Thomas Frank's 21st Century Corruption Theory

Frank moves far beyond Kansas with his new analysis of the conservative movement

Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank

With his 2004 critique of the culture wars, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank drove the discussion in Democratic politics. Now, the wry, wiseacre author is back with a new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, premising that the party of small government is anything but. The conservative objective "is not to shrink the state or shut it down; it is to capture the thing and run it for your constituents' benefit," outsourcing as much as possible in the process. I spoke with Frank in the midst of his national book tour, which brings him to BookPeople on Wednesday, Aug. 20.

Austin Chronicle: Early in the book, you credit conservatives with two major innovations that have let their party thrive: one, recasting themselves as an adversary, opposition party, no matter how long they've been in power; and two, the monetization of politics, the realization that large amounts of money could be made through lobbying and outsourcing.

Thomas Frank: I definitely make those two points!

AC: Is that a fair assessment of what got them to where they are?

TF: Those are two really important aspects of the conservative movement as industry. But that's not how they win elections. That's a different story.

AC: I guess that taps into the themes you wrote about in your last book, What's the Matter With Kansas?

TF: Yeah. The culture wars.

AC: Those are the trappings that rope voters in, and once they're in power, they're abandoned to really focus, basically, on bilking the government.

TF: Let me put it this way: The culture war concerns that are such a big deal in elections, that we talk about all the time, you hear very little about that in Washington D.C. It has very little to do with the way these guys actually operate the state. I mean, it has some things to do with it. There's elements of it – faith-based initiatives and stuff like that.

AC: It's funny you bring those up, because Obama has now proposed a redefinition but at the same time, a broadening of that program, government working with churches. Is this stuff so deeply ingrained in the body politic now?

TF: I don't know why he did that except for maybe some way of defusing the culture wars. I really don't understand that – faith-based initiatives seem like such a bad idea to me. What's funny though, if you read the book fairly carefully – and I'm sure you did –  you'll come across a part where Howard Phillips, the leader of the Conservative Caucus, is complaining about faith-based funding. I don't remember the exact words – of course I don't have the book in front of me – but applying it to all sorts of different things, things you would never think of, like support to Harvard and Yale, Berkley, things like that. Complaining bitterly about it. This was back in the 1980s.

AC: Complaining that basically any government funding of any entity was something to be discouraged?

TF: He was very inventive in his arguments and could probably find a way of describing any kind of federal funding of something as faith-based, and hence illegitimate. But that seems to be an argument of the past now.

AC: Another major theme of the book is that there's always been money in D.C., but it used to come in, say, from business tycoons looking to push along their own interests. But now it's generated there; now D.C. is a place people go to get rich.

TF: People do very well in the political game there. And, you know, what's really kind of creepy about it is the local newspaper will actually boast about this. They did a 12-part series – it's called "Citizen K Street." I think, actually it might be a 20-part series, in The [Washington] Post, about one of the biggest lobbyists of them all, the most powerful, most effective, whatever, highest-paid lobbyist of them all. And it's about this guy's rise to wealth. This kind of classic American story of this guy building his fortune.

AC: It's like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, except he goes there to get rich.

TF: [Laughs.] It does kinda start out that way. But the story really is not very critical of this guy. It tells the story in an almost – what would you say? – approving manner. It definitely does. There's no question about it. [Pause.] I shouldn't complain about that, though. It's a small, small part [laughs] of what's wrong with D.C.

AC: It seems sort of indicative, symptomatic of the broader problem up there –  it's so deeply ingrained, so accepted, it's not remarked upon, except maybe in these hagiographic reviews.

TF: One of the big problems you have there is the same thing you have in every town, and that is that they wanna boost the local industry. D.C. has gotten very rich in the last 30 years. This isn't in the book – I think I describe it in the book, but I didn't put the graphs in the book – but I charted D.C.'s richness since 1969. It's always been one of the richer cities in America, simply because it's all white collar, a preponderance of white collar workers. There's no industry, and therefore there's no blue-collar base like there is in Chicago. No manufacturing. So it's always been a white-collar city, but back in the Sixties, Detroit was richer, Chicago was richer, L.A. was richer, and a bunch of other places, too. And now it is head-and-shoulders above all of those. It is neck-and-neck with the New York metro area and San Francisco metro area for richest. And this has really coincided with periods of Republican rule – I would say, conservative rule, Reagan and then Bush II.

