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The Crack-Up

A conversation with John Ganz

There is much that’s captivating—yet sickeningly familiar—in When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s, John Ganz’s new history of this nation’s latter-day far-right insurgency. Most standard accounts of the politics of the 1990s home in on the savvy centrist policies and political messaging perfected under Bill Clinton’s presidency, but Ganz tracks a deeper realignment: the rise of a militant right-wing backlash politics across the American interior and up through its citadels of media and political power. The figures most closely identified with this shift are failed presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan, a TV pundit turned culture war Savonarola; and David Duke, a former Nazi and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who captured the GOP nomination for governor of Louisiana before his own protest run at the presidency in 1992. But beyond these studies in the electoral mainstreaming of the hard right, Ganz focuses on the broader social forces that converged behind the right’s new proto-fascist turn: the gruesome regional inequalities stoked by the savings-and-loan collapse and the farm crisis; the deep recession in the manufacturing economy; the boom in sensationalist TV and radio broadcasting; and the curious cultural vogue for mob chieftains and authoritarian police leaders.

When the Clock Broke will strike a chord with dedicated readers of The Baffler for a simpler reason: the book’s basic argument was first published in the magazine’s 2018 populism issue, “Tramps and Millionaires.” As America was still wrestling with the dumbfounding paradoxes and ideological switch backing of the ascendant MAGA movement, Ganz’s essay furnished crucial historical context. The core political shifts that the punditocracy was then treating as shocking and unprecedented were in fact incubated during the right-wing upsurge of the early nineties—from Duke’s mediagenic white supremacist campaigns to Buchanan’s culture war broadsides to the boardroom pseudo-populism of Ross Perot. Behind those marquee political brands were an even stranger congeries of intellectual theorists and strategists, such as libertarian Murray Rothbard, who evangelized for a “red-brown” alliance of left and right extremes that presaged similarly daft prophecies in the Trump era; and Sam Francis, an editorial writer for the Washington Times, who preached a politics of fierce cultural reaction for the downwardly mobile middle class left adrift in the age’s reconfigurations of global capital.

Like other great works of historical revision and reclamation, When the Clock Broke delivers an account of the past that topples confident certainties of phony consensus, while rendering the signal political battles of the present in an entirely new light. I recently spoke with Ganz and talked about his book and the allied derangements of the Trumpocene. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

—Chris Lehmann


Chris Lehmann: The obvious place to kick things off is the Baffler piece that formed the basis for your book. I had reached out to you for this issue we were doing on populism. You wrote back right away saying, “I’d love to do something on the nineties.” The Baffler came of age then, and I thought you probably wanted to do another take down of the limitations of Clintonism and how he opportunistically ran as a populist in 1992 before caving in immediately to bond holders. But you said, “No, I’m more interested in Murray Rothbard and Sam Francis.”

And I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m all over that shit.” Now, it’s a kind of interesting paradox for the book: for that New Republic piece you wrote for me later, you made the argument that right-wing intellectuals don’t care about ideas, but big political ideas were pivotal in creating the moment you describe in the book. I don’t think the Buchanan presidential run does as well as it did without the Rothbard speech jumpstarting the Buchanan movement that gives you your title.

John Ganz: Rothbard was the thread that I kept pulling when I found that 1992 essay on right-wing populism. He seemed to have such a clear vision of what he wanted the Republican Party to become. And then Sam Francis was even more intelligent. They were Buchanan’s friends and advisers, and their ideas—the Middle American revolution, “new nationalism,” returning the GOP to being the America First party—really shaped Buchanan’s campaign, which has since, I think, been accepted by most people as a kind of dry run for Trump.

The mob never really is a mass phenomenon. It just appears and tries to intimidate people by its strength and rowdiness.

I don’t want to overvalue the contribution of intellectuals, and while the book is about how this certain period of time was conceived, it begins not with what these two were saying, or even Buchanan, but the social conditions at the time, what with Reagan’s hollowing out of the middle class. And then, of course, Rothbard and Francis had a certain interpretation of these conditions, and a certain politics of racialized anger and attacks on elites meant to take advantage of them. I wanted to go back and forth between both the intellectual and sociohistorical histories.

CL: I was thinking about this the other night, when I watched the PBS documentary on William Buckley. It trots out what to me was always a hoary and misleading narrative of Buckley as the grown-up in the room tamping down the animal spirits of the fringe. Even if you accept that premise, the evidence is now quite clear that he lost. Pat Buchanan has emerged as both the political victor and what I guess I would call the leading para-intellectual of the age: someone who understands ideas as political instruments primarily, and who literally invents the culture war.

