April 21, 2006
|GET BUZZFLASH ALERTS||INTERVIEW ARCHIVES|
Kevin Phillips as Cassandra ... Will We Heed His Warning About This 'American Theocracy'?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Political analyst Kevin Phillips identified "The Emerging Republican Majority" back in 1969. Ever since then he has observed and interpreted the American scene with consistent clarity, in bestseller after bestseller. Once a Republican strategist but also a longtime critic of the Bush dynasty, Phillips warns that America's current nexus of global overreach, radical religion, diminishing resources, and ballooning debt could bring America to its knees. This guy is truly connecting the dots. But will Americans get the picture in time to avert disaster?
* * *
BuzzFlash: We interviewed you in January of 2004 about your book, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, which was also a bestseller. You called attention to two key things about the Bush dynasty, going back four generations - their financial and oil interests over the years, and their secrecy. In your new book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, you identify theocracy and revisit the economic and oil interests and the dead economy. Can you elaborate on how you went from the Bush dynasty to American theocracy?
Kevin Phillips: The last three books I’ve done have been a sequence of sorts. Wealth and Democracy, in 2002, was basically picking up on the book I wrote fifteen years ago called The Politics of Rich and Poor, and revisiting the question of wealth and what it had done to the American economy and the American politics of democracy. Then American Dynasty picked up on the Bush family and the unique political role that they came to play, and I think it was essentially a negative one. After the reelection of George W., not by very much, but he did get back in in 2004, I thought it was time to revisit the central issues and what had developed as the central problems in the Republican coalition since I wrote The Emerging Republican Majority almost forty years ago.
I began to see the importance of the changes in the Republican coalition, some of which were fulfilling the original blueprint, some of which were not. They developed in three different directions. Probably the most important was the huge religious change. There also was considerable importance in the metamorphosis of American politics away from the California part of the Sun Belt towards Texas and oil, and the buildup of an oil-related Republican coalition under the Bushes. Then, in addition to the buildup of oil, the Bushes had always been very much involved in finance and moving money around, as opposed to actually building real things. That, again, became a hallmark of the American economy, and it seemed like it was a problem worth discussing with specific relationship to the family’s tendencies and those in the Republican Party.
But the Democrats have been complicit there, too - in that the United States, since the 1980s, had moved away from being a manufacturing economy into being essentially a financial economy. By 2000, in the census, financial services were up to 21% of the GDP, and manufacturing was down to 14%. Back in the 1970s, it had been roughly 25% for manufacturing and only half that much for financial services.
A lot of the change in the rise of financial services accompanied the rise of debt and credit in the United States on every dimension you could imagine - our international indebtedness, the growth of corporate and financial loans, and, for most people, in the most personal and family way, the growth of credit card debt, consumer debt of other varieties, and perhaps most of all, mortgage debt. Oddly enough – I guess not oddly – it was something the Bushes were always into with the money moving around in the economy. That was what they did. But the rise of the debt and credit industry was really quite striking.
After Enron receded from the George W. Bush sort of lifetime patron list, the one that came on was MBNA, which was the leading credit card company. The credit card industry has found the Bush people, but also the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, very collaborative. They deregulated the credit card industry. As a result, they can charge people 28% interest and make 40% of their money from slapping on fees, which are penalties.
BuzzFlash: This also resulted in the bipartisan revision of the bankruptcy laws, to the detriment of the working person.
Kevin Phillips: I think that’s true, too. It stands to reason, if you’re going to have the degree of concentration of wealth and influence in the financial sector that took place during the 1990s. When technology crashed, in 2000, finance quite obviously, but also without too much attention, emerged as the key new sector. With technology receding, it was just absolutely clear that the money was being made in the United States in the financial orbit.
BuzzFlash: I want to spend some time talking about the title of your book, American Theocracy. You bring up Tim LaHaye in your preface, and what his religious world view may represent in terms of the Bush Administration. There is an argument that the Bush Administration does not really represent necessarily that much of a deviation from trends that were occurring historically in the United States – that there were trends moving us toward what they are.
Kevin Phillips: I think in some ways, they were a fulfillment of it, but they were also an orchestrator of it. It’s not a chicken-and-egg situation. If we take a look back at the radicalization of religion in the United States, it has a number of relations to the Bushes in kind of odd ways.