AC: And it seems some of those policies were embraced under Clinton.

TF: I don't mean to let Clinton off the hook in this book. I tend to think of him in a lot of ways as not only continuing a lot of Reagan policies, but he provided a very essential legitimation for varying policies.

AC: Things like making government more businesslike, that whole paradigm.

TF: It goes much further than that. Those are the things I was interested in in this book, but I wrote another book some years ago called One Market Under God, where I talked about his embrace of laissez faire, his embrace of free market policies, of NAFTA, to reappointing Greenspan as the Fed chairman. He really took a big sip of the Kool-Aid.

AC: The conservatives' goal of shrinking government, destroying government, getting it so small you can drown it in a bathtub – they realized it was never going to be publicly acceptable or even feasible.

TF: They're never gonna really be able to do that. Except for by engineering another crisis – and even then, the public doesn't want government to go away. They want to think that there's somebody looking after them. It's terrifying, the idea they're not doing anything; they're just gonna let it go. [Laughs.] And yet that is what's happening. You know, I've been in D.C. too long – I read the local newspaper and all the sorta trade magazines of government and the Consumer Product Safety Commission – this is the lead-paint toys coming back into our marketplace, all sorts of unsafe products making their way back in – and it's like, where the hell have these people been? The offices are still there; they've got people working in them!

AC: Yeah, but they're probably staffed by members of the same companies they're assigned to regulate.

TF: Oh, it's a very famous story, actually: The woman that's in charge of the Consumer Product Safety Commission goes on these junkets that are, I think, paid for by the toy industry. [Laughs.]

AC: Big toy!

TF: Yeah, big toy! [Laughs.] There was a big story about that in The Washington Post a while back.

AC: It's funny, because you hear so many cases of that occurring under the Bush administration – someone who's sworn to destroy PBS getting appointed to PBS, for one example. But you lay out the case that this is endemic to how conservatism works in general – realizing they can't shrink or destroy government, they've set about crumbling it from within by outsourcing contracts and making government look so incompetent that the free market and private enterprise [are] the only legitimate alternative[s].

TF: Well, I wouldn't go that far; I don't think they deliberately want to have bad results that are politically embarrassing. I think that's a consequence, and it's an unavoidable consequence of what they do. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina when FEMA really dropped the ball – I don't think that they wanted to drop the ball; they couldn't do it; they couldn't handle it.

AC: But prior to the Bush administration, FEMA was regarded as one of the better-working federal agencies.

TF: That's right. They had very high job satisfaction, and Bush himself praised it in the debate with Al Gore as one of the federal agencies that worked the best. And now, of course, it's the example everyone points to of government that doesn't work, an agency that doesn't work. Some of these people I quoted talked about FEMA-tization. This department's been FEMA-tized; that department's been FEMA-tized.

AC: Obviously FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina was a huge black eye for the administration, and even more so, a terrible tragedy for everyone in New Orleans relying on help. But not necessarily for the contractors that went in afterward.

TF: That's right – it was a bonanza for those guys. All the big contractors, all the usual suspects got the work, and they subcontracted it, and then they subcontracted it, that sorta thing. Yeah, they made tons of money. And interestingly enough, they were all employing as lobbyists or as consultants people well connected to the Department of Homeland Security. Of course – that's just the way it works.

Thomas Frank's 21st Century Corruption Theory

AC: The classic revolving-door scenario.

TF: That's right. The larger thing, what we're talking about, it's not a conspiracy. What it is, is it's the application of market principles to government.

AC: You have a really hilarious and frightening conversation with Grover Norquist where he's talking about how people don't realize the return of investment they'll see by putting money into politics.