JG: Exactly. Buchanan’s contribution of the culture war has been a mixed blessing for Republicans, just as their adoption of right-wing populism has been. On the one hand, those developments do excite a base and mobilize voters. On the other hand, they elicit a big countermobilization, as we’ve seen, and there’s a limit to its popularity. This populist rhetoric was not likely to ever become hegemonic discourses because they’re too alienating.

Instead, they get the mob going. The mob never really is a mass phenomenon. It just appears and tries to intimidate people by its strength and rowdiness. That’s what Trump is basically: he’s a phenomenon of the mob. That mob, God forbid, does not command majorities, but it gives the impression of popularity, or the impression of strength, through its bluntness and its bluster. Still, there is an intrinsic limit to its appeal. I’ve received criticism from people saying, “Oh, you think that this stuff always wins in the end, that even when it’s out of power it’s only gaining strength.” That’s not true at all. This kind of politics can do a lot of harm, but I believe that this stuff is actually unpopular and has as many intrinsic weaknesses as strengths. I have no argument with the people who say Trump was a weak president, in part because of his reliance on the mob. And I don’t think if he says something racist, everyone’s going to turn racist overnight. But it’s not like I believe it’s good to have a mainstream politician using these tactics and methods and seeing some success with them.

CL: Right. One of the other strengths of When the Clock Broke is this tacit argument that runs through the book regarding the role that the media plays—a central role in amplifying these figures. Initially, the political press tried to laugh off figures like Duke and Buchanan and consign them to the fringe. And then the base you’re talking about, which isn’t a majority but still is potent, it feeds off of that sense of grievance and exclusion. They say, “You think we’re not serious. Well, fuck you! We’ll show how serious we are.”

JG: That’s exactly right. The practitioners of those politics are very canny. Their strategies account exactly for how the media works.

CL: And of course the other striking thing is that Buchanan and Ross Perot, the hugely influential independent candidate in 1992, come directly from the media. There’s no other power base for them. I guess Perot was also insanely rich.

JG: That’s true. But Perot could not have become who he was—an ultimately phony kind of outsider voice—without being a frequent guest on Larry King. You could say the same thing about Trump. Without the media entertainment complex around him, he’s not a political figure. He just doesn’t exist. And with David Duke too. The media’s prurient interest really created him, which is a critique that’s been made but I think is worth remembering. The media has to have figures like this to sell newspapers and generate clicks.

Rick Perlstein—who is kind of a mentor to me—has a different response to the media than me. He looks at pundits and says, “These guys have no idea what’s going on. They’re all clueless.” Of course, it’s possible that there’s a lot more underlying tension in the eras he’s writing about—see the depth of the [Barry] Goldwater movement, which was missed by the apparent liberal consensus of the mid-1960s. The press is making it sound like there’s a lot more consensus whereas the country is much more fragmented. But when I read print media from the 1990s for the book, I found myself thinking that these guys were aware that something was off. Cable news and the radio seemed to be the most irresponsible and damaging.

CL: Those were the big growth sectors. That’s where you had shock jocks and Rush Limbaugh. Larry King was taking off. The CNN model originated at the time. This 24/7 news coverage generates inanity wall to wall because you have to fill up time, but it also plays to people who want to push against the happy talk format. Fox News comes along in 1996, and I’m sure Rupert Murdoch was paying close attention to CNN and the whole King-Perot phenomenon. That was a fever dream for any mogul lusting after political power.

JG: I’m embarrassed to have missed this, but when I was talking to Ezra Klein, his researchers found this incredible clip of Trump on Larry King from 1991. He talks about how he was observing David Duke’s and Buchanan’s political trajectory. “It just shows that there’s a lot of hostility in this country,” Trump says about their success. “People are angry about what’s happened. People are angry about the jobs.” He’s kind of a bozo, and he certainly has trouble articulating himself, but he looked at this stuff. Trump was very observant about Ross Perot, and in 2000, he tried to run in Perot’s political party, the Reform Party. Trump knew that that was his angle, and that these guys were paving the way.

CL: The other tacit argument I got from the book, which narrates and analyzes the strengths of the right, is that the liberals were excessively passive. In Clinton’s case, he basically took a moderate Republican position on most issues and some incredibly cynical ones on others, like the Ricky Ray Rector execution and, of course, the Sistah Souljah moment. I wanted to ask you what a better liberal Democrat response would have been than the one that occurred?

JG: It’s hard to say. The country was in a very conservative moment, and Clinton understood those constraints and worked within them. I do think there was another side of Clinton that was more populist, and he was divided between two sets of advisers essentially, and broke toward the right-leaning ones. There’s a book by Nelson Lichtenstein called A Fabulous Failure that recently came out about this that makes this argument in a much more sophisticated way than I do.

