Terry Gross: My guest, Kevin Phillips has written a new book that was the subject of a question put to President Bush by a member of the audience yesterday when he spoke to the City Club of Cleveland.
Questioner: My question that author and former Nixon administration official, Kevin Phillips, in his latest book, American Theocracy, discusses what has been called "radical Christianity and its growing involvement in government and politics." He makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this? That the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse and if not why not?
Bush: Uh... [laughs]...[audience laughter]... um.... The answer is. I haven't really thought of it that way! Here's how I think of it. Um. First I've heard of that, by the way! Uh. I. The uh. I guess I'm more of a practical fella.
Gross: As you heard in that question, Kevin Phillips', American Theocracy, elaborates on his concerns about radical religion and politics. He fears that the Republican Party has been transformed into the first religious party in the US. But it's not just religion that he writes about in American Theocracy. He warns about the dangers of our growing debt and dependence on oil. His previous book, American Dynasty, was about the Bush family's impact on American politics and policy. Phillips is very critical of the Republican Party, but he started his career by helping to get Richard Nixon elected in 1968 and serving in his administration. Phillips' first book, The Emerging Republican Majority, published in 1969, was described as the political bible of the Nixon era. I spoke to Phillips yesterday, before the President addressed the City Club of Cleveland.... Kevin Phillips, welcome to Fresh Air! Your book is subtitled The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. Do you see radical religion, oil, and borrowed money as being interconnected in any way?
Kevin Phillips: Very much. And much more after I finished the book than when I began it. To begin with the question of radical religion and oil, what you found in the whole lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, for example, is that George W. Bush, with his constituency of true believers, was responding in part to their whole sense of an end times and armageddon context in the Middle East. As a result, they interpreted what was going on there through a biblical lens as opposed to an oil sensitivity lens that might have been the case, say, in the upper echelons of Exxon and Houston. And the upshot was that you couldn't talk about oil as a reason for invading Iraq because so much of the constituency had a religious reason for watching all of this. But yet the two are very much connected. If you think in terms of the questions of debt and oil, for example --again very much connected because the more we go into hock to foreigners in order to pay for foreign oil, which is a very major portion of what we import, the worse the whole crisis gets. The bigger the debt, the greater the strain on the dollar, and if the dollar starts fading again that just raises the price of oil. So all of these things come together. It is the triangle that Washington does not want to discuss.
Gross: Why do you think Washington does not want to discuss it?
Phillips: Too many bedrock issues and concerns and things for which there is no obvious solution. To admit that the debt has many, many consequences in terms of what we have to do to get oil, where we may have to invade, to admit that in Iraq we're not there for democracy and we're not there for all the pretense. There may be the drums of democracy, but they're the drums of gasoline! All of this just raises too many issues about the fundamental mess the US has gotten itself into -- really for 15 or 20 years and with the collaboration of the presidents of both parties. George W. Bush wasn't the only one talking about "weapons of mass destruction."
Gross: But you do say that the Bush family has helped tie together finance, national security, oil, and the religious right. Would you talk a little bit about the role you think the Bush family has played in connecting those things?
Phillips: Part of the reason the Bush family is such a problem for us at the moment and for the Republican Party is that, with the exception of the election of 1996, there has been a Bush on the Republican ticket running for president or vice-president in every election since 1980. They have really put a firm fingerprint on the Republican Party. The three things that they've been involved in doing that are so important to what's happened... The first thing is that George H.W. Bush's difficulties with the religious right. He developed the art of pandering to these people to a pretty elevated degree. His son got into politics in the national vein in 1987 and 1988 as his father's liaison to the religious right. So these two men together have really pushed the Republican Party in that direction. The second thing that they've done is that four generations of Bushes have come of the financial sector. They've been brokers, they've been investment managers, they've been bankers. They have this attunement to the financial sector. And the financial sector has become relentlessly more important to this country in the last two decades and the Bushes have helped this find fruition. And then lastly -- oil. You have George H.W.Bush who was the first oil man to be president. By the time we got to the 2000 election with George W. Bush, he was not only himself an oil man, although a very unsuccessful one, but he had a vice-presidential running mate who was also out of the oil business, Dick Cheney. So the extent to which the Bush family and the 25 years in which they've had a major imprint on the Republican Party has emphasized pandering to the radical right, the religious right, the role and importance of oil, and connections to finance help explain a lot of what's happened. And the fact that these are central crises for the US at this point is not unrelated to the prominence of the Bushes.
