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The Wrecking Crew: Thomas Frank on How Conservatives Rule

StoryAugust 08, 2008
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Columnist and author Thomas Frank joins us to talk about his latest book, The Wrecking Crew. Frank writes, “Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Last week, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was indicted on seven felony charges for receiving payments and gifts from the oil services company VECO. Stevens is the first sitting senator to face criminal charges in fifteen years.

But the Stevens indictment is just the latest corruption scandal to plague the Republican Party in recent years. Several prominent Republicans are currently serving jail sentences after being convicted of corruption and fraud charges. The list includes uberlobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Congressman Duke Cunningham of California, and Republican fundraiser and defense contractor Brent Wilkes. Former Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio was recently released from jail and has been living in a halfway house.

Meanwhile, several corporations with ties to the Republican Party, including Halliburton, KBR and Blackwater, are coming under scrutiny for war profiteering.

AMY GOODMAN: The Democratic Party claims this is all a sign of the Republican culture of corruption. But the writer and social critic Thomas Frank has a different take on what’s happening inside the Beltway. His new book is called The Wrecking Crew. In it, Frank writes, “Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction.”

Thomas Frank is the bestselling author and columnist with the Wall Street Journal. His previous books include What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. His latest book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Thomas Frank joins us here in our firehouse studio.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, how are you guys doing today?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good have you with us. Who are conservatives, and can they be Democrats as well as Republicans and others?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, yeah, of course. And, you know, for much of our history, there — you know, the Democratic Party used to have this very powerful conservative wing that kept, for example, the Roosevelt administration from getting a lot of things done. But, yes, they can — the power of money, you know, exerts its magnetic pull on both parties these days, but the Democrats, at least, are sort of cross-pressured by their own rhetoric and their own — you know, the talk about being the party of the people, that sort of thing.

There also — you know, there are a lot of good Democrats out there, before I go bad-mouthing them too much. There are some who really do understand the issues that I talk about in the book.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you write that an essential aspect of conservativism is that it’s — in addition to being a movement, it’s also an industry. What do you mean by that?

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, that’s the sort of — one of the little lights that went on in my head after I moved to — I moved to Washington a few years ago, and I was watching, you know, this — the unfurling of this long list of scandals. And you guys mentioned a few of the latest ones, but, I mean, there has just been hundreds just in the last couple years, one after another, you know, sometimes on the front page of the paper, sometimes buried deep inside of it. You add to that then the sort of — you know, the way that they put so many of the federal bureaucracies, essentially, into reverse, you know, so they don’t function anymore, the bringing incompetent people in to run federal agencies, and then the sort of, you know, triumph of lobbying as the great Washington industry, and you start to see that what’s going on is the application of — it’s all part of the same phenomenon, and it is the application of market principles to government itself.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the title of your book is The Wrecking Crew.


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: How exactly are they attacking the civil service system? I mean, you write about the “pay gap.” What is that?

THOMAS FRANK: It’s very interesting. Conservatives have had a beef with the civil service for a really long time. This is part of their identity. This goes all the way back.

I was able to find an article published in 1928, and it was written by — or maybe it was an interview with the president of the US Chamber of Commerce. And these guys are big players in Washington now, just as they were in 1928 in the Coolidge administration, big, you know, conservative powerhouse down there. And the title of the article was — it was also the most important quotation in the article from the Chamber of Commerce guy: “The best public servant is the worst one,” he said. And what he meant by that was, you know, you don’t want good people in government. You don’t want talented folks in government, because then government will work, it will be effective. And if government is effective, then people will start to expect it to solve their problems, you know, and who knows what comes after that, you know? It’s all downhill from there, from his perspective. And the funny thing was — then you start, you know, researching the history of conservatism — people say things like this all the time, that we don’t want the best and the brightest in government.

And they also refer to the bureaucracy, to the civil service — they have a special term for it in the conservative movement: they call it the permanent government. OK? See, idea is that these bureaucrats have a politics of their own, a liberal politics. You know, these people cannot be trusted, and so you have to deal with them in some way. And so, that’s always the sort of — one of the big problems. You know, what are we going to do about the civil service? How are we going to kick their ass, right? And they’re forever coming up with new methods. You know, Reagan had — well, they would just fire people across the board. They called it reductions in force.

