By Win McCormack
Thomas Frank was born in 1965 in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in the nearby Kansas suburb of Mission Hills, graduating from Shawnee Mission East High School in 1983 before going off to the University of Kansas for his first year of college. He transferred to the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in history in 1987. He then entered the graduate history program at the University of Chicago.
Frank received his Ph.D. from the Chicago History Department in 1994 for his thesis on the relation of the American advertising industry to the counter-cultural and radical movements of the 1960’s, which he turned into his first published book, The Conquest of Cool (1987). His next book was One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (2000), about the illusory “New Economy” of the 1990’s and how it seduced the American public into accepting the primacy of the market over any considerations of socioeconomic equity or justice. He had completed work on this book well before the internet bubble began to burst that year.
In 1988, Frank launched a small journal of opinion called The Baffler. He has said regarding his choice of name for the publication: “The authority of high culture may have collapsed, but the high-culture critics had no intention of allowing their authority to collapse with it. Instead they abandoned the mundane project of enlightenment and aimed for bafflement, for a style that made much of its own radicalism but had astonishingly little to say about the conditions of life in late twentieth-century America. We set out to puncture their pretensions and to beat them at their own game.”
The Baffler, extremely successful for its genre of periodical, resulted in two published volumes of its essays, Commodify Your Dissent (1997) and Boob Jubilee (2003). There runs throughout Frank’s essays in these anthologies, as there does throughout his books, absolute incredulity, on the one hand, at the accelerating economic polarization going on in America, and, on the other, at the American public’s passive and even blithe acceptance of this negative and ominous trend. What’s the Matter with Kansas, the 2004 book that catapulted Frank to the level of Sage in liberal political circles, explored how this contradiction has played itself out in his home state. Frank continues to probe this same theme in his new weekly column for the Wall St. Journal.
While he was finishing up the Kansas book he moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., where she had been offered a job. There he began to take note of another glaring contradiction: that between the values the current generation of Republicans politicians profess when they campaign for office and the values by which they actually govern when they are in power. This new theme furnished the subject for his latest book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, which I discussed with him in the basement of his home in the Tenleytown section of Washington one azalea-swept afternoon last May. Something he wrote in the “Closing Salvo” of Commodify Your Dissent, entitled “Dark Age,” might serve as a fitting segue into our discussion.
“It’s a strange species of populism that declares the people’s will to be the destruction of the people’s way of life. But the crowning mind-fuck of this panorama of intellectual obscenity has to be the perversity of the label fancied by the architects of this chaos—they like to call themselves ‘conservatives.’”
WIN McCORMACK: A lot of people, including myself, have seen the Bush administration and the kind of conservatives who have populated it as being a departure from traditional conservatism, almost a breed unto itself. You don’t seem to see it that way in The Wrecking Crew.
THOMAS FRANK: It depends on what you mean by “traditional conservatism.” If you mean Edmund Burke . . .
WM: We could start with him.
TF: Or T.S. Eliot . . .
WM: We could start with him too. Conservatives whose uppermost value was that of the importance of tradition.
TF: Then, of course, the Bush administration is in fact a true departure from classic conservatism, and it is also a departure from the sort of conservatism Robert Taft represented, which was always about balanced budgets and that sort of thing.
However, conservatism in America has never been about traditionalism in the British sense, the Edmund Burke, Tory Party sense. It is not about tradition, or even necessarily about balanced budgets. Those things appealed to them at a certain point and still work rhetorically, but they are not essential. What is essential is the role of business. Every history of American conservatism points this out, that the central fact about American conservatism is that it is a movement for business. That is what distinguishes it. The culture wars come and go.
In fact, two days ago I was at a Rick Perlstein reading (from his book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America), and there were a lot of questions about the culture wars.We look at Nixon as the first one to really ride the culture wars to success, and the issues which were so powerful for Nixon are not powerful anymore. Gay marriage, which was such a big deal four years ago, has already lost a lot of its power. These things come and go. What stays the same is the preeminent role of business in American conservatism.
You live in Portland, Oregon. Nice town. My friend took me to a restaurant there called the Ringside.
WM: The Ringside is actually a very old Portland restaurant that dates way back, before the current restaurant boom. It goes back to the twenties or something like that. A traditional steak house, as it were.
