The Wrecking Crew How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation

Thomas Frank

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400 Pages



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The Wrecking Crew casts back to the early days of the conservative revolution, to what Thomas Frank describes as the rise of a ruling coalition dedicated to dismantling government. But rather than cutting down the big government they claim to hate, conservatives have simply sold it off, deregulating some industries, de-funding others, but always turning public policy into a private-sector bidding war. Washington itself has been remade into a golden landscape of super-wealthy suburbs and gleaming lobbyist headquarters—the wages of government-by-entrepreneurship practiced so outrageously by figures such as Jack Abramoff.

It is no coincidence, Frank argues, that the same politicians who guffaw at the idea of effective government have installed a regime in which incompetence is the rule. Nor will the country easily shake off the consequences of deliberate misgovernment through the usual election remedies. Obsessed with achieving a lasting victory, conservatives have taken pains to enshrine the free market as the permanent creed of state.


Praise for The Wrecking Crew

"Frank's gifts as a social observer are on display . . . His analysis of why there are so many libertarian think tanks in a country with so few libertarians is dead on. In Thomas Frank, the American left has found its own Juvenal."—Michael Lind, The New York Times Book Review
"In his new book, Frank has shifted the focus from the metaphorical Kansas to the real Washington, from the voters to those who govern—not just the president and Congress but the lobbyists, government contractors and political operatives who have shaped so much of what has gone wrong in the last eight years. The challenge of writing a book like this is to avoid wearing the reader down with gloom and outrage. Frank acknowledges this problem at the outset, in one of his characteristically glorious sentences: 'We climb to the rooftop, but we cannot find the heights of irony from which we might laugh off the blend of thug and pharisee that is Tom DeLay . . .' Nevertheless from his rooftop, he has met the challenge, often brilliantly. He tempers his rage with bitter sarcasm, and his gloom is leavened by an eye for the unexpected and the absurd."—Jon Weiner, Los Angeles Times
"What's the Matter with Kansas? presented red-state voters as having been gulled into voting against their real economic interests by means of dubious cultural appeals. When Obama had to spend a couple of weeks last spring backing away from his explanation of why small-town Pennsylvanians weren't voting for him ('Bittergate'), it looked as if he’d got into trouble for channeling Thomas Frank . . . The Wrecking Crew offers another account of conservatives’ political power: they have built a mighty lobbying apparatus that has taken over Washington and disabled the normal workings of the federal government . . . Washington, as Frank sees it, plays host to a simple clash of interests: money and business on one side, the people on the other. The Wrecking Crew is written in a voice of high derision—much more so than the sincere, bewildered What's the Matter with Kansas?—and it can be good, spirited fun."—Nicholas Lemann, The New Yorker
“This is the scenario: Conservatives detest big government, so when they come into power they fill federal positions with inept and inexperienced loyalists and then proceed to run up massive deficits. This undermines the government's effectiveness, spurs more privatization, benefits business elites, undercuts liberals and their social programs. This perverse and cynical misuse of American government power is the centerpiece of Thomas Frank’s stinging new critique—The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Frank follows his influential best-seller (What's the Matter With Kansas?) with another well-researched and witty evisceration of conservatism, a new book with expectations of huge sales in this election year . . . What the conservatives do while in power is the raison d'etre of The Wrecking Crew and is the strongest portion of the book, especially when Frank examines the Bush administration’s rampant use of outside contractors (‘outsourcing’) that has taken over many former functions of the federal government . . . Frank also dissects the massive growth industries of conservative fundraising and lobbying by business. Torrents of ready bucks have flooded Washington and led to inevitable scandals and downfalls at the highest levels, from Iran-Contra to U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay to uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Wrecking Crew paints a contemptuous portrait of conservative governance and provides a powerful liberal antidote to the high-volume rantings of Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Fox News."