The most interesting thing, though, is what the Bush administration has done, sort of their signature initiative, what they are going to be remembered for — you know, in addition to, like, the Iraq war, you know, that sort of thing — but what they’re going to be remembered for, in terms of their, you know, innovations in governance, is turning everything over to the private sector, right? Outsource the job. Get — you know, take these jobs away from career civil servants and hand them over to the big federal contractors who have these offices around the Washington Beltway.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Frank, you start your Harper’s piece, which is an excerpt of the book, “The Wrecking Crew: How a Gang of Right-Wing Con Men Destroyed Washington and Made a Killing,” going back two years. You go back to Jack Abramoff. But he’s in jail. What’s the problem today? Why is this relevant to today?

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, he’s — yeah. It seems like, you know, this is how people are brushing it off in Washington now. It’s like, “Hey, the dude’s in jail. You know, problem’s over. Problem solved.”

Jack Abramoff exemplified — earlier you asked me about movement conservatism, and I sort of wound around and didn’t answer your question, but Jack Abramoff sort of exemplifies industry conservatism, the idea that you can be in Washington — conservatism is not just a political movement. It’s not just an ideology. It’s also a way of getting ahead in the world. It’s a way of making a lot of money. And Jack Abramoff sort of exemplifies that.

The guy started out his career as chairman of the College Republicans back in the early ’80s — by the way, when I was a College Republican, hard as it may be to believe now. But anyhow, he was the one who moved the College Republicans dramatically to the right. You know, we had in those years a sort of series of organizations moving to the right. And the College Republicans, he was the one that shifted them way to the right. And he immediately started doing things like — before Abramoff took over, they had been supported by the Republican Party. You know, they’d give them money every year to do their little campus — whatever it was that they did.

And Abramoff started raising his own money through direct mail, which was — I don’t know if you guys remember this, but back in the ’70s and the early ’80s, direct mail was — it was the junk political mail that comes in the mailbox, always screaming about some — you know, they’re going to give away the Panama Canal or, you know, some — they’re going to do — the liberals are going to betray us in some colossal manner, and we have to — you have to give us money, or else… You know, that sort of thing. And — but he tried his hand at that.

And then he did a very interesting thing, he and his colleagues. This is according to this report that I found from the mid-1980s. They set up another group to sort of wage this war of theirs on campus, and they started doing it for pay. They started fighting the left on campus for hire, you know? They would get donations from various big companies and beat up on the left on campus. Very interesting. There’s a lot of money to be made in being a conservative, as it turns out.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And then he went on to found the United Students of America Foundation —-

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, that’s -— yeah.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: — that took on Nader’s Public [Interest Research] Groups. Who were some of the companies funding the USA Foundation?

THOMAS FRANK: Oh, God, I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, how were they taking on Nader’s groups?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, it was groups — according to this report, it was people like — I mean, the reason why they would be interested in fighting, you know, getting involved in a campus battle, it’s like bottlers, for example, OK, like soda pop bottlers, because the PIRGs were forever agitating to get bottle bills passed in your various states. And so, the idea was, if they would — they would attack the PIRGs and fight with them on campus, and this would keep them from getting the bottle bill passed, and that would save you — save the bottler money, so they would, you know, make this presentation. And that’s how they would solicit money.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote journalist Allan Nairn in your piece in Harper’s, saying, “the group managed to collect tribute from canning and bottling companies, two oil companies, an electric company ([because] PIRGs were then working to set up utility [watchdog] groups)” —-

THOMAS FRANK: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: “Amway, Coors, an assortment of San Francisco landlords…”

THOMAS FRANK: You know, these are all these sort of forgotten campus battles of the ’80s. I don’t even remember -— I mean, I know about the Citizens Utility Boards. I really don’t know what the other fights were about. I don’t know how successful they were at fighting the PIRGs, and I don’t even know how successful they were at raising money, but the model is the critical thing. And there are people in Washington now who still follow this sort of — this path to making a living.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about that model in a minute. We have to go to break. Thomas Frank is our guest. Yeah, he’s the guy who wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas? Well, his latest book is just out, and it’s called The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the author Thomas Frank. His book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So we were talking about Abramoff and Grover Norquist and these guys and then — how do the — you have a fascinating history in the book about how they got involved with places like Angola and South Africa, the guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, and this concept of the freedom fighter.

THOMAS FRANK: This is back — we’re talking about the early to mid-1980s, remember, and at the time, I mean, this is really when the right, the pretty far right, in America was really feeling its oats and throwing its weight around, and, you know, they thought they were hot stuff. And one of the sort of grand overarching ideas that these people had was that they were going to reverse the ’60s. They were going to do a lot of the things that had been done in the ’60s, only they were going to do them in the other direction. And one of the — you know, and this is — Abramoff, in particular, was all about, you know, sort of adopting the techniques of protesters in the 1960s and using them for the right.