But Clinton’s re-approach was just too synthetic, too based on positioning. He didn’t really offer a message of what he really stood for. He lacked a convincing message of what he wanted the country to look like that wasn’t just, “People will have jobs.” The other thing that I wanted to put a pin in with this book is that the election in 1992 was a closer thing than people remember. Clinton won fairly convincingly, but his campaign really sputtered. He was helped out by a very bad recession. Bush also wasn’t a terribly good campaigner—he got attacked by Buchanan, by Perot, everybody. Clinton got a lot of assists. I don’t buy this myth of Clinton as a political genius who triangulated his way to the top. He got lucky.

CL: To go vulgar Marxist for a moment, one way of describing what happened in 1992 and beyond is that Republicans figured out class politics in a way that Democrats failed to match. They were at the end of social democratic thinking, explicitly saying that the Great Society didn’t work and the New Deal is a spent force. You write a lot about events I remember living through while growing up in Iowa, like the farm crisis and the savings-and-loan fiasco, which led directly to the Democrats’ embrace of business. Clinton did not have an FDR-type response to those moments. It was essentially a managerial response: we’re going to have to ship some factory jobs overseas. Be tough. We’ll retrain you.

JG: Exactly. We’re going to retrain people. Under Clinton, some of the conditions were improved, but then there was a total collapse under [George W.] Bush. The features that I talk about taking root really only accelerate to catastrophic levels in the 2000s. Manufacturing just disappeared, especially in rural areas.

CL: Just look at my hometown in Iowa. In 1997, Money magazine named Davenport the worst city in the country to live in because unemployment was north of 20 percent. It used to be the farm implement manufacturing capital of the world. International Harvester, John Deere, Caterpillar, Alcoa all had major operations there, and they just all, within ten years of the onset of the late-1980s farm crisis, were either gone or ghosts of their former selves. The people I grew up around, they were not bone-deep racists. They weren’t saying my birthright is under siege from foreigners. But the fact of the matter is you took away the material base for any hope of improving your life, and you offered nothing in return. You offered indebtedness. Davenport went from being the farm implement manufacturing capital of the world to becoming the riverboat gambling capital of the upper Midwest. It was the first city on the Mississippi to do that.

JG: That’s deeply depressing.

CL: Yeah, it’s like, okay, you don’t have a pension anymore, but head down to the casino and maybe you’ll get lucky. And then, of course, you see all sorts of follow-on social ills: drug addiction soars, suicides soar, foreclosures. So you’ve got this predatory base for the economy now.

JG: And look who comes along and is wildly successful there: Trump, a former casino owner. He’s a part of the same system that takes advantage of people in these circumstances. He gets the backing of people who think he’s working in their interest, and he’s able to hoodwink people who are really suffering. And I don’t have any problem saying that Trump speaks to people who maybe they’re prejudiced to begin with, but are perhaps not ideologically convinced racists and could vote for people who aren’t racists, but he speaks the language that they find appealing.

CL: Yep, everyone forgets now that Iowa went for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

JG: During the farm crisis, you had the far right, and they were pretty successful, but what was really successful during the farm crisis was Jesse Jackson and Farm Aid, a very multiracial social democratic response with Willie Nelson that blew the Nazis out of the water and really stopped an incipient fascist movement in its tracks. When people have the choice of a politics that’s more appealing and less hateful, they do gravitate toward it. I wish I could have talked about that more, but the book was mostly about dark and depressing things.

CL: A good epilogue of an op-ed, if you wanted to write it, would be about the televised debate Ross Perot had with Al Gore about NAFTA’s impact after it was passed. The elite consensus at the time was that Gore won the debate hands down. But Perot won. There’s no question. It was another very dramatic illustration of the Democrats as managers. They’re saying, oh, we’re shipping your jobs away, but you’ll be all right. We’ll give you, what, Pell grants and middle-class tax credits? And Perot said there’s a giant sucking sound. All the jobs are leaving the country, and we need to do something.

JG: Right, though I do think that Ross Perot was not enough of a force to push back against the domination of those ideas in general. He was also an austerity dude.

CL: Right, he just continued harping on the deficit as the country’s mad woman in the attic.

JG: What Perot wanted to do—which I think Trump can’t really do because he has to work with Republicans—is to make a very cozy, almost corporatist relationship between business and government that would entail a system of protectionism and close coordination with trade policy. Industrial policy plus, let’s say, not unlike what looked so successful in Japan at the time.

There is no escaping the fact that the politics of that era and the politics of our own era were shaped by people who by any honest assessment have some relation to fascism.

