frank

[This interview published in 9/17/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet. Activists of the Tea Party dramatize their abstract fear of the totalitarian state. Thomas Frank is the founder of the culture-critical magazine The Baffler and finds the current strength of conservatives absurd.]

How can this be? Despite the crisis of capitalism and the leaden inheritance of the Bush years, the conservatives dominate the political debate in the US. Bestselling author Thomas Frank explains the strength of US republicans and shows why the Obama government ignored important developments.

In his 2004 bestseller “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Thomas Frank, 47, analyzed why the republicans are so successful with their policy of social harshness in the poor Middle West. Books, pamphlets and posters (“Don’t believe the liberal media”) gathered in his research on the Tea Party and the success of America’s new political rightwing pile up in his office. In September 2012 in Munich, Frank presents his new book “Poor Billionaires. The Great Bluff or How the American Rightwing Cashes in on the Crisis” (2012).

SZ: How could America’s rightwing gain political capital from the financial crisis even though that crisis began in the term in office of the republican George W. Bush?

Thomas Frank: That is the great puzzle of our time. The strategy was simple. The present crisis is reinterpreted into another. Conservatives vote against regulation of the banks and argue that too many rules were responsible for the financial crisis, not too few rules. Obama allowed that and pays the price for that today.

How should he have reacted?

He should have named the culprits and declared the consensus of the past – the Trinity of deregulation, privatization and free trade – failed. However he didn’t do that. Like Bill Clinton, Obama brought Wall Street people like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers into the White House to signal to the world of finance: “Have no fear!” That was rational according to Washington’s power logic but not for the greatest economic crisis in 80 years.

Obama and his advisors compare the situation more with 1992 than 1932.

They know the seriousness of the situation but it doesn’t matter to them. Only reelection interests them and reelection can be forgotten if strict conditions are imposed on the banks. Obama could have proposed a New Deal like Franklin Roosevelt and reduced unemployment through state programs but such proposals didn’t wind up on his plate. His great error was not taking up the anger of people but leaving this to the Tea Party.

How did this movement arise?

On February 19, 2009, the relief program for indebted homeowners was discussed on the stock exchange station CNBC. Economic journalist Rick Santelli was spotted on the floor of the Chicago Exchange. He was fuming and raged against the “failures who drink the water produced laboriously by others.” Amid the cheering of the brokers, Santelli invited “all capitalists” to a Chicago Tea Party to protest against the government.

Was this an allusion to the 1773 Boston Tea Party protesting against the Brits?

What is absurd is that this populist movement began on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade where speculators for decades did business at the expense of the working class. The bloke rebelled in the name of the “silent majority” against the elite and many believed him. The first Tea Party groups arose just as the clip landed on the Internet.

Thus the rage on Wall Street was redirected to Washington.

We are the homeland of capitalism. Whoever wants to understand America must know our economic culture. When something goes wrong, businesspeople instinctively accuse the government or the unions. The rightwing acts as though the bailout programs were the fall of man and not the corrupt bankers who sold junk credits cheap and only thought of their bonuses. Their message was: the “end of America as we know it” threatens. Therefore compromises were impossible. Obviously there are good books on the financial crisis. But many people have no time to read them and depend on blogs and talk-radio.

Could the spin of the rightwing succeed only because voters don’t know the background of the crisis?

To promote my book, I visited many radio stations. I summarize the themes of “Poor Billionaires” and then hearers call up. The people always say: “Tom, don’t you know that the financial crisis erupted because Bill Clinton forced the banks to give cheap credits to the poor?’ Daily I hear such conspiracy theories. Subprime is a word that many associate with the crisis. They cannot imagine someone receiving money who is not “high grade.” Thus the socialist government must be behind that.

What role does the cable station Fox News play in the success of the Tea Party?

The significance of Fox News cannot be underrated. The founder Roger Ailes is a genius for two reasons. On one hand, he changed politics into entertainment. On the other hand, the station uses a feeling of self-pity that has grown in the upper middle class since the 1960s. Fox News drums into the heads of people: “The world treats you lousy even though you are good patriots, work hard, bravely pay taxes and believe in God.” This message is seductive and successful. From the beginning, the station followed the Tea Party actions this way.


How would you describe the typical Tea Party supporter?

Even if the Tea Party changed the discourse, there were no mass events. A maximum 2000 people turned out. Nearly everyone was white. Most were well-to-do and wore clean clothes. Many seemed to have just come from hairstylists. They did not fear unemployment but dreaded an abstract danger from the left – a totalitarian state that could take everything away.

Were the standard themes of conservatives, religion and abortion, central?

I didn’t see a single anti-abortion poster. There is a book in which protest signs are collected with a foreword by Chuck Norris. Mostly they attacked taxes or Obamacare. One slogan is especially rabid: “We came unarmed – but only this time.” In one photo, Tea Party supporters held up pictures of the author Ayn Rand.

What delights conservatives so much in these novels that are decades old?

The message is similar to the message at Fox News. In the books by Ayn Rand, the rich and successful are always the victims. My title “Poor Billionaires” is a quotation from her best-known novel “Atlas Shrugged.” In the Wall Street Journal, there are articles almost daily on how poor capitalists are led by the nose or tied to apron strings. Many Tea Party supporters are convinced conditions from Washington prevent economic growth.

That suits the small businessman whom republicans like to celebrate at party conventions.

Many representatives who were elected in 2010 are businesspersons. They believe the government may not spend more than it collects. But a state is not a hardware store. It must contract debts in crisis times. At the same time all politicians love small business and even cynics like me prefer shopping at the farmers’ market than Wal-Mart. The term small business is not defined and the argument that small business creates 90 percent of the jobs is not proven. Studies show that corporations profit above all from their demands.

Mitt Romney argues that he has solutions.

What irony! Four years after the collapse of the US economy, the republicans send a former investment banker into the race who stands for a policy that got us into the real mess. Happily Mitt Romney is a bad election campaigner. I find Paul Ryan, his Vice, much more interesting.

What fascinates you about him?

Ryan will influence politics for a long time. He is 42. What makes him special is that he offers an answer to the questions occupying America while democrats are silent. Ryan dreams of a society where the state is only responsible for the military and the market regulates everything else. He doesn’t have any self-doubt and packages his radicalism in a boring way. If Romney wins, he can begin realizing his plans. If Obama is victorious, the republicans will say Ryan would be the better candidate and he will accelerate.

And if Obama is defeated?

Then he perishes as a “red.” The right-wing was very successful in changing the political discourse. Obama is a pragmatist who wants to be like Clinton. Again and again he signaled his readiness for dialogue with republicans in the first three years – and they demonized him as a “socialist.” He adjusted his rhetoric and extended Bush’s tax cuts. These compromise positions are the most that is accepted in this country as “left.” If Obama fails, no democrat will go as far as he has gone. That would be a catastrophe for the wretched remains that is left of America’s left.


VIDEO: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” September 19, 2012, 22min

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