And one of the more curious things that they decided that they would embrace is guerrillas, you know? And ultimately, it took the form of what was called the Reagan Doctrine, where the US supported various right-wing guerrilla movements overseas, the most famous and most successful, I suppose, being the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, who were fighting the Soviets, but then also the Contras in Nicaragua, and then — you know, to sort of go down the list of — it gets progressively more sordid: Jonas Savimbi in Angola, and then you had this outfit in Mozambique. You know who I’m talking about? Was it RENAMO?


THOMAS FRANK: Or something like that, yeah. But the right, like, would have — they had fanzines about these guys and how wonderful they were. And there was really a kind of cult built up around these people on the far right. And the term that they used for them was “freedom fighters.” They were freedom fighters. And they were — you know, people put out magazines, and they had posters and all this sort of thing. And Abramoff’s particular favorite was Savimbi. And he set — he and his friends, you know, Grover and a couple of other people who are mercifully forgotten —-

AMY GOODMAN: Grover Norquist.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, Grover Norquist and some other people, who are more forgotten now, set up at one point -— they were going that have a summit of right-wing guerrilla movements, of freedom fighters, right, and they were going to have it in territory liberated by arms from a Soviet client state in Angola, right? And this was going — they were going to do this at Savimbi’s headquarters, and so they all went there, and they flew all these people and all these journalists to this really remote spot way out, you know, in the grasslands of Angola and had their summit, and, you know, absolutely to no purpose at all, except for as a big media — I’m sorry, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I just wanted to play a clip for you from Allister Sparks. As we talk about Jack Abramoff and talk about the issues you’re raising with connections to apartheid South Africa, as you say, in the ’80s, Abramoff helped launch the International Freedom Foundation with a South African named Craig Williamson. The IFF was promoted as an independent think tank, but it was actually part of an elaborate South African military intelligence operation set up to combat sanctions and undermine Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. While Abramoff headed the IFF in Washington, in South Africa it was run in part by Craig Williamson. In 2006, I asked the legendary South African journalist Allister Sparks, the one who ran the Rand Daily Mail, who exposed the murder of Steve Biko — I asked him to talk about Craig Williamson.

    ALLISTER SPARKS: Williamson was one of our more odious intelligence spies. Intelligence? Well, I suppose, it’s the right word. He was quite smart the way he went about things. He, first of all, infiltrated student organizations. He went abroad. He operated out of Geneva for a time, working in international students in that field, shopping many of his colleagues. They didn’t know. They thought he was a good guy. And, you know, part of the student movement, which was opposed to apartheid, he embedded himself very successfully there.

    But then, later, his activities became increasingly horrendous. I mean, he took to planting or sending letter bombs to various people. He was responsible for killing one of the leading white opposition figures, Ruth First, who was married to Joe Slovo. They were both communists, and I suppose it was deemed that that made them fair game. And she was blown up in her office at the University in Maputo, and she was killed.

    He was also involved in the killing of the family of an Afrikaner, a white Afrikaner dissident named Marius Schoon, whose — a letter bomb killed his wife, his daughter, and injured a two-year-old boy who was left floundering around in this devastated home for two days before anyone found him. Yeah, that’s the record of Craig Williamson.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s legendary journalist Allister Sparks. We spoke to him in Doha two years ago. Thomas Frank, now connect him back to what you’re talking about today.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, that’s a really optimistic way to begin the morning. I mean, I’ll tell you something, so that the — when you’re researching Jack Abramoff, you ultimately — you wind up researching South Africa, apartheid South Africa, and it’s not a happy — it’s not a happy research subject. It’s not a happy, you know, thing to learn about. And, of course, I was a student at the time in the ’80s, and I remember the protests, and I even went on the marches and stuff. But I never did research on, you know, what the apartheid regime was all about. And it was really, really, really unpleasant revisiting that subject and finding out all about it. And we just got a taste of it here.

The American right really loved the South African regime, and that’s one of the sort of ugly, dark secrets. They don’t like to talk about that anymore. But the extent that they — the lengths that they would go to try to get the South African regime off the hook, you know, get the sanctions undone — now, this is not to say that they’re racists or that they supported apartheid. Nobody supported apartheid, including, like, you know, the South African propaganda organs would say, “Oh, no, no, no. Apartheid, you know, it’s on its way out. You know, it’s shriveling away.”

AMY GOODMAN: How did Vice President Dick Cheney fit into this?

