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Pity the billionaire: How the Right came back

January 13, 2012, 7:05 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. This week, writer-reporter Scott Cendrowski takes a look at Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank’s latest liberal diatribe.

FORTUNE — Recently, billionaire hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman published an open letter in which he complained that President Obama was being mean to rich people. A billionaire complaining about class warfare? How tragic, author Thomas Frank probably thought. Excuse the rest of the population whose gripes with Washington’s leaders — who have presided over two decades of growing income inequality, high joblessness, and an unrivaled housing mess — extend beyond a little hurtful rhetoric.

Such is the cranky mood of Frank’s new book Pity the Billionaire, which examines the forces behind the resurgent GOP. Just a year after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, in Frank’s telling, the Tea Party movement hijacked popular anger by arguing that economic salvation lay in the revival of free-market ideals. It worked. Today, financial reform has barely touched Wall Street. Taxes aren’t rising. Corporate America is piling up profits despite high unemployment and weak consumer demand.

“What is new,” Frank observes, “is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud.” This is the heart of Frank’s grievance: barely a month into Obama’s term, in the midst of an economic crisis sparked largely by private-sector greed, conservatives stole the spotlight by arguing that the entire mess was really the fault of government.

In early 2009, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade in early 2009 and ranted against a federal mortgage modification program. He called on the traders surrounding him to stage a Chicago Tea Party. And who were these traders? Frank quotes Santelli: They were “pretty straightforward … a pretty good statistical cross section of America, the silent majority.”

It took deft handling, Frank notes, but Santelli effectively presented the wealthy traders around him as little men standing up to the system. “It was the Right that grabbed the opportunity to define the debate,” Frank laments, “using bailouts to shift the burden of villainy from Wall Street to government.”

On this point, Frank riffs entertainingly on right-wing TV icon Glenn Beck. Besides detailing Beck’s famous on-screen hysterics, Frank takes time to deconstruct Beck’s fictional bestseller The Overton Window, in which a progressive PR flak falls for a conservative girl. The novel includes references to government-run internment camps that some conservatives feared the new Obama administration was constructing in 2009.

In a non-fiction afterward, Beck tells readers that a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had actually proposed the idea. He neglects to mention that the FEMA director in question was a close friend of an advisor to Ronald Reagan, and that the emergency scheme was proposed as a way of dealing with antiwar protesters.

Frank’s strength as an author has been dissecting right-wing political tactics from a liberal perspective. In his 2004 best seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas, he described how Republican strategists persuaded blue-collar Americans to vote against their own economic interests using social rallying cries like abortion and affirmation action.

Frank’s analysis of the Tea Party is less successful. He rails, with no clear point, about the moneyed interests at Tea Party rallies. He also overwhelms the reader with details of the movement’s commercial efforts, citing a $125 box of Tea Party cigars and a $40 (plus shipping) flag covered with the coiled rattlesnake emblem. But why is it wrong for a political movement to raise money by selling promotional products?

Frank’s strident rhetoric can be wearying, and so can his blind spots. There’s scant reference to the liberal reaction to the Tea Party’s populism. He dates himself by ignoring the Occupy Wall Street movement and by writing obsessively about Glenn Beck, who stepped down from his Fox News post more than a year ago.

In essence, Frank expected a new New Deal to emerge after the financial crisis and was unhappy when it failed to emerge. His book will delight other disappointed liberals. But it’s also a road map for everyone who wonders, while watching the hodgepodge of Republican presidential candidates: How the heck did all this happen?