TF: If I lived in Portland, I would be there every night. It would be very bad for me, but that was my kind of place.
WM: It used to be the only steak house in town. Now they have all the chains, including your favorite, Morton’s. No, The Palm is your favorite.
TF: I am more Kansas. I have very particular views about steak houses. There are a lot of steak houses here in D.C. You might have noticed down around your hotel there is one after another. There is one block that has the three biggest steak houses in D.C. on it. They are all expense-account restaurants.
Anything super high-end you are going to find here in its most expensive permutation. Sushi, for example. You can get the most outrageous sushi. I think I quote at length from the Duke Cunningham indictment, which is a hilarious document. It includes a list of restaurants that whoever was bribing Cunningham took him to. I decided at some point that I should go to some of these places and see what the deal is, because some of them didn’t make any sense. For instance, why would you take a guy to a restaurant out by Dulles Airport? You discover as soon as you walk in what the deal is. They have a special caviar menu. Otherwise, it is just a pretty normal, straightforward French restaurant, but with the expensive caviar it becomes the kind of place where the lobbyists hang out.
WM: I’d like to divert us here for a moment to your background, and circle back to the subject of Washington, D.C., later. You hail from Kansas City?
TF: Kansas City, yeah.
WM: I would be interested in your progression as a political person. How did that interest originate and develop?
TF: You know, Kansas City is right on the state line. Most of it is in Missouri, but some of the suburbs are in Kansas, and that is where I grew up in the seventies. I have been political since I was pretty young, in high school. Back then I was conservative politically. I started high school in 1980, so it was right around when Reagan was elected, and I was very much attuned to the conservative revolution. It was very, very meaningful to me. I obviously could not vote for Reagan in 1980 because I was only fifteen, but I thought he was the greatest thing ever.
WM: What did you see in Reagan and in conservatism at the time that you liked?
TF: I thought about this a lot when I was writing What’s the Matter with Kansas? I tried to go back and revisit my mental state at the time. There was that general sense of national decline under Carter, that sense that we were no longer a great nation and the Soviets were ahead of us. Those things scare you when you are fourteen or fifteen. You take them seriously and you believe the propaganda.
Also, all the adults I knew were businessmen, and they just hated government, which is a common sentiment out there. Government interfered, or they thought government interfered, with their lives in all sorts of ways, and when you would hear them describe it, it sounded like we lived in a tyranny. Again, I was fourteen or fifteen, and I believed it. Of course, you go off to college, you start reading about the past, you start understanding how things have changed over time, and you start understanding the present better.
WM: What soured you about conservatism as you gained that knowledge?
TF: Somewhere along the line I gave up on conservatism. I was a populist of the right-wing variety, a conservative populist before I understood what populism was all about. There was a great moment of enlightenment for me when I was at the University of Kansas. I went there for one year. It has this great open-stacks library, a very old library like that before. It was just an amazing experience for me.
One day I came across an entire shelf of books, like twenty copies of the same book, and the book was called The Populist Revolt. It was a famous work of history published in 1931 or thereabouts. John D. Hicks was the author. I had never heard of it, of course. I was fresh out of high school. It was all about this radical movement of farmers and workers in the 1890s. And lo and behold, most of it had happened in Kansas. I had no idea that had happened there, and this was my first inkling that there was something to the other side besides just liberal tyranny, a bunch of eggheads from Harvard lording it over the rest of us.
It was all downhill from there. If I had just stayed a Republican, I would be sitting pretty right now.
WM: Well, populism also infused the Republican Party to some extent. You had La Follette in Wisconsin and George Norris in Nebraska. Much later in Oregon we had Wayne Morse, who grew up under La Follette’s influence in Wisconsin. He was kind of a La Follette Republican.
TF: An interesting fact: I didn’t come up with the title What’s the Matter with Kansas? That was a famous essay written in 1896 by William Allen White, an editor of a small town newspaper in Kansas. He later became very famous and now is almost totally forgotten. When he started out, he just hated the populists. He really believed all the classical economics he had been taught in school, and he thought that the populists were crazy radicals. This was before Communism was on the scene, so they did not have that as a way to understand it. They would compare populists to Robespierre, and people like that. They could not understand what was going on with the farmers. White wrote this angry essay because these people were just taking over the state and he could not understand what motivated them.