THOMAS FRANK: Cheney — oh, golly. I don’t think I have a Cheney link for you. Maybe you’ve got one you’re going to tell me about.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk more about today and how Jack Abramoff, now in jail —


AMY GOODMAN: — but referring to the permanent government that you referred to.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, OK. Well, this is quite a shift. The idea of permanence — you remember, it was just two years ago when Karl Rove was riding so high, you know, and he would boast all the time about how he and his homies were going to have a permanent majority, and the Republicans were going to be in forever, and it was going to be this paradigm shift in American politics. And, well, it didn’t work out that way.

But after — you know, I read a lot their sort of commentary about permanence and how they were going to achieve permanence, and what struck me about it is not that so much that they’re going to do it by winning elections from here to eternity, which they obviously aren’t going to do — you know, they’re already out in Congress — but that they would put their — you know, their restructuring of the state, they would cast it in concrete, right? The way that they have totally reconfigured the state, the government, down in Washington, they want to make that permanent, so that it’s reversible, so that even if a liberal does get in, even if one of my guys gets elected, you know, there’s nothing they can do about it, that this is the way the state is set up and, you know, too bad.

And they’ve got all sorts of very interesting — and you’ve got to hand it to these guys, they are ingenious. They’ve developed all sorts of schemes for making their vision for the government permanent. One of them is what I mentioned earlier: the massive outsourcing and privatizing of federal work. I mean, how are you going to get that back? You know? The best and brightest have gone through — you referred earlier to the revolving door, the sort of institution in Washington where people who work for the government go out into the private sector and often then lobby their old colleagues, you know, or they go into the private sector and often do the same job that they were doing before in the federal government, only for a much greater amount of pay. Well, the problem is then you’ve got this massive brain drain out of the bureaucracies. You know, the best an the brightest don’t want to work there anymore, because the pay is so low. It’s almost like, you know, doing charity work or something like that.

But the most insidious one, the most insidious scheme for permanence, the one that really strikes me, is the use of deficit spending by the right. OK, now, I don’t have a problem with deficit spending. You know, it’s — liberals have used it for decades very effectively. You know, it’s — if you’re a Keynesian — you know, it’s one of the tools that you use to, say, you know, get the country out of a recession or, you know, build low-income housing, or whatever it is that you want to do with the state, right? So, but the conservatives got into power in the early 1980s, and they’re handed this tool, the big old — you know, the power tool of deficit spending, and I’ll be damned, they run that sucker right into the ground, you know, and pile up the biggest deficit anyone has ever seen, short of, you know, World War II.

And what that does, that leaves the next administration to come along, which happened to be Bill Clinton, leaves him with this colossal Everest of debt that he has to deal with. And I don’t know if you remember this or not, but before Bill Clinton became what we know of him as today, he was — what we know him as today, he ran as something of a populist back in 1992. Remember, we were going to get national healthcare. He was going to have a big public works program. He was going to do this; he was going to do that. And there’s this very famous moment where his advisers sat him down in ’92, before he was sworn in, and told him, you know, “I’m sorry, you’re not going to be able to do any of those things, because the deficit is so huge that the only thing you’re going to be able to do as president, the only economic policy you’re going to be allowed to have, structurally permitted to have, is deficit reduction.” And we know about this, because then Clinton went on one of his famous, you know, tirades. He exploded in rage, you know. And anyhow, so — and now, look at Bush, doing the same thing, right? So even if Obama does get in, he’s not going to have any room to move, in terms of a progressive social agenda, you know.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we just have about thirty seconds left, but in your 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, you explored how people — how many people vote against their economic interests. Do you see that happening in ’08?

THOMAS FRANK: A lot less. I mean, you remember, though, the idea of What’s the Matter with Kansas?

is that the culture wars are a kind of surrogate for class. Remember, the class enemy, instead of being the people who own this country, it’s liberals. It’s the, you know, highbrow people — well, it’s people like us. You know, I wear glasses, you know, something like that. And, you know, our war against Christmas and the war against the Ten Commandments and all this kind of nonsense.

The really funny thing is that the power of those culture war arguments has really — or some of them, anyway — has really vanished in the last four years. And that’s because — one of the other things I said in What’s the Matter with Kansas? is the economic issues should trump — the real physical issues should trump those cultural issues, if the candidates choose to — you know, if the Democratic, the liberal candidates choose to emphasize it that way, to play it that way. And, I mean, the public is so angry at the Bush administration right now, I just hope that Obama gets out there and takes advantage of that.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Thomas Frank. His new book is called The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

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