10.03.12

Billionaires Are the Victims! Thomas Frank on the Republican Strategy

Welcome to an America where billionaires are the victims and capitalism is in chains, or so they say, writes Thomas Frank. Plus, read the transcript of our live chat about why billionaires are whining and the Republicans are winning on a strategy of victimhood.

During the financial crisis and bailouts of 2008, it probably occurred to very few average people that we were entering a period of hardship for billionaires. But among the nation’s economic titans, the idea of billionaire victimhood caught on immediately. And so, in the months and years that followed, the believers in true capitalism gathered in the nation’s parks to make their voices heard—and to complain sorrowfully about how this nation of moochers and looters persists in making snippy remarks about the successful.

I admit that I was impressed at first by the unconflicted way in which these proud voices of the strong—these hymners of Darwinian struggle, of the freedom to fail, of competition to the death—advanced their war on the world by means of tearful weepy-woo. But then I started to get it: self-pity is central in the consciousness of the resurgent right. Depicting themselves as victimized in any and every situation is not merely a fun game of upside-down; it is essential to their self-understanding. They are the ones who produce, who make, who build—and yet also the ones to whom things are done. This is the reason they have taken as their banner a flag that reads, “Don’t Tread on Me.” The first time I saw that defiant yellow standard floating over someone’s suburban-baronial Versailles, I understood the grand distortion that undergirds all the rest of it: The belief that we are living in an age of rampant leftism; that progressivism is what brought the nation to its awful straits; that markets were born free but are everywhere in chains.

And so we have the works of Matthew Continetti, a journalist who specializes in profiles in victimhood: a catalogue of every nasty thing anyone has ever said about Sarah Palin that he actually entitled The Persecution of Sarah Palin; a 2011 cover story for the Weekly Standard about the persecution of the Koch brothers, two of the nation’s richest men and most influential political donors, but who, it is Continetti’s solemn duty to report, receive mean emails every day.

Indeed, there are few political or cultural situations in which the right doesn’t instinctively reach for the mantle of the wronged, holler about bias, or protest about how unfairly they’ve been treated. It goes on even in the most improbable precincts. Army generals must be consoled. And former majority leaders of the House of Representatives need your sympathy.

I refer, of course, to Dick Armey who, along with his co-author Matt Kibbe, chooses to enliven the pages of his 2010 “Tea Party Manifesto,” Give Us Liberty, with a chapter that catalogues just about every insult directed against him and the Tea Party movement over the past three years.

Why must the world be persuaded to think of Dick Armey as a victim? For the same reason that Glenn Beck channels Martin Luther King, that Paul Ryan writes a magazine article entitled, “Down with Big Business,” and that conservatives generally have learned to apply the term “fascist” to their foes: because, consciously or not, all of them are following a political strategy that works in hard times.

Read Thomas Frank's discussion about this column and his book, Pity the Billionaire.