Later on in life, he changed sides. He never had the common touch, the populist touch, but he was a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt. He was very liberal later on, a fascinating guy. He spent his whole life in that town. Oh, he was a Republican, too, by the way.
I've become very cynical in this city. I always think that if I had followed through with the college Republicans, just for totally mercenary reasons, how far I would have gone financially as a right-winger, even if I didn’t believe a word of it. It would have been a great career move.
WM: When you came here you found out how the conservative movement had made Washington, D.C., a city of great wealth.
TF: I used to come here in college in the eighties, and stay with friends who lived near Dupont Circle. Dupont Circle was a kind of a dicey area at the time, which you would never think now. There were only a handful of restaurants and they were strictly for the interns and staffer crowd. Now it is chockablock with restaurants, really high-end places. The city has just been utterly transformed.
I have charts of the ten richest American cities from 1969 to the present. Although Washington has a lot of poor people, it has never been a poor city, because it doesn’t really have a large working class, like, say, Chicago or Detroit did in their heyday. Washington has always been mainly white-collar. So the demographics are skewed.
In 1969, D.C. was the ninth richest city. Now it is number three. On the current chart you see New York, San Francisco, and D.C., all very close together. This is as a percentage of personal income in the United States They are grouped very closely together, and almost all the other cities are grouped far down.
WM: I was trying to figure out when the boom started, exactly. Around 1980?
TF: Yes, ’81. Look at that. There is ’81. It is just pedaling along and then, boom, the eighties. Then during the Clinton years it sort of slowly sinks, and then boom, the Bush years. It goes right up again when the R’s get back in.
It is an ironic situation. I am always drawn to irony. We think of the conservatives and the Republicans as being the anti-Washington faction. Lord knows, they rail against the capitol constantly, big government and all that sort of thing. But when they get in, white D.C. becomes one of the very wealthiest places in America. So, I start The Wrecking Crew with that little irony.
WM: In the book you talk about how Republicans figured out how to make money from government and politics. Number one, the machines they created to get their candidates elected, such as Richard Viguerie and direct mail. By the way, I know Viguerie from Renaissance Weekend, and I get along with him quite well.
TF: He seems like a real gentleman to me. He is very forthright about what he is thinking. Doing a book about D.C. is very different than writing about Kansas, because they are very cagey here. A lot of people refuse to do interviews. If they do talk, this is off the record, that’s off the record. But I like Viguerie. He is really up-front.
WM: He is. He is one of the conservatives who blame Bush for not being a genuine conservative. Once, I walked into a breakfast room, and he was just sitting down for a meeting with a fellow conservative, and the first words out of his mouth were, “I don’t believe a single thing that George Bush says.” He went on from there, denouncing him bitterly. He seems to me a conservative who may actually take seriously those values they profess.
Let's get back to the idea of learning how to make money off of the electoral process, first of all, but also off of government itself, through intermingling business and government.
TF: I spent a lot of time reading about conservatism, interviewing conservatives, studying their movement, in particular, a moment in the late seventies and early eighties, the era of what was called the New Right—Viguerie was part of it. The New Right was a collection of conservative allies. They all knew each other. They were all friends. They all lived in northern Virginia, or most of them did, anyway. I found that what distinguished these guys, and I think what came to distinguish the movement generally, was that they had figured out a way to blend entrepreneurship with politics.
Jack Abramoff, as a young man, used the term “political entrepreneurship.” When I read that term, something clicked in my mind. I understood what these guys were doing. They were making a living by being conservatives.
You know about direct mail. Now it’s just something that comes in your mailbox, but it was a big deal in the early eighties in politics. People wrote about it all the time. These guys had figured out how to make a lot of money out of what you and I would call junk mail. They would send out these letters written in this tone of outrage that is hard to exaggerate. They were sales letters, and they would always end with a pitch: “Give us money and we will help stop this horrible disastrous thing that is coming to get you.” And this became a sort of model for the way the whole movement was organized. It is retail.