TF: Right, he didn't make that up either – he was referring to a magazine article in Fortune magazine. I think it was about [Jack] Abramoff. And they added up what he got for his clients versus what they paid. It was unbelievable! Maybe it wasn't about Abramoff, but he had done that math on some lobbying deal and realized this incredible return on their investment. Somewhere in the book, I do the math on a lobbying investment that somebody makes, a lobbying expenditure, and it's like a millionfold return. I forget what it is – I'm sorry, it's been a long time since I wrote a lot of this stuff. Some of it's a little dim in the old memory.

AC: That's another thing I like in the book, how you trace the rise of movement conservatism, and the faces that keep popping up are Abramoff and Norquist and Ralph Reed. They all go back to the college Republican days, running around, playing revolutionaries.

TF: [Laughs.] It's an amusing period, the early Eighties. Doing the research on it was very exciting, because it's what I love to do the most – dig in the archives, go to the Library of Congress, read the stuff that nobody else is bothering with. But it's also very, very depressing – all the South Africa research that I did. I was in college when all the anti-apartheid protests were going on. I remember that, I went on some marches and stuff like that. But I didn't really study apartheid. I knew it was bad. But for this book, I had to get up to speed with the subject, so I read a great deal about it. ... Lemme take this step back. I started doing this research when the Abramoff scandal first broke. They would always say he's a Republican lobbyist, or he's a conservative lobbyist, and then they wouldn't say anything more. Well what does that mean – he's a conservative lobbyist? So I decided I would do this research, and I'd find out what they meant. This guy, he turns out to be a person of the pretty far right, a man of the far right. And what I mean by that is that he was on the cover of The John Birch Society magazine in 1982. There's all these interviews with him in things like Human Events. He and the rest of his colleagues on the right wing had developed this kind of lionization of this figure they called the freedom fighter, the right wing guerilla. One of the reasons I think that they did this was, it was sorta a conscious reversal of the Sixties, when everybody was into Che Guevara or Ho Chi Min or whatever. I wasn't around then,

AC: But you've seen the Che T-shirts, though.

TF: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know about the Che T-shirts, though. So these guys were really into what they called "freedom fighters." ... The freedom fighters that they were particularly fond of were the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, who were fighting the Soviets; the Contras in Nicaragua, who were fighting the Sandinistas; and then this guy Jonas Savimbi in Angola, who was fighting the government of Angola, which was sorta a Soviet client-state, Soviet client-regime. Savimbi was really bad news. He was propped up by the apartheid regime; he was their Contra, you know? He was a general; he kept the civil war there going for 30 years, basically all on his own, with his army and a lot of support from the Reagan administration. He was very, very bad. Anyway, Abramoff and his friends developed a great fondness for Savimbi. [Laughs.] At one point, Abramoff and his colleagues set up this summit for all the right-wing guerilla leaders around the world – they would all go to Savimbi's hideout in Angola and have this meeting where they would all get together and confirm their international solidarity with the right-wing guerilla movement. It's absolutely, utterly pointless, except as a media spectacle. But they're talking about this sort of thing all the time – the need to get together across national boundaries and have these anti-communist freedom fighters get together. Anyhow, it's a very short walk from Savimbi to apartheid, and what Abramoff later surfaced as was as director of this think tank in Washington called the International Freedom Foundation. It seemed on the surface like an ordinary think tank, except it was extremely right wing; it was constantly red-baiting people. Anyhow, it put out magazines and newsletters, had panel discussions, gave out prizes, the usual things these operations do. And it was later revealed when the apartheid government fell in South Africa and was replaced by the current government there, they had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated apartheid. And one of the things they turned up was this International Freedom Foundation was a project of South African military intelligence.

AC: Like you said, it's a short walk from him to apartheid, and obviously, supporting the Mujahadeen had some pretty bad blowback as well.

TF: Yeah. Some of these guys, they really loved the freedom fighters. I actually found in my research two different freedom fighter fanzines! [Laughs.] One of them had a weekly feature – I can't remember if it was weekly or monthly, but it was like the "Freedom Fighter of the Month." I forget what the column was called – "Heroes," or something like that. It's all in the book. One of the guys they celebrated – now, the U.S. army is searching for him. He's on the other team now! [Laughs.] And the right wingers thought this guy was great stuff back then.