—John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"There's plenty in Thomas Frank's latest appraisal of right-wing politics to sate the appetites of liberals starved for perspective after eight years of Republican rule in the executive branch of government . . . Wrecking Crew stands as a worthy follow-up to the pairing of scholarship and analysis Frank exhibited three years ago in his breakout book on the blurring social and economic issues in his home state of Kansas."—Steven Giegerich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Frank's new book is a more determined work of exposé . . . The principle villains in The Wrecking Crew—Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay, and Newt Gingrich—already belong to the past, but Frank usefully traces their overlapping connections, which in some instances date to the Reagan years or before, when they and other operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove were just starting out . . . Frank writes with the delightful outrage of an authentic satirist. The book repays reading just for its portrait of Abramoff—the 'supercorruptionist' with 'his constant references to The Godfather, his black trench coat and fedora, his Meyer Lansky memorabilia, the murder argot which will no doubt serve him and his friends well during their prison years.'"—Sam Tanenhaus, The New Republic
"Frank offers one damning anecdote after another. The Wrecking Crew explains how cynical conservatives have wrested control of the government by railing against its very existence, all while using federal perches to funnel billions into the pockets of lobbyists and the corporations they represent."—Time
"A hard-hitting, high-strung follow-up to What's the Matter with Kansas?, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule would seem an unlikely locus of intra-left warfare. Given our existing constellation of flaccid 'on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand' political commentaries, Mr. Frank's motives are difficult to assail. And more than that, he's a writer. His sentences inhale and unfurl with a wit and verve rarely seen in this most workmanlike of prose genres; if he occasionally pounds points home with a bludgeon, at least it's a stylish one . . . Mr. Frank provides, along the way, a definitive account of what might be called the ironic style of political appointments—whereby Republicans put in charge of regulatory agencies 'wingnuts' who deny said agencies' rights to exist—and, in a virtuoso bit of muckraking, guides the reader on a tour of 101 Connecticut Avenue ('101 Con'), ground zero of the D.C. lobbying apparatus. At it’s most entertaining, The Wrecking Crew can be read as cracked picaresque, starring none other than Jack Abramoff as something of an evil Forrest Gump who pops up every chapter or so to loot what’s left of the Great Society."—Jonathan Liu, The New York Observer
"The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule should monopolize political conversation this year. It's the first book to effectively tie the ruin and corruption of conservative governance to the conservative 'movement building' of the 1970s, and, before that, the business crusade against good government going back to at least to the 1890s. Here for example, is a splendid bit Frank pulled from the Journal of Commerce from 1928 about why it's best for business to wreck the state: 'The best public servant is the worst one. A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive. He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater the danger. If he is an enthusiast—a bright-eyed madman who is frantic to make this the finest government in the world—the black plague is a house pet by comparison.'"—Rick Perlstein, Salon
"Conservatives in office have made their share of blunders and mistakes, and Frank is at his finest in depicting some of the stunning instances of hypocrisy and idiocy in the period of Republican rule."—The New York Post
"Thomas Frank's widely discussed What's the Matter with Kansas? opens with a paradox, namely that 'the poorest county in America isn't in Appalachia or the Deep South' but rather in Kansas, a county that George W. Bush carried by more than 80 percent. Frank's follow-up, The Wrecking Crew, opens with a similar paradox, namely that 'the richest county in America isn't in Silicon Valley or some sugarland preserve of Houston's oil kings; it is Loudoun County, Virginia, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C.' Likewise the third, sixth, and seventh richest counties are all in the D.C. area. This remarkable fact, Frank says, is explained by his book, a work that sets out to detail 'the very particular, very predictable things that happen when the faction that calls itself "conservative" manages to squeeze behind the controls of the state.' Readers entranced by the vivid prose and sweeping themes of Kansas won't be disappointed. In his new book, Frank weaves the stories of individual villains such as Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff into a broader political history of recent decades . . . Frank, a masterful rhetorician, deploys the scandals to just this end with great aplomb."—Matthew Yglesias, The American Prospect
