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“What You Get Is Incredible Rip-Offs”

A Shepherd Q&A with best-selling author Thomas Frank

Sep. 24, 2008
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Thomas Frank is one of America’s most astute and witty political observers, and his latest best seller, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, exposes the Republican hard-liners’ transformation of the federal government into both a fount of privatized plunder and a nest of truly spectacular incompetence.

The Republicans learned to channel their anti-government sentiment during the reign of George W. Bush, Frank argues. While privatizing the Iraq occupation with Blackwater mercenaries and Halliburton supplies, crucial government functions like caring for the victims of Hurricane Katrina were horrendously bungled, cruelly driving home the Wrecking Crew’s belief that “the best public servant is the worst one,” as one business leader put it in 1928.

Frank, who will be speaking at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue on Sept. 29, talked to the Shepherd about Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s ties to the Wall Street flameout, voter fraud and the Republican presidential ticket’s blatant lies about Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

Shepherd: How does the Wall Street meltdown and bailout reflect the work of the “Wrecking Crew” approach?

Frank: Quite directly. Phil Gramm, who was John McCain’s chief economic adviser, and may still be, wrote the key legislation that allowed the complete deregulation of investment banks and insurance companies in their investment activities, bringing on the present crisis and need for a bailout by taxpayers. Gramm was the guy.

The Republican Wrecking Crew, first of all, believes in destroying all the regulatory functions of government. And without those functions, there’s a complete lack of supervision of what’s happening with these major banks and insurance companies, and no protection of the public interest. These Republicans have acted for years as though markets work fine unregulated. But what you get is incredible rip-offs.

Along with the destruction of government’s regulatory capacity, the Wrecking Crew came to see that they could make money working as a movement serving business interests.

Shepherd: With these Republican hard-liners in power, we’ve seen Democratic voters disenfranchised by falsely branding them as felons in 2000 in Florida or under-supplying voting machines to Democratic wards in Ohio in 2004. Now, Wisconsin’s attorney general is pushing a procedure that would probably discourage voting.

Frank: It’s called “projection.” You imagine that the other side is doing it, and it justifies anything you do. If you look at conservative literature, you see this Republican article of faith that there is epidemic voter fraud, that the Democrats are somehow doing some kind of incredible, huge voter fraud. It’s amazing to be accusing the other side of fraud while you are committing fraud yourself to keep people from voting.

Shepherd: McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, seem to feel unafraid to endlessly repeat proven untruths like Palin’s opposition to the “Bridge to Nowhere,” or to claim that Obama was personally responsible for $4-per-gallon gas and the Wall Street meltdown. What’s going on here?

Frank: Their brazen lies are quite amazing. They think the media can’t hurt them. When you compare it to the Swift Boat thing against John Kerry in 2004, where the media just reported on the right-wing ads—well, now the media is calling them out on things like Palin supporting the Bridge to Nowhere and false claims like that.

But the McCain people know that their ads, false or not, generate news by themselves, and that gets them talked about more. And the Democrats have problems of their own. They have to reach out to their former base of blue-collar voters in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia with a program of economic liberalism, and that means alienating the Democrats’ funders.

Both parties are pursuing the same demographic. Sarah Palin will be trying to do it with culture war [abortion, gun rights, “small-town values”]. She gave a great speech at the Republican convention, she’s a very good public speaker, she’s charming.

Shepherd: As the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater once said, the party that succeeds in branding the other guy “elitist” winds up winning. What does Barack Obama need to do to escape the “elitist” label that the Republicans have tried to stick on him?

Frank: What Atwater said is roughly true. Being branded “elitist” is hard to overcome.

But I think Obama has been doing the right thing over the last few weeks, and hitting the economy very hard, stressing outsourcing and health care and the issues of how working people have been shut out of the vast wealth created in the last few years. I think that’s why he’s leading in the polls.

Frank will be speaking Monday, Sept. 29, at Schwartz Bookshop, 2559 N. Downer Ave., at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 for up to two people and include a copy of The Wrecking Crew. For information, call 332-1181.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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