The first thing to say about religion in the United States, all the way back to the colonial period, was that a lot of people who settled in the British colonies of North America were refugees for religious reasons, whether they be Quakers or Jews or Puritans from England who went to Massachusetts Bay. They generally brought with them a Bible reading and personal religion, as opposed to the hierarchical and liturgical approaches of the Catholic Church in Europe. As a result, during the 19th and 20th Centuries, the radical aspect of American religion didn’t go away. It kept being maintained by revivals and by splinters from the dominant sects, and you just kept replacing something that was becoming establishmentarian with something that was a good bit more radical.
During the last third of the 20th Century, that was conspicuous. You had a steady rise in the importance of Evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal denominations and membership. That was especially so in the south, which was being added into the Republican coalition. As you added southern Evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals into the Republican coalition, you also added northern ethnic Catholics. You were basically taking away major religious concentrations within the Democratic Party, and making the Democrats much more secular and the Republicans much more religious. Bit by bit, it became clear that people who voted Republican for president by the year 2000 were far more churchgoing on a regular basis - or services-going, because it also applied to Orthodox Jews - than people who were not. People who were secular and never went to religious services were going to be heavily Democratic. So you had the Republican Party emerging as more of a religious party across the board than we’d ever seen before.
The Bushes played a role in this in a roundabout way, partly because George Senior was not liked by the religious right in the early 1980s, and he had to kowtow to them. And his son, George W., was born again during the mid-1980s as a result of a crisis in his oil business and his drinking habit, and he became very evangelically minded, and became his father’s liaison man with the religious right. I won’t go into the details of that, but it certainly helped to point him in these directions. So what you’re starting to see by 2000 and 2004, especially when the church people in the south reacted vehemently against Bill Clinton and became even more Republican, was that you had, instead of the moderate Protestantism of George Bush, Senior, you have this very Evangelical, Bible-centered Protestant of George W., who had really a sense, I think, that he was to play a role – that God wanted him to do things in politics. He got into a whole Biblical view of the world which he doesn’t fully acknowledge – he doesn’t want to discuss - because it’s a difficult thing to talk about. He’d offend as many people as he’d make happy with it, and he’d rather not talk about it.
But in 1999, when he was getting ready to run for president, he had a meeting with the Council for National Policy. This was the council that was set up by Tim LaHaye, who was also famous as the author of the "Left Behind" series of novels, about Armageddon and the end times, and the anti-Christ being in Iraq. All of the things that we started to see seemed to characterize our intervention in Iraq in 2003. My sense is that George W. brings together in his persona the religious trend in the Republican Party, the movement of the Republican Party to the south, and the movement of the Republican Party onto a somewhat theocratic and Bible-focused viewpoint, which they really don’t want to admit or acknowledge, but roughly half of their constituency does maintain and are polled.
The relationship with Tim LaHaye took a very interesting turn, obviously in the 1990s, when he put out the extraordinarily successful series of books called the "Left Behind" series. They bear, as I said, a real resemblance to some of the points that were made, and the attention that was paid, to creating the image of what we were doing in Iraq as part of a larger campaign of good versus evil. Now, I think we were there largely for oil, and because the Pentagon needed to change some of its bases in the Middle East. That wasn’t good versus evil, unless you’re George W. with this kind of odd view of the role you’re playing in the service of the Almighty.
BuzzFlash: You bring up in your Preface two other issues that I just wanted to go back to. I’m not saying Bush was inevitable, but we were seeing more or less a bipartisan movement toward globalization, and toward the financial sector. Bush and Cheney accelerated that and put the emphasis on natural resources over the kind of emerging new technology that Clinton emphasized. But these were strains that were happening anyway in the society. In some ways, the reason there’s not an outrage among the Democrats in Washington is, he’s continuing policies that had sort of been there along– the religious issue aside.
Kevin Phillips: I think under Bill Clinton you had a Democratic Party that lost its way by many of its old yardsticks, and certainly a number of liberals feel that way. My view is that Clinton, coming out of a very money-oriented Southern backdrop, where he was always committed to raising the last buck he could squeeze out of a state – once he had his chastisement in 1994 and was on the defensive with the Republican Congress, he generally split the difference. They called it triangulation, but it was conceding a lot of what the Republicans wanted to do.
