Q&A With Thomas Frank
One of the more unfortunate aspects of campaign season is that the ceaseless coverage of the campaign has a tendency to crowd out news about the actual world, information that would, under different circumstances, dominate the headlines and might aid voters in deciding just who they want to run the country. A perfect example was last week's shocking New York Times exposé about the sex, drugs and corruption scandal inside the Department of Interior. (Yes, you read that right.) It's a lurid story of moral rot, lack of oversight and official malfeasance, though, sadly, after eight years of Bush-Cheney it has a certain dog-bites-man-quality.
The central thesis of Thomas Frank's new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, is that the kind of obscene depravity witnessed at the Department of Interior is the natural result of the conservative philosophy of governance. It's not a bug, it's a feature. Frank's fifth book is the much-anticipated follow-up to his 2004 bestseller, What's the Matter with Kansas? Since writing that book he's moved to Washington, DC, where he now chronicles the city's turpitude in a column for the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page. (Yes, you read that right, too)
In July, before he left for an extended book tour, I had the chance to have lunch with Thomas Frank in Washington. We talked about the immutable cynicism of the conservative worldview, Jack Abramoff's time as a quasi-foreign agent, and the Marxist strain of modern conservatism. An edited transcript follows.
How do you describe what your new book is about?
The book is about conservative governance. Republicans have been in power for a long time, but according to their own mythology they're never in power, never really running government. They have circle upon circle, rings upon rings of deniability. That's what intrigues me.
One of the points the book makes is that when you scrape away all the rhetoric, the conservative movement has been a front for the interests of business since before the New Deal. And yet you have people like Grover Norquist saying they basically have to bully business into being conservative. What gives?
This is one of the things that puzzled me, too. On the one hand, Republicans are the party of big business. But on the other hand, the real hardcore right-wing part of the movement has all these criticisms of business. The one we associate with Tom DeLay is that business gives money to the Democrats, and therefore supports a kind of liberal agenda. Which used to be true to a certain degree. If you go back and read John Kenneth Galbraith's The New Industrial State, the idea was that we're gonna get healthcare through the corporations, and pensions through the corporations rather than through the state, which was what they were doing in Europe. There were plenty of corporate people who agreed with that.
In the 1970s, people on the right began seeing it was their role to force corporations back into the paths of corporate righteousness. To force capitalists to be more capitalist. This was part of a larger critique of capitalism developing at the same time, which was that capitalism had gotten soft: no more having these nice negotiations with the workers, you gotta kick some ass, deliver shareholder value, and if you can't, we'll have a leveraged buyout and get guys who can. The Norquist/Abramoff/DeLay form of politics is the political analog of the leveraged buyout.
One thing you expose in the book is that Norquist and Abramoff got their start by renting themselves out to business as street fighters to go after their enemies in organizations like the PIRGs.
That's an amazing story. And they were quite open about what they were doing. They'd go to business groups and say, We're campus conservatives and we're taking on liberal groups that are not just bad because they're liberals but bad because they cost you money. We're helping you out, so give us money. It worked.
There's also this projection issue you return to often. You argue there are these conservative conspiracy fantasies that liberals use the power of the state to push their agenda, which is largely overblown. But then when they get into power they themselves play out these misaligned conspiracy theories.
Yeah, there are numerous examples of this. The one that blew my mind: I was reading this novel from the early eighties called The Spike written by a very conservative editor from the Washington Times [Arnaud de Borchgrave]. It was one of the books Abramoff sent out to College Republican chapters. It was a huge bestseller. And the idea of the novel is that there's this huge international conspiracy that controls America through the news and public opinion. The KGB is the grand puppetmaster, but the local puppetmaster in Washington is a liberal think tank. They tell the senators what to do and they pull the strings on everything. And the funny thing is, I think they had to change some of the language for the book in the paperback edition because the picture they drew was really close to the Institute for Policy Studies, which, you know, was very liberal. Anyhow, if you read the conservative literature from the period they all think IPS was a communist front group and they thought the people who worked there were incredibly sinister. They would try to infiltrate their meetings.
I read this book and then later I was reading about Jack Abramoff's career working for a think tank; he founded a think tank called the International Freedom Foundation. And I'll be dammed, the think tank wasn't actually a front for another country's military intelligence. And the country was apartheid South Africa. It's like he took this thing that was in fiction and they did it in reality! By the way--you know what the slogan of the KGB was? "The sword and shield of the revolution." Abramoff liked to call himself "the sword and shield of the Reagan Revolution."
The thing that struck me reading The Wrecking Crew is that at the core of the conservative movement--the really hard core of the hardcore--there's a radical sensibility. The only thing I can compare them to is Marxists. They think the whole project of democratic governance is fundamentally a hustle, the liberal project is a smokescreen and government is about the will to power. It's so deeply cynical, it's kind of staggering.
A European journalist was once asking me, "How come you don't have socialist parties in the US?" And I said, "Look, we do have people that read Marx, quote Marx, and use Marx's theory, but they're right-wingers.
In the book you talk about this cynicism as being self-fulfilling.
If you believe in bad government you will deliver bad government. If you think big government is by nature going to fail, is corrupt, is evil, that's what you'll deliver. That's the larger message of the book.
Recently I've noticed that even my own faith in government has been gutted the past seven years. Reading the book I realized just how cynical I've become. How do you reclaim some kind of basic faith in the possibility of good government?
In terms of being cynical, I'm the same way. It was very hard to write parts of this book. When I was writing the part of the book about the New Deal, which has great faith in government, which had all these bureaucrats who really believed in what they were doing.... I said, "Goddammit, Frank, you're gonna embrace big government. That's not sexy. That's not rock 'n' roll. That's not who I am," and yet it's true. At the end of the day you have to realize that good government is possible. Not only possible, it's been done very well in this country.
You have this parenthetical clause in one sentence towards the end of the book where you talk about the civil service being something that civilizations figured out a long time ago. I mean you go back to Confucius-era China, and they realized you can't invest all the power in cronies.
The conservative view is that government is this eternal and unchanging thing that is always malign. Its intentions are always bad and it just serves to accumulate power for itself and that's its only purpose. So you fight the state whether the state is liberal, whether the state is a king, whether the state is an emperor or whether it's George W. Bush. The state is evil. The state is bad. One of the titles my kids love is the Disney version of Robin Hood. It's all about evil tax collector. And he's really bad. Robin Hood is a really cute fox. The tax collector goes around and steals people's money and he impoverishes them and gives it to the evil prince who is ruling the land. The taxes are just theft. And that is the conservative view. There is no difference between that government and our current government.
And yet they love big government, in the sense that they've figured out a way to appropriate it.
But they have the deniability. They can always get out of it. "No, we're against Bush. He's a Big Government conservative!" And then the people that criticize Bush will get in and do the same thing. My friend calls it the "no true Scotsman fallacy." The story goes like this: a guy is Scotland says no Scotsman would put soy milk in his porridge and someone says, Oh yeah, Joe Blow puts soy milk in his porridge. "Ah," he responds, "but no true Scotsman would ever put soy milk in his porridge. You can always retreat, but you see it's a fallacy. It's time to make that retreat impossible.That's one of the projects of the book, to take that sanctuary away from the conservatives. Let's examine this beast, this movement, not by what is says but what it has done every time it takes over.