But then you find other tactics, such as attacking left-wing groups, because the left-wing groups were the Nader-type groups—if they were successful they would wind up raising taxes or other costs on business. These guys figured out they could raise money by hiring themselves out to do battle with these groups, and that is a model you see all over the city now. There are all sorts of conservative nonprofits that hire themselves out to fight the liberal groups. It is a common career path in D.C.
WM: How does this relate to the theme of corruption that runs throughout The Wrecking Crew?
TF: If you run the state in an entrepreneurial manner, then this wave of corruption becomes very clear. It is not just a couple of bad guys doing corrupt things. I want to say it is systematic, but it is not quite systematic. It is just many people thinking along the same lines and doing the same thing. Maybe it is systematic. It is certainly more than coincidence and more than individual bad apples.
I started out to write a book about political corruption and what I kept coming back to—and I am not the first to arrive at this—was the logic of business. The logic of business is what lies beneath the kind of corruption that we see in the city now. There are forms of corruption other than this model. In particular, the conservatives have a favorite pet theory of corruption: that it is corrupt to use the state to reward your constituents and then tax business.
WM: You mean blaming the liberal side for supposed political corruption.
TF: Yes, the New Deal. They think the whole New Deal was illegitimate because these different groups—labor and civil rights and environmentalists—captured the state and rewarded their own constituencies. So, the conservatives’ idea is to flip that on its head, which they have done by rewarding business groups instead.
I decided I would try to get up to speed on the theories of political corruption. There are lots of them out there, all of them fascinating. The most interesting ones, and the ones that most accurately describe the present situation, I thought, were the older ones from the turn of the last century, from one hundred years ago, in particular, Lincoln Steffens, who spent something like twenty years becoming an expert on political corruption. He would go around and interview political bosses of big cities, and these guys were unbelievably frank with him. They would just tell him, “Well, we did such and such, and here is how we did it and here is why we did it.”
WM: There was the boss of Tammany Hall, George Washington Plunkitt, who famously said, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”
TF: Another great writer who is totally forgotten now is Matthew Josephson, who wrote The Politicos, a massive study of American politics from the Civil War up to 1896, when McKinley got elected. His whole theory was that politics and the state were increasingly being run as a business, according to business models. It started out with very clumsy profiteering, which they called the “spoils system” in the early days—just stealing, basically. But by 1896 they had achieved a kind of union between business interests and the state in the person of Mark Hanna, who was McKinley’s campaign manager.
WM: I was just about to ask you, do you think this has anything to do with the fact that Karl Rove looked back to the election of 1896 as his model for the political realignment in America he envisioned for Bush’s second term?
TF: It is perfect, isn’t it? I don’t really go into that in the book, but what got me started on studying theories of political corruption is that Mark Hanna was this extreme villain. He should have had to wear a costume with little dollar signs all over it. Karl Rove thinks Hanna is the greatest political mastermind of them all. Maybe Karl Rove is right.
WM: Hanna was known for tapping the new wealth of the industrial class and escalating the amount of money in Republican politics. I believe that was one of his major accomplishments.
TF: Yes, and he did that with some help from the Democrats, who had nominated William Jennings Bryan. Bryan terrified the wealthy. As I mentioned earlier, people thought these crazy French-Revolution types were going to take over and it was going to be a Reign of Terror all over again, and they lined up with the Republican Party.
Josephson writes about how Hanna traveled to New York City and went around to each of the great businesses on his list and said, “Okay, open your books.” They would, and he would name a percentage of their profits they had to donate. They were essentially taxed by the Republican Party, sort of a private form of taxation, and McKinley ended up outspending Bryan something like twenty to one. They used every trick in the book to beat him. It is one of the really fascinating episodes in American history. Bryan’s defeat was an enormous setback for the progressive movement for many, many years.
WM: The main thing I took away from The Wrecking Crew is that Republicans are doing the same thing now, and on a scale that would have been unimaginable previously, even in Hanna’s day. And, as you point out, they are doing it partly by giving business the opportunity to make money off of government, and then businesses give a kickback, so to speak, from what they are making.
