Pity the Billionaire: How the Crash of ’08 Revitalized the American Right

In between the bank bailouts and Occupy Wall Street, small-government, anti-populism conservatives turned the tide of burgeoning class warfare into sympathy for the rich.

| April 2013

Don’t support left-leaning populism. Support the “job creators.” Pity not the working class, but pity the billionaire. 

In essence, that’s a representation of much of the current American political scene—paradoxes of individuals going against self-interest and all. In Pity the Billionaire (Picador, 2012), Thomas Frank analyzes the sleight of hand involved in the American right’s post-Great-Recession resurgence—all the upside-down grievances that have transformed economic suffering into valentines for the rich. Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, returns to self-interest and the struggle of the rich getting richer—all with the hope of tackling the contradictions at the heart of the country’s politics. 

The Populist Moment

You can quibble with my language, but little of the foregoing is a matter of opinion or controversy. Most responsible accounts of the Crash of ‘08 emphasize the role of deregulation, incentives, and the free-market faith in the building of the bubble.

I repeat all these well-known tales here for this reason: according to the logic of hard times—according to logic tout court—the Crash of ’08 should have kick-started the hard-times scenario in the same way the events of 1929–32 did.

And for a while it seemed as though matters were moving inexorably down those Depression-era tracks. The financial heroes of previous years became objects of public wrath almost immediately. We turned on the politicians who bailed out their friends. Our fury spiked every time we heard some dispatch on the bankers’ still-posh lives.

In October of 2008, we learned about the lavish corporate retreats enjoyed by executives at financial firms even after they were bailed out. In November, there was a wave of anger at auto executives who flew to DC in private jets to ask for their own lifeline. In January of 2009, news broke that the CEO of Merrill Lynch had approved extravagant bonuses even as the company headed for disaster; he had also spent over $1 million redecorating his office. In March, it was the turn of the CNBC business news network, as the comedian Jon Stewart reminded the world of the channel’s smiling sycophancy toward CEOs and its clueless optimism regarding all things Dow.