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BOOK REVIEW: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule

Big Bad Conservatives: Thomas Frank’s populist polemic doesn’t really understand conservatism

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The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule [Buy Now]
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 384 pages, $25

If attacking the crimes of contemporary conservatism were an Olympic sport, Thomas Frank would be Michael Phelps.

His previous books, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy and What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, took to task the phony “market populism” of the Wall Street Journal crowd and the do-nothing culture-warriors of the evangelical right.

In his new book, The Wrecking Crew, Frank focuses on the conservative movement at large, and while the writing is strong as ever, the content is suspect to say the least.

Frank’s thesis is a simple one. American conservatism is a political philosophy dedicated to the destruction of the state through rampant sabotage and starvation of the federal government.

This, combined with a deep-felt commitment to laissez-faire economics and corruption, is the defining trait of the conservative movement, Frank says, and has been since the beginning of time.

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.

Though this interest in forgotten conservative figures is a plus, its end result is mostly negative. The reason folks like Albert Jay Nock and Howard Phillips are relatively unknown isn’t because they are the behind the scene power brokers and intellectual heros of the American Right, as Frank suggests. It’s because they aren’t read and have little influence with the Right at all.

Pretending libertarians are synonymous with “neoliberals” is bad enough. Pretending they are the movers and shakers of the Republican Party is absurd.

As the book develops this theme, which increasingly takes on an almost conspiratorial refrain, that absurdity does Frank’s argument few favors. While Frank is right to point out the many flaws of the conservative movement, he is wrong to claim they are principles of conservatism. To take one example, 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.

What Frank doesn’t realize — or doesn’t acknowledge — is that the activities of Reagan Youth were inconsistent with the natural isolationism and small government attitudes of the conservative movement’s founders.

If Frank had read his Nock a little closer, this would have been evident. On one point, however, 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.

In contrast to his suspicion of big business, Frank offers a wholesale endorsement of all things bureaucratic in our nation’s capital.

In an age when nearly everyone concedes that Washington politics have failed the citizenry, Frank offers a lot of detailed criticism of lobbyists, but never for a moment does he do anything but praise the “bigness” of the “regulatory state.”

At one point Frank actually says Americans want more government, an interesting argument for a “populist” to make, given the average American’s opinion on everything for the national debt to traffic laws seems otherwise.

What is most interesting about the book is what it doesn’t include.

There is no serious discussion on the failings of big government. Missteps in “progressive reform” are totally ignored (Prohibition for example). The three leading intellectual figures of the conservative movement, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet are not on the radar screen at all. More bizarre, Frank has written a 300-plus page book on American politics and conservatism in general without a single reference to the Constitution.

These sins of omission reveal much about the book, but more still about the author. A strong polemicist, one gets the impression Frank found a theory he liked and worked all the facts around the theory.

Earlier this year, liberal radio show host Bill Press released a book entitled Trainwreck: The End of the Conservative Revolution (and Not a Moment Too Soon) with a nearly identical thesis. Press, however, was honest enough to admit that part of the problem — perhaps the biggest part — was the perversion of the first principles of conservatism.

At times, this muddled the book’s argument. The Wrecking Crew does not have such a problem. Its thesis, dishonest as it may be, is clear.

Conservatives are bad, liberals are good.

The end.

Dylan Hales is a regular contributor to Taki’s Magazine and Culture 11.

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