TF: This is the thing that people don’t get about Washington, and that it took me a really long time to understand as well: the idea of “government by contractor.” I think I probably read something about it, but I really didn’t grasp it until I started driving around the city and looking at the office buildings. Whose names are on the office buildings? Why are there six General Dynamics office buildings in the Virginia suburbs? It is not just them. It is Boeing, SAIC. The big federal contractors don’t just contract for the Department of Defense, they contract across the board, whether it is Homeland Security or the EPA. All the contracts go to the same contractors.
WM: How does this impact the federal budget, do you think?
TF: The Bush administration has presided over this dramatic increase in federal spending. They haven’t raised the taxes to pay for it, but they have blown the money down the money chute. The fascinating thing is that they haven’t increased the size of the federal work force. So who is doing the work? Well, it is the contractors. That industry has boomed, and that is what has made Washington so wealthy.
Contracting is fascinating to me because we know so little about it. These are private companies. They don’t have the kind of accountability that a federal agency does. You can call up on the phone and demand to know what they are doing, and they are not going to tell you. Whereas with a government agency, they will tell you, or you can do a Freedom of Information Act request, or find out through your congressman. There is accountability if it is federal workers, but if they have just sent the money off to the private sector, they have already limited the amount of oversight that you can do.
WM: We are talking, aren’t we, about “FEMAtizing” the federal agencies?
TF: Yes, and about the failure of the private sector model, the government by contractor, which you see most pointedly in Iraq.
The first thing to note is that these conservatives deeply mistrust career civil servants, and deeply mistrust the institutions of the federal government, with the exception of, say, the military and a couple of others.
WM: But do they even trust the military? We have Blackwater and all the paramilitary contractors they have brought into Iraq. I have read that there are as many of them as there are U.S. combat troops in the country.
TF: That’s exactly right. That is the way of avoiding the political costs of a war like this. Anyway, I was interviewing this one very senior civil servant, and in our conversation he would say such and such an agency had been “FEMAtized,” and then we would talk about some other agency, and how that agency has been FEMAtized also. What he meant by that was that the agency had lost its morale. Its senior employees had taken early retirement or gone into the private sector, a very common thing to do here.
The government is contracting everything out, and the contractors often get paid more than the federal employees to do the same work. The contractors actually come to work in the federal office building, sit next to the federal employees, and there is no distinction made between them except that the contractor is paid more. And so the civil servants make the rational, self-interested, correct decision that if the guy in charge of the organization—the president—constantly badmouths you and talks about how federal employees can’t get anything done, and they pay better in the private sector where your work is going anyway, it is totally rational to move over to those companies in northern Virginia. That is who is doing the work anyway.
WM: In Washington this is sometimes called, I think, the “revolving door.”
TF: Yes. You find this all over the place. Sometimes it can be very sinister. On the one hand, there is the kind of demoralization of the federal workforce, and there are all sorts of statistics about this. A lot of the most disturbing ones come from the Reagan era; in the Bush era, they have just done what the Reagan people did, but more thoroughly and with less oversight. When Reagan did it, it was novel and the newspapers screamed. They started laying people off at federal agencies and firing senior personnel, or putting them in places where they had nothing to do with policy, replacing career personnel with some political type. All of this was very shocking when Reagan rolled it out. When Bush started doing it again, it was not shocking. It gets covered in the media, but you really have to dig if you want to find it, and when you talk to the federal employees themselves, they are just exhausted. This has been going on for a very long time.
WM: Do you think the Republicans came into office, either in 1980 or 2000, with the intent of making money off the government for their supporters, their financial supporters, or that they stumbled upon this possibility at a certain point, and then started to run with it?
TF: I don’t know how they think about it. There have been some remarkably candid statements. Bush himself says government should be “market-based.” They talk about how a government by contractor is superior to government by civil servant. People have said that you use contracting to reward your friends and punish your enemies, but the guy who said that most bluntly, former HUDSecretary Alphonso Jackson, then retracted it.
They are never completely open about what they are going to do, but when they get in, they always go back to the same set of practices. I don’t think there are any blueprints out there for it. It would be funny if there were. If so, I would not need to write this book.
WM: Maybe it is just a series of experiments. But the application of it to Iraq is very interesting to me.
TF: Yes, because there they have a whole country to remake.