"A book about power in Washington DC may not immediately seem relevant to UK public thought or practice but Frank's can be read as a general account of how conventional wisdom becomes established and a warning to look behind a theory or idea to see who might benefit from propagating it. To make a starkly obvious point (Frank gives chapter and verse), the 'new public management' imported into the UK from the US serves vested interests. What thinktanks say and the pamphlets they publish are not random or inspired by some disinterested search for truth: they are sponsored and sponsors will always get their pounds of flesh. In the midst of Frank's tableau is the striking growth during the past two decades of the lobbying business in American federal government. Frank focuses on the role of thinktanks and campaigning organisations in propagandising on behalf of a business agenda . . . Frank is partisan. He is anti-Republican. But he makes a serious point about regulation and how it is in the interests of companies to weaken and degrade regulatory bodies . . . That's all very American, you might say: What bearing does it have on, say, the Financial Services Authority in the UK? The recent appointment of Lord Adair Turner as its chair surely demonstrates that the regulatory function is sound. Yes, but who inspired all that anti-regulation talk we used to hear from Tony Blair, disguised as 'lifting the burdens?'  . . . Of course, not every thinktank is the creation of a vested interest. But Frank's witty and unashamedly biased book prompts monitory response when some new theory or idea is being promoted: who stands to benefit, and has their interest been openly declared?"—Public (U.K.)
"Thanks in large part to the psychobabble that passes for cable news programming these days, most political analysis in this country is nothing more than one big undisciplined shouting match. It's as if newscasters decided that it doesn't matter how logical or well-researched an argument is, so long as it is made very, very loudly. Looking to ride the wave of political psychodrama, third-rate pundits have taken over the best-seller lists too. When Arianna Huffington, Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter are considered 'political thinkers,' you know political journalism is having a rough go of it. That's what makes Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew such a welcome read. Even if one doesn't appreciate his leftist politics, there is no doubt that he is helping to restore the journalistic and literary standards to political books . . . In The Wrecking Crew, Frank examines what happened in Washington, D.C., once these right-wingers had the chance to govern. He offers a harrowing version of contemporary Washington—a city that has seen its competent and nonpartisan civil servants replaced by radical free-marketeers, who are backed by radically free-market think tanks and lobbying firms, which are in turn funded by this country's biggest corporations. Frank shows that Washington is now overrun by Generation Xers who came to town during the Reagan Revolution and began a prosperous career by defunding every regulatory system put in place during the liberal boom, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Now, after years of Republican governance, the free-marketeers have created exactly the kind of government they want—one that does not work, one in which the American people have no faith . . . Frank's writing is unpretentious yet elegant. The book is filled with dry witticisms poking fun at the absurdity of Washington, yet it has the rhetorical power to illustrate the dire consequences of a government sold off piece by piece to the highest bidder. The Wrecking Crew seems narrow and redundant at the outset, but Franks' singular voice is so strong that one finishes the book feeling as if one's political vision has been brought into focus."—Adam de Jong, The Courier-Journal (Louisville)
"The Wrecking Crew is an important book. Frank easily proves his thesis—that the corruption, excesses and incompetence of the Bush administration are not examples of failure and ineptitude, but the fruit of a deliberate ideological strategy . . . Frank goes back to Grover Cleveland—a democratic president, but a devoted friend of business—to show the remarkable consistency of conservatism's dedication to profits at the exclusion of all other considerations . . . Frank takes care to differentiate the ideological conservatives in Washington from the honest grass-roots conservatives from What's the Matter With Kansas?, his 2004 look at why working-class citizens vote against their own economic interests by electing Republicans."—Chauncey Mabe, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"In his new book, The Wrecking Crew, Frank focuses on the conservative movement at large . . . As a student of American history, Frank does a good job of digging into the more obscure figures in our political history. Relatively mainstream writers, with wide followings, generally don't discuss Albert Jay Nock . . . Frank makes a strong case that the hysterical anti-communism of the so-called Reagan Youth led to some of the most unsavory alliances with dictators and maniacs one could imagine . . . Frank is unmistakably correct—greed was, and to some extent remains, a building block principle of right wing politics. The 'growth for the sake of growth' mantra of the Republican Party is a trait that goes back at the very least to the Reagan years, a period still widely regarded as the conservative Camelot. The conservative movement deserves to take one on the chin for this attitude, not because it is the benchmark trait of conservatism, but because it isn't conservative at all."—Dylan Hales, Charleston City Paper