Now of course, the religious part of it – he and Hillary were at war with the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he and Bush were obviously on different sides of that issue. But in relationship to the money crowd, Clinton caved in. A lot of Democrats became part and parcel of the deregulation of financial services when they repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated insurance and investment sides from banking. Everything just became possible at that point. You could put it all in one package, which is what they all wanted. The Democrats were very collusive in this, and the Clinton Administration more so.
As far as oil, Clinton and the Democrats were collaborative, but they did not represent the intensity of the energy coalition that you have in the Republican Party, nor did they represent the intensity of the outer suburbs and the people who drive big cars, and the whole movement towards SUVs and so forth. It was there, but it was much stronger in the Republican Party.
BuzzFlash: Now let’s get to third thing - the debt. Right now, we have over a trillion dollars in debt, I believe, which amounts to $30,000 a family in debt in the United States. What happened here in the Republican Party? Here we had, under Clinton, a trend that Bush clearly reversed. Under Clinton, we were getting the debt under control. Under Bush, it has defied the standard philosophy of the Republican Party, which is to pay as you go to control the debt. With Bush, he’s just been on a credit card spree and gotten us to a debt that is going to be a burden to our grandchildren, and also, in many ways, sold the country, because we’re borrowing from foreign countries like China and Europe and Japan. Our national sovereignty is indebted to other nations. What happened there? That was a complete reversal of Republican policy.
Kevin Phillips: I would say that, since the 1980s, the United States has been very permissive in going into debt to try to cut taxes, which is the particular Republican way of spending money and racking up deficits. The Democrats will go into debt for federal spending programs that benefit their constituencies, but the Republicans tend to bust the budget and set up deficits, largely because they want to reduce taxes on business and their contributors. That is a very Bushy type of thing.
If you look at the periods of massive growth in deficits in the United States, you had one beginning with the Vietnam War. But then you had the biggest in the 1980s. If you look at the period during which you had a Bush either as Vice President or President - and this was five of the seven presidential terms since 1980 – you see this massive expansion of the debt culture.
Now, the Bushes have never been people that made money by building things. They move money around. They were in investment banking, stock brokerage – all that sort of thing. I think it never bothered them that the debt was climbing that much, because they certainly let it climb, and they were collaborative in its climbing. It’s also clear that George W., after 9/11, thought it was important – and he’s not totally wrong here – that you have to stimulate the economy by allowing people to consolidate their debt and borrow more money, so they pushed down interest rates so they could build up wealth on the housing side of the ledger, and people could hock some of that asset climb and take money out. As a result now, we have a huge amount of credit card debt and mortgage debt, and the interest rate charges are rising rapidly at this point. It’s a threat to the solvency of a lot of middle-income families who’ve got used to being able to pay everything off very cheaply with permissive rates back in 2001 and 2002. That’s set to backfire. That really is something that has a bit to do with the Bush family and their willingness to get totally in bed with the financial services industry, including the people who make money out of credit cards and mortgages.
BuzzFlash: The traditional conservative wing of the Republican Party – what’s left of them in Congress – are kind of rebelling against the deficit, and there’s a little bit of skirmishing going on right now over budget and so forth. They don’t agree with Bush that you could keep running up the debt to over a trillion dollars; they think this may break the back of the economy.
Kevin Phillips: I think that’s right. Let’s put some numbers on the total - what they call credit market debt - in the United States, which is to say there are markets for it – you can trade it one way or another. It’s about $40 trillion dollars. The national debt is about $8 trillion. The bulk of the debt in the United States is private, which is to say corporate, financial, mortgage, consumer. So the national debt numbers are huge, but the private debt is much worse.
The international debt that we have is about $4 trillion, and that’s rising rapidly because we have to import so much of the manufactured stuff we need, and so much of the oil. So this is a disaster. I think the conservatives are finally recovering some integrity on this issue. It’s just clear, looking at the Bush Administration, that you’ve got people who are pretty incompetent in terms of war management in Iraq. You’re pretty incompetent in terms of fiscal management at home, pretty incompetent in terms of dealing with an event like Hurricane Katrina, pretty incompetent with the people they put in power, pretty incompetent in honoring their statements that they didn’t do A or B or C, because now it turns out that Bush was doing exactly what he said he wanted to find out who was doing, which was leaking the information. This Administration is an impressionist painting of lies and incompetence most of the time.