WM: I understand that one of the reasons contracting has worked so badly there is precisely because they have not used local contractors for most things. For example, the infamous electricity, which still doesn’t work, could have been working almost immediately if they had used local contractors, or even if they’d used Iranian contractors, who are nearby, after all.
TF: That seems like such an obvious mistake I can’t believe anyone made it. If you really want this country to succeed, you have got to get its people back to work. Instead, it was just another way of shoveling the money to these American contractors, who then subcontracted the work to the lowest bidder. They bring in the labor from somewhere else, and the Iraqis, the people who actually live there, can go to hell.
WM: Even when they hire non-American workers, they bring in slave labor from other countries.
TF: From Nepal, India, and Pakistan, is what I read. It is a very depressing story.
WM: So, maybe they didn’t really care very much about Iraq and making it into a thriving economy and shining democracy? You think?
TF: I think that is probably right. Another interesting thing about Iraq is that the opportunities for accountability, or the means of accountability, are really diminished. I have talked to a number of newspaper reporters and TV reporters who have been over there. They don’t even do the reporting themselves. They don’t dare walk outside the building without armed guards. It has to be done by local stringers. There is just very little scrutiny of what anybody is doing over there. Very, very little.
The best book about Iraq, or the best one I have read, is a fantastic book by the ex-Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran called Imperial Life in the Emerald City. You keep coming across examples in the book where they brought over some kid to do a job, like set up the Baghdad stock exchange, and the kid has no experience. Nobody bothered to check. He was somebody’s son, or he was an eager young college graduate who had sent his resume to the Heritage Foundation or something like that.
But the point about all these things—government by contractor, dumbing down and wrecking federal agencies—is that they are all about closing off public scrutiny. This is a constant theme. I found several efforts by conservatives to shut down or defund agencies that oversee contracting, so that there would be even less information about it.
WM: Another thing you talk about in the book, regarding money, is Republicans’ systematic strategy for “defunding the Left,” as you say they call it.
TF: Here, let me show you something. This is from my collection, this “Defund the Left” lapel button. “Defund the Left” is a Howard Phillips slogan. He is a marginal figure nowadays, but people listened to him in the seventies and early eighties. He had a bunch of ideas for conservatives, and the one that runs throughout my book as a kind of theme is “Defund the Left.” The idea being that if you can find out where liberalism’s funding comes from, you can use the power of the state to cut those funds off. Certain federal programs employed people who tended to be very liberal, like the Legal Services Corporation. He was always trying to get that defunded. His idea was to cut the federal budget in ways that would damage the Left. Another one was to somehow adjust funding to punish Ivy League schools or elite universities, because, according to the conservative mythology, they were liberal. By the way, Phillips himself went to Harvard.
He had some success pushing this program—not much, but some. If you take that idea of defunding the Left and start applying it across the board, you see that conservatives have really been very successful with it. The guy who is really the great thinker about defunding the left is Grover Norquist.
WM: Another Harvard graduate, by the way.
TF: Another Harvard graduate, but he is the strategic genius of the conservative machine here in Washington. By that I don’t just mean his Wednesday morning meetings, when representatives from all the conservative groups get together in his office. He looks at the Democratic Party and asks, “What are the pillars that prop it up?” It is labor unions, it is trial lawyers, it is teachers’ unions, it is what he calls “big city machines,” by which he means just big city government. And he asks, “How can we use the power of the state to wreck these, to knock these pillars over?”
WM: How have they done that?
TF: They have actually done a lot. They cracked down on trial lawyers in numerous ways, some successful and some unsuccessful. We all know what they have done to the labor movement. They have just smashed it. Once you start understanding it, you see that many of these things are about defunding the Left. For example, deficits defund the Left, because deficit spending, of course, we always identify with the Democrats. That is Keynesian economics, something Franklin D. Roosevelt brought into American politics, and it has always been identified as liberalism. Then Reagan took deficits and—
WM: Let me stop you there for a second. Are you aware that Irving Kristol laid out this whole strategy in the Wall Street Journal in 1980 in an article called “The Battle for the Soul of Ronald Reagan”?
TF: No. About deficit spending?
TF: I did not know that. Other people approved of it. Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay about it.
