Harvill Secker, £14.99
Examining the conservative surge, which became really angry when Barack Obama succeeded George W Bush, the main architect of the disaster, Frank points out that, as grassroots go, this grass was well-watered with corporate money and organising skills – astroturf, in fact.
Analysing their words, he shows how the New Right studied the Great Depression and stole the tactics of the left in that era, right down to their vocabulary and methods of organisation. The generation whose own experience would have contradicted the curious theory that FDR and the New Deal caused the Great Depression has now mostly gone to the great Rock Candy Mountain in the sky. There are now many Americans with no reality-based immunity to historical bovine excreta.
While the left cherishes the idea that its heyday was in the 1930s, the historical evidence is contradictory. Think of the Nazis, for example, (or the Blackshirts in Britain) the Ku Klux Klan and Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest in the United States. France got the Popular Front while Britain got a Conservative-dominated coalition for the duration of the decade.
Although it seems odd that so many believe the problems of the current era were caused by too much regulation and government interference, it is, as Frank suggests, not much more anomalous than those who believed that a country of gulags and purges and show trials held the answer.
As he says, “the new right has not met its goals by deception alone – although there has been a great deal of this – but by offering an idealism so powerful that it clouds its partisans’ perceptions of reality”. The invocation of freedom and attacks on an
all-powerful state resonate, as Ron Paul’s deluded followers demonstrate. Even the “right to life” is a powerful semantic coup, on a par with the “death tax”, for conservatives. Union-busting in America is, by long tradition, the “right to work”. Not since Arbeit Macht Frei has language been set so radically athwart reality.
In contrast, Frank points out, “modern Democrats don’t do things the way Roosevelt and Truman did because their eye is on people who believe, per Obama’s description, ‘in the free market’ almost as piously as do Tea Partyers. Class language, on the other hand, feels strange to the new Dems; off-limits. Instead, the party’s guiding geniuses like to think of their organisation as the vanguard of enlightened professionalism and the shrine of purest globaloney”.
Obama’s State of the Union speech was typical – a technocratic exercise that threw scraps to his supporters. He did not have a dream, authentic or otherwise, to move the masses. Our only hope is that the dream that moves the right is a nightmare to the majority of Americans.
One drawback with this book is that, in his effort to counter the
left’s prejudices about grassroots conservatives, Frank backpedals on the recurrent American subtext of racism. The leaders of the right might not be racists, personally, but they know their audience. The anger at Obama burns far brighter in many quarters because he is a black man in the previously all-White House. The not so coded references implying that welfare beneficiaries are mostly black (they aren’t; poverty in America is an equal opportunity programme) are designed to enlist white support against government welfare programmes.
And, of course, there is now a stream of Islamophobia to match the anti-Semitism of the 1930s.However, those deficiencies in some ways enhance the relevance of Pity the Billionaire for Britons wondering why, when the Opposition stops opposing, people start worshipping at strange altars. The description here of the New Democrats suggests that Bill Clinton’s Third Way still has them in its grip, just as Tony Blair’s New Labour project still has its slimy tentacles wrapped around Labour and the left in Britain. Electors abhor a vacuum: nationalism, racism and clear ideas, no matter how loony, are preferable to leaders disappearing up their own colons to agree with the enemy.