Gross: You write about what you describe as the oil-national security complex when you write about the role you think oil has played in foreign policy. How influential was oil when you worked for the Nixon administration in the late '60's?
Phillips: Well, it was enormously important in the 1960's, partly because you could see some clouds on the horizon. But even more because within the Republican Party, the great goal of realigning politics in the Republicans' favor rested in no small part on Texas. Texas was a very important state and a great oil state. Richard Nixon really wanted to take Texas. That was one of the reasons he was very interested in promoting the career of George Bush, Sr., who was the first major Republican from Texas. That was part of a long-term Nixon strategy to sort of "Texafy" the Republican Party a bit.
Gross: And you write that "[unclear]the new battle was defined in 1973 when Secretary of State Kissinger and others in the cabinet promoted just short of openly a plan for using US airborne forces to seize the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dabi." What was the plan?
Phillips: The plan that was discussed pretty covertly with the British was basically to take over those oil fields, just use American power, bluntly and openly. You can say in retrospect that maybe it would have worked but we went instead, under Carter, towards a politics of trying to conserve energy, reduce oil dependency, and that also worked and I think it was a better option. But there is a larger context which I think is important to mention. That's that really for 100 years now the military focus on the Middle East has been oil-related. The emerging oil fields of Saudi Arabia, of Iraq, of Iran -- they've been targets. They were targets in World War I; they were targets in World War II; they've been targets ever since. The notion that a war is fought in that part of the world and it is not related to oil is a joke!
Gross: So if you think that oil is really the motivating force behind the war in Iraq, what about the neoconservatives who made the argument that the war in Iraq would democratize Iraq, and democracy in Iraq would inspire other countries to become democratic, and it would change the whole face of that region? Oil was not their argument. Democracy was their argument. How do you think that compares in the Bush administration's motivation for war with the oil argument?
Phillips: Well, back when George W.'s father invaded the Persian Gulf to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, he and James Baker, then the Secretary of State, were upfront. They said it was about energy. And you couldn't have Saddam Hussein controlling all the oil resources of the Gulf. Nobody was saying we have to bring democracy to Baghdad. But because of the sort of odd quirks of the second Bush administration -- first the extent to which they had all the biblical interpretation people in the Republican coalition and then secondly the neoconservatives who at least pretended to be more concerned about democracy though frankly I don't think that's what they were concerned about -- I think they were concerned about the geopolitics of the Middle East and democracy was just icing on a geopolitical cake.
Gross: ...You write that the last two presidential elections mark the transformation of the GOP into the first religious party in US history. No one would argue that the Republican Party has strong support from the religious right, but in what way do you see the Republican Party as a religious party?
Phillips: Well, let me start a little bit further back, back after the 1988 election. A political scientist in Ohio by the name of John Green, who's subsequently become quite well know for putting together religion and politics, suggested that because of the role of religion in 1988, with Pat Robertson running for president and bring more of the Pentecostals and southern fundamentalists into the Republican Party, that you were really beginning to centralize religious people of all persuasions in the Republican Party. By the time we got to 2000 and 2004, this was much more clear than it had been back then. Partly because Bill Clinton, although a southern Baptist, became anathema to the church-going Baptists and many others in the South. And then in 2001, the role of religion came to the fore after 9/11 because George Bush was structuring a fight between good and evil. So the upshot was that by 2000 and 2004, we were looking at a very, very strong correlation between the religiosity of people, more than church attendance (but that was a fair part of it) or religious services attendance. And you wound up for the first time even -- I can't think of precedent in American where the religious Protestants, the religious Catholics, and the orthodox Jews were all on the same side and strongly conservative and strongly Republican. The only exception was among religious blacks. They weren't Republican, but they were more Republican than the other blacks and were motivated very much by some of the church-related issues including gay marriage.
Gross: Your book is called American Theocracy which implies that you see our government now as being a religious government, where religion, where the rules of religion apply to the country. Why use such a strong word?