"The Wrecking Crew is a book worth reading and arguing with."—Jeff Salamon, Austin American-Statesman
“Thomas Frank is as upfront about his agenda as his opponents on the far right wing of the Republican Party are about theirs. His newest attack on them, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, is a carefully researched, voluminously footnoted and wickedly well-written study of what he calls 'government-by-sabotage.'"—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News
"In 2004 Thomas Frank wrote a revelatory book on the recent Republican domination of cultural politics in America's heartland. What's the Matter With Kansas? earned rave reviews, became an unlikely bestseller, established its author as an original voice in political commentary and led to influential op-ed gigs with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. What’s the Matter With Kansas? was a personal, witty and scrupulously documented account of how the Republican Party manipulates lower income (white) citizens to consistently vote against their own economic interests in the name of defending evangelical 'Christian family values.' Four years later, Frank returns with a superb follow-up, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Thanks to his thorough reporting and incisive historical analysis, we now learn how Republican Party conservatives govern in Washington, D.C., and how they enrich others through their methods. We also learn why they govern this way."—Matt Love, The Oregonian (Portland)
"Frank's latest, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, released last week, takes a look at the rise of the modern conservative movement and the changes that Washington has undergone since its advent . . . Frank's books are well researched and thoroughly documented: There are 40 pages of notes and citations at the end of What's the Matter with Kansas? and 80 pages in The Wrecking Crew; each has footnotes in the text as well. The sources are mainstream news and specialized journal articles, government documents and direct quotes from the very people who are his subjects. Frank has an agenda, but his analyses are not needlessly incendiary, nor is he one to exaggerate or feign outrage. He prefers to let events speak for themselves, and let his readers get steamed."—Lisa McLendon, The Wichita Eagle
"In a follow up to What's the Matter with Kansas?, Frank has now released a history of the conservative movement from the turn of the twentieth century to its current incarnation in the Bush administration. And, through that history, he explains why the incompetence of FEMA's response to Katrina is no endemic of how conservatives view government and, therefore, administer it. A large portion of the book looks at the conservative movement's renewal during the Reagan administration and how the rise of lobbyists accelerated their attempt to dismantle what they saw as 'Big Government' by outsourcing, underfunding and defanging agencies, departments and regulatory bodies. His primary argument is that through all those changes, conservatives were setting up the agencies to fail, thus proving their point that Big Government was incompetent (Bush's 'Heck of a good Brownie' as a case in point). There are many side stories of the people, places, and personalities involved in the conservative movement, many portrayed almost as caricatures, but the sorry aspect of it is that many of those people not only are accurately portrayed, but also enjoy acting out their role. The chapter on the island of Saipan not only explains the role of lobbyists in protecting big business over human rights (Jack Abramoff), but also is a microcosm example of how the conservative dream of 'liberty laboratories' was simply marketing spin to hide the true cost of American business expansion. Not going to be liked by conservatives, lauded by liberals. But it will be talked about as much as What's the Matter with Kansas? was, regardless of who actually wins the election this year."—Sacramento Book Review
