Article — From the August 2008 issue

The Wrecking Crew

How a gang of right-wing con men destroyed Washington and made a killing

( 2 of 7 )

I have managed to unearth a single specimen of direct mail from the CRs’ Abramoff period, and it is typical of the genre circa 1983: by turns chummy, frightening, confiding, and apocalyptic. As was common in those days, the letter is signed by an elected official—in this case by New York Representative Jack Kemp, then the best-known conservative in Congress. (Today Kemp advises John McCain on economic policy.) It pleads with the recipient to “dig down deep” for the College Republicans, led by “my good friend Jack Abramoff.” And why should Mr. and Mrs. America give to Jack Abramoff’s CRs, of all groups? Because, according to Kemp, they are “the most important Republican organization in America today,” prepared to do all manner of grassroots electioneering in the upcoming 1984 contest. And why should the reader care about that? Because “our nation is in grave danger of sliding into another depression” should liberals be permitted to resume their tax-and-spend ways. “That’s right,” Kemp warned. “A depression worse than the so-called Great Depression.” Thankfully, though, Jack Abramoff and his “dedicated group of young leaders . . . understand what must be done to return economic prosperity to America.”

The larger mechanism CEO Abramoff used to break free from his stodgy, moderate Republican elders was a tax-exempt fund-raising group called the United Students of America Foundation (a.k.a. the USA Foundation, or sometimes just USAF), which was technically nonpartisan but in reality simply added its voice to whatever cause the CRs happened to be pushing. While direct mail solicited funds from individual conservatives, the USA Foundation allowed Abramoff and his crew to go after hefty contributions from the real powers of American conservatism: corporations. And with the support of corporate money came, wouldn’t you know it, support for corporate-friendly causes in the world at large.

Going freelance, as Abramoff did with the USA Foundation, soon became a popular career move among the sons of Reagan. Ralph Reed launched a group called Students for America, a Southern outfit designed to bring evangelicals into the conservative mix. Students for a Better America, which warred on liberal professors, was set up by Steve Baldwin, also a onetime Abramoff lieutenant. The Conservative Youth Federation of America was launched by Amy Moritz, yet another Abramoff associate. And let us not forget the Conservative Action Foundation, the Conservative Student Support Foundation, and the mysterious Young Conservative Foundation, “America’s premier Human Rights organization.”

It was through the USA Foundation that Abramoff seems to have discovered the profitable side of politics. The occasion for this discovery was the College Republicans’ ongoing war with Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), student-activist outfits that were set up in the Seventies and funded at most colleges by “activity fees” that all students were required to pay unless they checked a box on a form. This was the point on which the CRs challenged them, insisting on campus after campus that it was “sinful and tyrannical” to compel students to fund an obviously political organization.

Like other Nader groups, the student PIRGs were something of a nuisance for business, and at some point it apparently occurred to Abramoff or Norquist that defunding and thus “killing” campus PIRG chapters was a service for which the targeted businesses ought to be paying. So the young entrepreneurs of the USA Foundation got out there and sold themselves as political hit men. According to one 1986 study, by the journalist Allan Nairn, the group managed to collect tribute from canning and bottling companies, two oil companies, an electric company (PIRGs were then working to set up utility watchdog groups), Amway, Coors, an assortment of San Francisco landlords worried about the possibility of rent control, and the Campbell Soup Company, which paid the USA Foundation to undermine a campus support group for a migrant farmworkers’ union. It was pug nacity for pay.

The USA Foundation’s motto was “Promoting a free market of ideas on the nation’s campuses,” and here we encounter yet another of the Washington right’s signature lines. Like so many conservative ideas—anticommunism, for example—it sounds fine at first. A “free market of ideas” sounds like “free inquiry” or a “free exchange of ideas,” an environment in which hypotheses are tested and bad ones are weeded out while good ones go on to earn the respect of the community of scholars. But this is not what the phrase means at all. Markets do not determine the objective merit of things, only their price, which is to say, their merit in the eyes of large corporations and the very wealthy.

The point, and the profit, was in getting the people with money to understand which ideas served their common interests, which ones didn’t, and then to act together as a class—supporting the good ideas and crushing the liberal ones. This was a plan with legs: When I spoke to Grover Norquist in 2006, he was still insisting that businesses had to be instructed on big-picture thinking, on the amazing returns to be realized through funding conservatism. By then, of course, Grover Norquist was no longer some campus activist; he was the architect of the most effective defund-the-left program Washington has ever seen. And his old friend Jack Abramoff was on his way to jail.

is the author of four books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? and the forthcoming The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan Books), from which this essay is adapted.

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