WM: Kristol’s analysis in that unfortunately overlooked article went something like this: The way American politics has traditionally worked is that the Republicans come into power and straighten everything out. They balance the budget, they restore fiscal stability to the country, and then the Democrats come back in and take over and they engage in deficit spending, and that spending is how they get their constituencies and how they win elections.
WM: The Republicans didn’t give people anything except fiscal responsibility and stability, like giving them castor oil, and he recommended that Reagan come in and do the opposite—give people huge tax cuts that create such large deficits that when the Democrats came back into power, they wouldn’t have any money to fund their social programs.
TF: That is amazing.
WM: And “The Battle for the Soul of Ronald Reagan” was the battle between the traditional Republicans who wanted Reagan to balance the budget as Republicans always did, and the supply-siders, who wanted to cut taxes for reasons of capital formation. Kristol said there is an additional reason to cut taxes and create deficits, which is to defund the left, though he did not use that phrase.
TF: Well, that is effectively what the strategy did, as Bill Clinton found out.
WM: It was done willfully.
TF: That’s right. They spent the money extravagantly on contractors and the military, while at the same time making their cutbacks in domestic programs, liberal programs, programs they didn’t approve of, and it effectively defunded the left. Because then the Democrats came in and Bill Clinton had his grand plan for this and for that—he actually sounded kind of liberal in 1992. He discovered very quickly that he wasn’t going to be able to do any of this stuff, because he had to get these amazing deficits under control.
WM: Bush has done it again.
TF: Correct. After seeing how it forced Clinton’s hand, Republicans would be irresponsible not to do it. Another common theme with conservatives is the cold war idea of mirroring the enemy. We do what the Soviets do, like the CIA, spy versus spy.
WM: I was going to bring that up: conservatives’ apparent affinity for Marxism.
TF: Isn’t that curious? I was talking to a friend of mine, a French guy, and they are always saying, “Where is the American Left?” and I say the people in this country who read Marx and Mao and Stalin and try to take lessons away from these guys are not the Left, they are the right-wingers.
WM: Such as Grover Norquist’s quote about Stalin in your book. “First, we want to remove liberal personnel from the political process. Then we want to capture those positions of power and influence for conservatives. Stalin taught the importance of this principle. He was running the personnel department, while Trotsky was out fighting the White Army. When push came to shove for control of the Soviet Union, Stalin won. His people were in place and Trotsky’s were not . . . With this principle in mind, conservatives must do all they can to make sure that they get jobs in Washington.”
TF: I couldn’t believe it when I came across it. Norquist also quotes Brezhnev.
WM: It seems to operate on two levels. On one level, sometimes when you describe their aims and strategy, it almost sounds as if conservatives are out to prove Marx right and fulfill his prophecies about capitalism, about how wealth would become so concentrated and the proletariat so impoverished that a revolution would be inevitable.
TF: You are talking about the ultimate hard-liners of history, Stalin and Mao. It just doesn’t get any worse than them, and conservatives look at these guys and they’re like, “Right on!” One of the favorite lines on the Right is Mao’s statement, “First I will take over the countryside and then I will close in on the cities.” And that is exactly what they are doing. That is their real “red” strategy, you know.
WM: So what is the way back for the liberal movement?
TF: We are so far beyond that.
WM: “Restoring the liberal order,” to use your phrase.
TF: That was about the mindset at the grassroots level. What’s the Matter with Kansas? was about what these people are like at the most local level. A lot of them I thought were very decent people, good people. The argument that I made there was that the culture wars are a way of talking about class while at the same time never addressing the actual, formal concerns of class.
WM: The Wrecking Crew is about something utterly different. I am also writing about conservatives, or people who call themselves that, but it has nothing to do with the guy down the street from you in Wichita, Kansas, who happens to be an anti-abortion protester. That has nothing to do with the way that they govern, with the people who govern.
I have become pretty far removed from the electoral politics. I haven’t thought about it for several years. I am sorry to disappoint you.
WM: You wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal recently, concerning the criticism of Obama for supposedly being elitist. In it you said you just wanted somebody to come into office who would restore the more egalitarian America that you grew up in. So, you do have a wish for it.
TF: Oh, of course. Don’t you?