There are cozy relationships between the government and business here, of course, but Perot wanted to drop the facade about needing laissez-faire competition. Instead, we just help out the national champions that help us to stay in industrial power. What that would do for workers is to me dubious, considering how hostile he was to labor. But he was definitely right insofar that the flight of jobs south and east proved to be very harmful for the country and is something we’re really struggling to get past.

CL: The other big master narrative that I think shapes the book is the sudden end of the Cold War. Everything is up for grabs in a way that hadn’t been the case for the past political generation. It’s a moment that catches everyone up short, especially those in national security. Conservatives no longer know what the hell to do, so it’s very revealing that once you strip that armature away, the fallback position of modern conservatism is racism.

JG: I think Garry Wills put it really well after watching Buchanan’s speech when he said that we’re refocusing from enemies abroad to domestic enemies. We don’t have the same aristocratic traditions that European conservatives get to be nostalgic about. What we do have is race, and we have the South. The South is our feudal past. The racial divides in the country are a very easy and visible thing to play upon. If you’re close to the bottom and someone says you’re never going to be totally on the bottom, that’s not a terrible deal to take.

CL: Especially, as we’ve been saying, in the absence of other compelling alternatives.

JG: Exactly. The narrative that you’re doing so badly because of racial forces against you gives an explanation that’s not very complicated—there was no counterargument. I mean, I’m not asking the Democratic Party to adopt Marxism, but name the enemies more clearly. The problem is that the Democratic coalition has become so bougie that there are diminishing political returns in playing populist politics for Democrats. That’s sad because they succeeded so much on it, and I think they’ve improved the country using a mix of approaches. The Democrats were always at their best when they got the wonkish lefty New Deal nerds and the angry populists on the same page. They hammered together against wealth and privilege in this country and rebuilt the country in a way that helped a lot more people. Now you got too many suburban yuppies as part of the coalition to really do that anymore.

It’s a shame, and I don’t know how to fix that. I know what I would like to see, but working on the book was humbling. All I can do is try to be a good historian and reconstruct what I thought the important issues of this era were for someone in our era. I hope that someone smarter than me will take this information and do something good with it.

CL: The other question I would have for you is who would you have voted for in 1992?

JG: Probably fucking Clinton. Let’s be real.

CL: I know.

JG: I probably would’ve voted for [Tom] Harkin in the primary if he got that far.

CL: Harkin didn’t last long at all. You would have had to live in Iowa.

JG: So then I probably would have voted for Jerry Brown in the primary and Clinton in the general.

I’m not going to vote for Ross Perot. The book focuses so heavily on the right, so I don’t exactly know what the left was thinking about all this. But I imagine there was probably friendliness among some people on the left toward Perot.

CL: This is just anecdotal, but I certainly know that people in my hometown were very much into Perot at the moment. I was back visiting during the Democratic Convention, and there wasn’t much Clinton enthusiasm. There were a lot of people who wanted someone to break shit.

I should mention the fascism debate before we sign off here. The Rural White Rage and the Did It Happen Here? books are shifting the conversation in this weird way. I think you and I both have a shared sense that they’re deeply inadequate responses, setting up the brand of managerial elite liberalism we’ve been discussing here as the tacit norm.

JG: Hopefully this book will contribute to that debate. I didn’t want to write a hair-on-fire, roots of American fascism, popular front propaganda book from the thirties, like Secret Nazi Armies or those other wonderful titles. But there is no escaping the fact that the politics of that era and the politics of our own era were shaped by people who by any honest assessment have some relation to fascism, when not self-consciously identifying as fascists.

CL: My frustration is there’s this knee jerk position that if you call something fascist, you have closed off any effective path of resistance to it because fascism is this all powerful authoritarian monolith.

JG: When the Clock Broke is a prehistory of the American fascist movement. Obviously, it covers people like David Duke and Pat Buchanan. But then the phenomena that are more structurally fascist than explicitly so. Like Ross Perot’s corporate populism, and John Gotti’s cult as a mobster folk hero, and the police cult around Daryl Gates. So I think that if these things all coalesce into a single movement or figure, you can begin to start to talk about fascism more meaningfully.

And I think that what happened with Trump is that you start to get the picture. The picture starts to come into focus. I talked about, the metaphors I try to do are crystallization. If you add up all the images, it’s like those composite photos of criminals they use to do. This whole complex that I’m describing in the book, of the media politics, economy—that crystallizes into the single person of Donald Trump. I’ll say it till I’m blue in the face: I think there is something quite fascist about Donald Trump’s politics. I don’t think he’s fully Hitler or even fully Mussolini, but it’s close enough.