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Book Review: Pity the Billionaire

Author Thomas Frank marvels at the nation’s free-market revival and resurgence of the political right

Occupy Wall Street protests in Manhattan against the cities wealthiest millionaires.

Occupy Wall Street protestors stage a "Millionaires March" in Manhattan's Upper east Side. — Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Frank moved from Chicago to the Washington, D.C., area shortly after finishing What’s the Matter?, whereupon he appears to have contracted Beltway Mentality Syndrome. He monitors articles in newsmagazines to take the nation’s political temperature.

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He obsessively parses the blowhardism of talk-show host Glenn Beck. (Presumably, Frank wrote much of Pity the Billionaire before Beck left his influential Fox News perch last year.) And he quotes from signs he spotted at various Tea Party rallies he attended. (Although, in his defense, two of those were in Denver and Richmond.)

Yet not once, to judge from these pages, did Frank interview anyone holding those signs. Pity the Billionaire abounds with witticisms about what politicians and Frank’s fellow pundits and journalists are saying, but the opinions and values of average folks are absent. So far does he go to avoid human contact that he risks becoming the Wizard of Id of opinionators.

This omission eclipses Frank’s incisive critique: Confronting the collapse of the free market, the American Right has persuaded vast numbers of people that the market wasn’t allowed to be free enough. That idealized view of reality, says Frank, has galvanized people in a dark time and spurred a resurgence of the political right “as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster.”

In many ways, events of last fall have conspired to make the timing of Pity the Billionaire unfortunate: Frank seems to have completed most of his manuscript before the Occupy Wall Street protest and its progeny around the country broke upon the national consciousness. Fueling that movement, finally, is the outrage that Frank’s familiarity with history had led him to expect. As this newest episode in the saga unfolds, Frank himself may have to take to the streets to piece it together.

 Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly.

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