AC: That really seems like one of the defining principles of conservatism, the permanent campaign – not thinking about how policies are going to work, but how they're going to look, the presentation. So you can prop these guys up as glorious freedom fighters, and then they turn around and they're absolutely detrimental to the country.

TF: Oh yeah – image is what this was all about. Holding a summit meeting of right-wing guerillas in Angola? Of course, now we know Jonas Savimbi was putting land mines everywhere, executing people in public. Awful, awful, awful, awful stuff. Apartheid, too. Conservatives of that era really liked South Africa. When I say that, I'm not saying that they were racists, or they thought apartheid was great. They would always take pains to say, "Oh, but we don't approve of apartheid," all that stuff. They really liked South Africa; they would go there all the time; they'd write about how great it was, what a great ally it was. This was one of their great causes. They don't like to talk about it anymore.

AC: Yeah, talk about picking your fights; that's an odd one. [Laughs.] Assuming Obama wins, how long do you think it'll take to undo all the sabotaging staffing choices, or is it even really possible?

TF: One of the objectives of the conservative movement has been to achieve this permanence. They talk about this all the time, how to achieve permanence. I have some good quotes from Grover and Abramoff and also Karl Rove, talking about how their changes are going to be permanent. I always thought that was kinda silly when I came across it, because of course, the Dems will get in and just reverse everything. But no. What they've done is to inscribe their changes in the nature of the state. They've cast them in concrete. They've made structural changes in the way the state works. And if they had gotten their way, they would've made a lot more. Think about Social Security privatization – that would really have taken liberalism, Roosevelt-style liberalism, off the table in America, if they had achieved that. I mean, it would've been the death blow. And I think that's why they tried so hard to get it, even though it was so unpopular. And I think that they'll try again when they get a chance.

AC: You note among conservatives this idea that "personnel is policy," that all staffing decisions are partisan. We've seen that in the Department of Justice scandal.

TF: Oh yeah. That came too late for me. I have some of the early details in the book, but it's gotten much, much worse since the book came out. We now know much more about that; it's shocking. But one of the consequences of this idea, "personnel is policy," is this war that they've been waging ever since Reagan got in, this war with what they call the "permanent government," the bureaucracy. The final consequence of all that is: Outsource the work. Send it out so the bureaucrats don't have any control over it anymore, and it's all in the hands of private contractors, who then, of course, tithe back to the movement and hire the right lobbyists, and all that sort of thing. And then, of course, when your work is done as a congressman or the chieftain at the Department of Homeland Security or whatever, then you go off and take a job with that lobbying firm. Reap your rich reward.

AC: It's a nice set little system they have set up – for them!

TF: Yeah. It's loathsome. And you can see it with your own eyes, if you see the presentations that these groups do. I went to a lobbying presentation once. There was nothing there to write about; when you're a journalist, you follow a lot of leads that go nowhere. But the only thing that was funny about it was one of the speakers was Zell Miller. Do you remember this guy?

AC: Yeah, the breakout star of the Republican convention.

TF: Yeah, he went and spoke at the Republican convention. And remember – he challenged Chris Matthews to a duel after he spoke! The guy was a hoot! [Laughs.] So I'm at this really boring lobbyist presentation; it was about Katrina contracts and staying outta trouble, that sort of thing, and here's Zell Miller, giving basically an advertisement for a lobbying firm. He stands up and gives this talk, and obviously he's never read the words before – he's just sorta stumbling over it. He really looked bad, you know. [Laughs.] He looked like he hadn't had much sleep. But look, there's Zell Miller working for the lobbyists, getting his reward, I suppose!

AC: That's another interesting aspect of the book, your first-person experiences and travels through these places and scenarios that seem absolutely alien to most people.

TF: Yeah. They don't fit the stereotype of Washington D.C. You know, the stereotype is these awful government workers who are so lazy, you know? You know the stereotype. Just turn on Fox News, and you'll hear it in a few minutes. And it has no relationship to reality.

AC: What are you thinking when you're in those scenarios? Are you just trying to keep a straight face, like at these lobbying scenarios, or going to these incredibly opulent, anonymous suburban homes outside of D.C.?