Phillips: Well, I use a strong word because I think in a country like this -- as big as this and as diverse as the US -- we've gotten about as much Right now as you can have in the direction of theocracy and it's a major problem. Let me give you a quick summary of why I think there is a major theocratic element here. First off, we have this high correlation now between church attendance and voting Republican. We have Republicans in several cases openly caught trying to organize the churches and get lists of congregation members and communicants and what have you. We have a Republican rank and file -- I have pages of charts in the book showing the theocratic inclinations of the Republican electorate. For example: "Should religious leaders try to influence politicians' positions on the issues?" The country as a whole says "no" by 2 to 1. But white conservative evangelicals by 62% to 37%. Another yardstick which is very significant is that you've got a president who in the course of the years since 1999 and 2000 has often been quoted by people as saying he thinks God chose him to lead the country. Now, you can say he believes this, but he's even said when quoted in Middle East papers (though the White House denies it) that God told him to invade Afghanistan and told him to invade Iraq. You have a Republican rank and file, approximately 50 to 55% of whom believe in armageddon and that the anti-Christ is alive now. You have Republican state conventions, one recently -- the Texas State Convention in 2004 -- that passed one of these platforms calling the US a "Christian nation" and getting into all the things about how religion and government have to become closer and the sorts of government agencies that they would abandon. You've got just all these different yardsticks. This is a major transformation of an American political party.
Gross: Let's talk about the third leg of your argument here which is borrowed money. In your book, when talking about debt, you describe the "credit card mortgage auto loan corporate debt federal borrowing industrial complex" which you describe in short as a reckless, credit-feeding, financial complex! Now, there's been a lot of focus lately on the national debt. But you're talking here, in part, about personal debt. So how does personal debt figure into the larger picture that you're writing about in terms of America's predicament?
Phillips: Let me take this question of debt and a debt-related industry, and the growth of that industry, and put it in a quick context. In the 1960's and 1970's, by far and away the largest single portion of the American economy was manufacturing. It's share of GDP was in the mid-20's. Finance was pretty small. As both public and private debt grew in the US in the '70's and '80's and '90's, slowly but surely the industry of handling debt and managing money has raised its share of the gross domestic product and so it is now far ahead of manufacturing. Manufacturing gave a lot of lower middle and blue collar people in the US middle class status. They got to have fishing cabins in northern Michigan. They got to have good jobs. Now that's all moving offshore as we do the money thing now. The money thing is inherently so favorable to the upper brackets -- to the people who have capital and who basically just move money around and have it aggrandized, that it erodes the work ethic in the country and you get the money which rises to the fore. We have so much debt now and we're so willing to borrow money overseas that at some point the people from whom we borrowed, be they Asian central banks or people in the Middle East with oil money, that they're going to call it. And at that point the dollar weakens enormously and for a lot of Americans that just means instead of marginal middle class status, a status that's no longer marginal middle class. It's out of the middle class.
Gross: In your book, you warn that US global supremacy could drain away more in five to twenty years than most Americans would have thought possible. Exactly what are you worrying about?
Phillips: That's a triple warning. I'll try to give a very, very short version of the triple play! Essentially, the US by trying to reach too far as part of global hubris and a sense of destiny and democracy and everything like that is at great risk of what historians call overstretch. Of trying to bite off more than it can finance, and more than it can afford. Without an intelligent blue print for doing so. Lack of an intelligent blueprint is a wonderful description of Bush policy in the Middle East. Nothing they blueprinted has worked out, debt is mounting. As debt mounts, the dollar tends to weaken. As the dollar weakens, oil goes up. As we are preoccupied with finance and debt, we make less and less and have to buy more machinery and consumer goods overseas. That puts us further in debt. This is an enormous mess, and the extent to which we a government that has no sense of proportion or history is a huge problem. But I would underscore again that while the principal burden is on the Republicans, the Democrats are so inept in understanding these things that they don't know what to criticize. Either that, or they're basically funded by a lot of the same industries anyway!
Gross: As we've mentioned as a Republican strategist with the Nixon administration. How do you define yourself now? Republican? Democrat? None of the above?
Phillips: Well, I'm an Independent. I really do like the idea of "none of the above." I think if we could ever have "none of the above" on the ballot, it'd elect 2/3 of Congress! Some of my politics is somewhat conservative. I don't relate to the across-the-board liberalism. And I don't think of myself as being liberal when I critique the Republican Party. I would say you've got a mix of radical religion. You've got radical oil dependence -- which isn't sufficiently acknowledged or recognized. And you've got a radical extension of debt. So maybe I'm the conservative and maybe they're the wild-eyed people who are conspiring to keep their incompetence from being noticed! But, you know, it is being noticed!