BuzzFlash: Let me play devil’s advocate here. Some right wing people – and I’m talking right wing, not conservative, because we’re very at BuzzFlash to distinguish between traditional conservatives and right-wing extremists of the Tim LaHaye type or the Dick Cheney type - some right wingers say, well, forget about Kevin Phillips and his criticisms of the Bush family and the Bush Administration and their policies, because he wrote The Emerging Republican Majority. He helped create this electoral landscape for the Republican Party, and the foundation. How do you respond to that?
Kevin Phillips: I think basically what they would say is that I have a personal grudge against the Bushes. And I think the difficulty is that my distaste for the Bushes goes all the way back to the Nixon and Reagan years, and a lot of people in those administrations shared that distaste for the Bushes. They thought the old man, George H.W., was something of a lightweight. The whole question that attached to him of being the wimp – remember the wimp cover of Newsweek?
Kevin Phillips: So my distaste for the Bushes has a long pedigree. When I wrote The Politics of Rich and Poor in 1990, the lead quote on the back of the book jacket supporting it was from Richard M. Nixon. That’s sort of a measure of how elements of the Republican Party have become very unhappy with these people, and that’s now surfacing, and some of the conservatives are flat-out saying they’d vote for Clinton over Bush. Others are saying he’s clearly incompetent. There’s a gathering sense that there really is something wrong here. And not only that the emperor doesn’t have very many clothes, but intellectually, he’s almost a nudist. There’s no “there” there.
BuzzFlash: Now if we go back to title of the book, American Theocracy. One of the people you mention, Tim LaHaye, plays a very important role. He sold, I believe, 70 or 80 million of the rapture books, which relate to the return of Jesus and the ascension of the followers of Jesus to heaven, and the abandonment of anyone who is not. He was influential in kind of giving the thumbs-up to Bush as a legitimate, born again Christian, and therefore worthy of the far-right Evangelical support. Again, we also want to say that not all the Evangelicals are extremists. Some of them are environmentalists, some of them oppose Bush policy, some of them oppose the Iraq war. But we're referring to the segment that Tim LaHaye represents. In 1988, Poppy Bush lost in the Iowa primary to Pat Robertson – isn’t that right?
Kevin Phillips: Correct.
BuzzFlash: This was a lesson, as you say; at that point they quickly assigned George W., who had been riding shotgun with Lee Atwater, to kind of be a liaison to the Christian right. As you said, he learned - and Karl Rove, who later started to run his campaign for governor and function basically as his Svengali - that they would never, never, never, never, never alienate the Christian right. They had seen what had happened in Iowa, and that was enough. Then Bush had this allegedly personal conversion. One has to believe he did, for whatever it meant to him, that he abandoned his drinking and found himself in Christ. What is the theocracy movement itself? What have people like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and other names that aren’t recognized by the public that are very influential in the Bush Administration, brought to the Administration, and how have they influenced it?
Kevin Phillips: There’s a lot of components of that question. Let me start by saying that I don’t think most Evangelicals should be thought of as anything like extremists. They have a personal religion which is concerned with revelation and salvation; but they are shaped by their leaders – LaHaye and others – into a force on behalf of a pretty aggressive Christianity, which has come up with a world view of almost Jesus the terminator; and then, God so loved you that He’s bringing you World War III.
This is not a lot of people’s idea of Christianity, but it is theirs. A lot of the people who believe in this are people who are trying to find a Biblical view. In my opinion, they’re finding the wrong one, but you can’t take great issue with that. But it slops over into public policy.
These people played a role behind the scenes, because you have some staggering numbers. 45 percent of American Christians, according to Newsweek, believe in the end times and Armageddon. Among Republican voters, my guess is is probably more like 55%. This becomes an enormously important backdrop for Bush policymaking. I think we can say that, in the Middle East and so forth, a lot of the policy there may have been concerned with oil. It may have been concerned with geopolitics. But to sound right to the born agains and the Evangelicals, Pentecostals and fundamentalists, you’ve got to make the fight in Iraq a fight between good and evil, not between petroleum and the lack of it, and not all kinds of geopolitical strategy, but things that concern religion. That’s got it all muddled, because it can’t describe itself honestly.
BuzzFlash: Much of the Bush rhetoric prior to the Iraq war and during the first two years, was overflowing with religious rhetoric. This was clearly crafted to send a signal to the religious right in what George Lakoff calls framing. They framed this as a battle of good and evil – no shades of grey, just good and evil. I recall even that when Bush was appointing members of the Cabinet, and some of them came under criticism – and he still does this– I think he said this about John Ashcroft and he said it about others – he’s a good man in his heart. Apparently in the Evangelical world, the heart is the repository of the soul. There seemed to be a lot of language he was using that was kind of sending messages to the Evangelical leaders that he was one of them, and he wasn’t going to get caught up in details about what people did. He was going to get caught up about whether they were saved or not.
