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I look upon Tom Frank as a political behaviorist with a healthy sense of the humor and an even healthier sense of the absurd, the latter of which works with the former the way an afterburner works on a fighter jet. His great gift is to look at us first, before getting around to looking at how we come to order ourselves in our society and govern ourselves in our politics, if it can even be said that we govern ourselves in our politics any more, which I would contend is a matter of some debate. Anyway, to me, Tom’s great gift always has been to look at the influences behind millions of individual decisions that add up to the collective experience of at least the appearance of political self-government. Reading Tom’s work, and reading his assessment of the political malpractice we sometimes inflict on ourselves, I am reminded of an entry in the voluminous diary of Ignatius Donnelly, great American crank, former Minnesota congressman, virtual inventor of modern pseudo-science, creator of everything we think we know about Atlantis, and intellectual amanuensis of my own book, Idiot America. Once, while defending his own work, he wrote in his journal — “I believe I am right. Or, if not right, at least plausible.”
(In this, Donnelly is echoing the words of Tertullian, an early Father of the Christian Church, and a prominent apologist for the Christian faith in the days before Constantine. Tertullian once famously wrote: “It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd.”)
Tom Frank works the shadows between what is true and what is plausible, between what should be believed and what is absurd, in America in the first years of the 21st century. In Idiot America, I tried to place the American crank in the American crank’s proper place. I tried to illustrate precisely the crank’s place in American culture and in American politics — proudly outside the mainstream, asking nothing of anyone, expecting no validation from mainstream thought, a resident of the wild places in the American imagination, a creature of what Greil Marcus has called, “the old, weird America.” For his part, Tom is the past master of showing us what happens when we give the crank the place in the mainstream that he should not be granted, the pride of intellectual place that he does not deserve, and what happens when we hijack the crank from the old, weird America and put him in Congress, or on Meet The Press, or on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post. We start to believe the crank. We start to think the crank is a legitimate part of the national dialogue. We do this at our peril.
In his latest work, Pity The Billionaire, Tom Frank limns one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of American politics. In 2008, every single premise of the conservative economic philosophy that had governed the country, in one for or another, since Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, was proven to be what Woody Allen in Bananas would call a travesty of a mockery of a sham. Deregulated Wall Street stole most of the nation’s economy and wrecked what was left for the rest of us. Absolutely nobody doubts this simple fact. And the collapse came only two years after the Democratic party had scored a whopping victory in the 2006 midterm elections, and just as the country was preparing to elect a Democratic president in Barack Obama. And, amazingly, within two years, the country had turned completely back to the party most complicit in the economic disaster under which the country was still laboring. The country determined to believe (again!) in the free-market hokum and in the conjuring words of the deregulated state. It was not right, the country reasoned, but it sounded plausible.
And Tom Frank was there, working in the shadows, trying to figure out his fellow citizens, and parsing the distance between suicide and suckerdom. And he’s here today to talk about it with us. Ladies and gentlemen, and everyone in between, Mr. Thomas Frank…