TF: On my website [] ... they have a guy go around with me in a car, and he had a camera, and we filmed these neighborhoods. So we first showed the sorta New Deal, brick-colonial neighborhoods. No problem – we walk along the street, and I talk. Then we went out to one of these neighborhoods where the lobbyists live and the contractors – and they threw us out! The police came and threw us out! It was funny! [Laughs.]

AC: Was it the police or the private security?

TF: No, not the real police – it was their neighborhood patrol or whatever. Yeah, they threw us out.

AC: It's like Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which has this kinda terrifying premise that since government doesn't work, you have to turn to the private sector. So you see things like private security forces or when the California wildfires were spreading, private fire companies saving the homes of the people who could afford it.

TF: It's like the 19th century. You know, we had private fire companies in the 19th century, and you had to have a policy with the right fire company. So if your house catches on fire, and the fire company shows up, then you would have to have a plaque on your house. And if you were with the wrong company, they would just stand there! You had to be with the right company! [Laughs.] That's privatization – that's the market at work. It's a disaster!

AC: It's fitting you bring up a 19th century example, because in your writing there are so many turn-of-the-century quotes, characters, and allusions to that time period. Is that a conscious effort on your part, or is that just because that's the Gilded Age of tycoon capitalism?

TF: Both of those are correct. What I set out to do in the book was write a work of corruption theory. We have corruption theory now; it's generally something that's written by the right. I summarize a lot of it in the last chapter, the conservative corruption theory in which the state is automatically corrupt. But that doesn't really describe what's going on in Washington now. And to really get an idea of what to write about, I had to go back to a much older sort of corruption theory, which is the kind you saw 100 years ago, like Lincoln Steffens. I think I maybe only quote him once or twice, but my favorite is Matthew Josephson. He wrote a book called The Politicos, a history of politics from 1865 to 1896 – the era of high corruption, monumental corruption, the heroic era of corruption in American politics. And what he does – it's an ingenious book – he starts with just plain ripping off the system, guys just stealing, and shows how it evolves. Corruption evolves, it becomes much more systematic, much more businesslike, until 1896 – that's the famous election between McKinnley and William Jennigs Bryant. And McKinnley's right-hand man was this guy called Karl Rove – sorry, it wasn't Karl, Mark Hanna! [Laughs.] Karl Rove really admires Mark Hanna. You look this up: Karl Rove is a big fan of Mark Hanna. Mark Hanna is the great figure in this book by Josephson. He calls him "the businessman in politics." And he is the consummation of political corruption. He is the ultimate, the ne plus ultra figure of political corruption. He's a genius of corruption. So I sorta had to pick up where Josephson left off to understand the system that we're in now. And it really would take a talent like Josephson to describe it; it is very systematic and scientific, and it has developed and evolved over the years, all that stuff.

AC: You address the GOP's adversarial fantasy, how they always cast themselves as the outsiders, the rebels storming the castle. And John McCain is the ultimate "maverick"; he's even a maverick from his own party, supposedly.

TF: Well he was. Not now. I feel really bad about John McCain. He was one Republican that I always kinda liked. Look – he's the man that busted Abramoff. You gotta give him credit for that. He's also been a leader on campaign finance reform, which is a cause I really believe in. And he's one of the few U.S. senators that really understands all the problems with the contracting-out system. One of the other senators that understands is Obama. But McCain has been really good on those issues, all those issues. But he's become a very different person now that he's running for president. I guess you have to, but it's a horrible thing to behold.

AC: We saw it in that campaign shake-up about a month ago, when Rove's protégé [Steve Schmidt] came in and all we started hearing about was Britney Spears and celebrities and all that bullshit.

TF: Yeah, it's nutty what he's doing. It's like one slimy thing after another. Every day, he's got some new slime to toss. It's gross. I can't believe its the same guy.

AC: It's basically a replay of the same '04 campaign against Kerry, all these personality-based smears.

TF: Yeah. There's a lot at stake for these guys. There's a lot of money riding on everything. And it's not just money; the whole industry is riding on it. And you know – they gotta win! They'll do anything to win.

Thomas Frank speaks at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar, Aug. 20, at 7pm.

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