Kevin Phillips: I think that’s right. His speeches have been analyzed by theologians and communications experts for kind of double-coding. On the surface, it would be acceptably religious. People who weren’t heavy churchgoers wouldn’t be offended by it, but those who were very knowledgeable about the Bible would know that there were all kinds of references in there to passages in the Bible, to stanzas from hymns, from sayings and two-or-three-word bunches of symbolism that was very, very much tailored to putting the message out there to the true believers.
Now it’s important to add here that when you look at the LaHaye series and the videotapes and books of the other end-times preachers – and this is a huge Republican constituency – that these end-times in the LaHaye books take place in Iraq. That’s where the anti-Christ has his headquarters, in New Babylon. And the anti-Christ arises out of the United Nations, and has a French advisor. And all of the symbolism that was thrown around Iraq in 2002 and 2003, I’m sure that they didn’t say let’s lift things from LaHaye. That would not be a plausible explanation. But did they have a sense that the American end-times and Armageddon community, which is huge, would respond best to a conflict that was tapping all of these symbolisms? I think absolutely, yes. I think that’s what they thought.
BuzzFlash: We’ve seen a series of civilizations that overextended themselves and eventually fell apart, dissipated, were lost, because they exploited their natural resources beyond the sustainability of the civilization, or extended themselves beyond their capability to keep the civilization functioning. When we look at Armageddon, are we basically looking at a world view, at least of some of the Bush followers, who see destruction as actually a good thing? Or is this merely reading too much into it?
Kevin Phillips: I think clearly a percentage of people – and obviously this wouldn’t be true of all the end-times believers – but to them, the ultimate good comes out of the whole chaotic situation – that they are taken up and they go to join their Lord. It’s a very benign and ultimately favorable outcome. The people who aren’t part of all this, who aren’t saved, who don’t go to heaven, which is probably the great bulk of the people who are not terribly attendant Christians or any other religion, obviously don’t share in this particular benefit. But for the people who do, it’s the wonderful outcome.
BuzzFlash: I want to compliment you on this great trilogy. It’s very carefully researched. You are clearly greatly concerned with accuracy and informing the public about the public policy issues that are facing America in a very clear and imminent way. But let me ask you this. I get the sense that people in the neocon movement, like Cheney and Rumsfeld, really couldn't care less about Tim LaHaye. Their dreams are dreams of empire. Is this sort of a marriage of convenience – that the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys of the world, sort of say, well, if Rove and Bush need the end-times people to go along with our dreams of empire, it’s a marriage that works, for now. It’s a marriage of convenience.
Kevin Phillips: I think they have some of that. I doubt very much that Rumsfeld and Cheney are into all the end times business in any personal way. I think Cheney doesn’t go to church all that frequently, and in my opinion, would be purely into the geopolitics and the oil. For him, the democracy is almost as irrelevant as the religion.
Now as far as Rummy goes, I’m a little less sure it goes that far. He has allowed Lieutenant General William Boykin in the Pentagon to go around flag waving and talking about Jesus being on the side of George W. Bush and the United States in church after church around the country, wearing his uniform. So I think Rummy understands that this is a two-faced game, too, and that he’s perfectly happy to have this fellow go around. He was appointed, I think, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for something or other, so they actually put their imprimatur on him. There are places where this is very two-faced, and I think Rumsfeld is part of the two-faced approach.
BuzzFlash: We’ve also seen the controversy in the Naval Academy about proselytizing, and some other issues emerge, as to the theocracy impact on the military – that it has been somewhat incorporated in certain sectors.
Kevin Phillips: I think the people in the Administration would like to see the military more aware, if not entirely in agreement with, the religious flavoring of what could happen.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much. American Theocracy is a wonderful book. America is responding to what you have to say, which is quite critical to the future of the nation.
Kevin Phillips: I thank you and I appreciate the interview.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
* * *
American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Hardcover) Kevin Phillips, a BuzzFlash premium.
Kevin Phillips and Republican Politics (biography, American Dynasty).
Kevin Phillips, Author of "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," A BuzzFlash Interview (January, 2004).