"A refreshingly no-holds-barred exegesis on the naked cynicism of conservatism in America by The Baffler founder and political observer Frank. When conservatives rule, all hell breaks loose, the author amply demonstrates in this muckraking, well-reasoned account. The concept of a conservative state is not new, he writes: Business largely laid the foundation of this country and developed a steadfast commitment to the ideal of laissez-faire, as well as hostility to taxation, regulation, organized labor and state ownership. Since the Reagan revolution, however, and especially since George W. Bush came to office, the conservative pattern of deregulation, tax cuts, privatization and outsourcing has massively enriched 'everyone who grabbed as the government handed off its essential responsibilities to the private sector.' Despite holding executive or legislative power over the last 28 years, conservatives champion themselves as insurgent outsiders, notes Frank; yet Washington has become a developers' and lobbyists' city, grown hugely affluent by tearing down the government. The author traces conservatism's triumph through two innovations: the 'adversarial fantasy' and the fantastic potential for turning politics into a source of profit (e.g., direct mail and Iran Contra). The right's fortunes depend on robust public cynicism toward government, so conservatives fill the bureaucracy with cronies, hacks, partisans and creationists, ensuring lousy management and little or no regulatory enforcement. Frank's look at how conservatism mimics its enemies—the federal government is now bigger, not smaller—is hilariously spooky, as is his chapter on lobbyists, 'City of Bought Men.' Clear-eyed and occasionally sarcastic, he offers examples of such howlers as conservatives' rationalization of apartheid in South Africa, the depredations of Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, labor exploitation in Saipan and the right's blatant goal to defund and destroy the pillars of liberalism. A forceful argument that resurrecting equitable, intelligent government starts with understanding how the present plutocracy came about."—Kirkus Reviews
"Frank brings invaluable insider perceptions, ardor, and precision to his lancing inquiry into the erosion of democracy and the enshrinement of the mighty dollar . . . An electrifying, well-researched analysis of 'conservatism-as-profiteering.' This staggering history of systematic greed will inject new energy into public discourse as a historical election looms."—Booklist (starred review)
"Republican misrule and mistaken policy is the intended fulfillment of conservative antigovernment ideology, argues this scintillating j'accuse. Frank surveys what he regards as the hallmarks of conservative control of Washington: a government hobbled by budget deficits, disgraced by scandals, downsized, outsourced, hollowed out and sold off to corporate interests and thus made incapable of meeting its basic responsibilities. The result of this 'political vandalism,' he contends, is a perverse propaganda triumph for conservatives, who point with gleeful cynicism to the shambles they make of government as proof that government can't do anything right. Frank presents a scathing recap of Republican mismanagement and corruption, from the Hurricane Katrina debacle to the depredations of Jack Abramoff, and combines it with a shrewd dissection of the theories of conservative ideologues who call for and celebrate the sabotaging of the state. Writing with a barbed wit and finely controlled anger, he skewers such juicy targets as libertarian strategist Grover Norquist and Michelle Malkin, 'a pundit with the appearance of a Bratz doll but the soul of Chucky.' One of the sharpest political commentators around, Frank is required reading for every concerned citizen."—Publishers Weekly

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Chapter One
Golconda on the Potomac
The richest county in America isn’t in Silicon Valley or some sugarland preserve of Houston’s oil kings; it is Loudoun County, Virginia, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C., that is known for swollen suburban homes and white rail fences of the kind that denote “horse country.” The second richest county is Fairfax, Virginia, the next suburb over from Loudoun; the third, sixth, and seventh richest counties are also suburbs of the capital.1 The Washington area has six different Morton’s steakhouses to choose from, seven
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  • The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Thomas Frank's book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation. The Wrecking Crew supplies the first and—lacking future fact-finding commissions—probably the only full reckoning of what conservatism has wrought. Casting back to the early days of the conservative revolution, Frank describes the rise of a ruling coalition dedicated to dismantling government.

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    Author Thomas Frank on Teh Wrecking Crew and How Conservatives Rule

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  • Thomas Frank

  • Thomas Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. The founding editor of The Baffler and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, Frank has received a Lannan award and been a guest columnist for The New York Times. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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