WM: Yes, of course, but you don’t think about . . .
TF: How to do it? I have said it and I will say it again, and again, and again, that we have to take away from these guys the notion that they are the custodians and upholders of tradition and traditional values.A point that I make in the final chapter of The Wrecking Crew is that these people haven’t upheld the values of the world that I was born into. They have wrecked them. They have destroyed that world. When I was a kid, I read pop sociology books about the affluent society and the consumer culture, all those Vance Packard books about how wasteful we were, but the underlying theme of all of that literature was what an egalitarian society we were.
They destroyed that. These people are not conservatives in the Edmund Burke sense. Egalitarian America is gone. They killed it. That aura of family (the term is not family values) and of traditionalism and of traditional values—I want to take that away from them. Because they are the enemies of the traditional society I grew up in.
At the same time, how do you get back to it? It is a much more difficult task than winning elections, and this is where I become a real pessimist, I am sorry to say, because . . .
WM: There is no populist movement.
TF: The populists lost in the end.
WM: Did they, or did they provide the basic ideas for the New Deal?
TF: That is certainly true, yes, they did do that. The New Deal came along, and I think that is about as good as we can hope to see again in our lifetimes. It would be great to see that kind of politics make a comeback.
But what we always have to remember about the New Deal is that it was a compromise between a very vocal and boisterous left-wing movement and the establishment. I don’t mean liberal, I mean a real, honest-to-God left-wing movement in this country. I also don’t mean Communist. I mean like Huey Long. In the thirties, there were all sorts of weird left-wing movements abroad and in this country, and the New Deal was a compromise between those movements and the traditional power of business. It met those concerns, through things like Social Security, the G.I. Bill, that sort of thing, while at the same time overturning the existing order. It reformed the existing order.
Well, that sounds pretty good to me right now. The problem is to remember that it was a compromise. For you to have that kind of compromise again, you have to have those movements on the Left. And those movements are gone. Rebuilding movements like that is very, very difficult. The primary one is the labor movement. They have just been beaten so badly.
Then again, look on the sunny side. Be optimistic about it. My friends in the labor movement always point out to me that all the advances they made in the thirties they made very quickly. It was a matter of three or four years.
WM: Once FDR got in there and the flood gates opened.
TF: Yes, that is exactly right. It could happen again.
WM: Your last chapter in The Wrecking Crew is called “Reaching for the Pillars.” They did reach for one of the pillars in trying to destroy Social Security, and we beat them on that. We beat them resoundingly. We still have some power left, it would seem, probably even in Kansas.
TF: Yes. That campaign of theirs was very unpopular wherever you went. The thing is that organized money is so adamant about Social Security. It would be a windfall of gigantic proportions for Wall Street, and at the same time it would defund the Left. That is the other thing. Social Security is sort of a de facto way of propping up the state, propping up the liberal government in D.C. You take that away and that would be the end of the road. I think that is why the Right wants it so badly and why it was so deeply unpopular. But that doesn’t mean they are going to stop trying.
WM: You write that it is worth almost any price to them. Is that why Bush and Rove went ahead and tried it, despite its political unpopularity?
TF: Statistically, nobody voted for Bush on the grounds that he would privatize Social Security. I remember when I heard him give that speech. I was downtown in Washington, in a hotel bar. Here is Bush on TV, announcing his agenda for his second term, and item number one is that we are going to privatize Social Security. Oh, my God. I knew he was going to say it, but why? They never debated it. He did not campaign on that. He campaigned on gay marriage.
WM: That was Karl Rove reaching for the pillars.
TF: That phrase, “reaching for the pillars,” comes from Jerry Falwell. It was one of my favorite finds from digging through the conservative literature to write this book. Falwell gave a speech at a memorial service for a congressman from Georgia named Larry McDonald, who was the chairman of the John Birch Society and also on the Korean airliner that got shot down in ’83. Falwell spoke about how “people like us are reaching for the pillars of society. We have had enough.” Just like Sampson in the Bible. Even if we have to die ourselves, we are bringing that temple down. It is the most amazing statement.
WM: So it is. And that seems an appropriate place to end this interview: putting on the record here the expressed desire of at least one prominent member of the right wing and the conservative movement to destroy this country.