Jacob Weisberg: Kevin Phillips is wrong about everything. Why is he taken so seriously?

Roundup: Talking About History

In 1969, an obscure Republican political strategist named Kevin Phillips published a nerdy, statistics-laden book titled The Emerging Republican Majority that offered a Machiavellian analysis of how the GOP could use the issue of race to win over working-class Democrats and ensure future political dominance. In the years since, almost every aspect of that description has been turned around. Phillips long ago left behind both obscurity and conservatism, becoming one of our most ubiquitous political commentators and one of the most left-wing. His biennial books have become illogical, dizzying screeds. And his diagnoses, predictions, and advice to Democrats have been consistently, embarrassingly wrong.

Phillips' faults are on full, gaseous display in his latest jeremiad, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. The book was No. 1 on Amazon before being released and has already been widely praised by liberals, who continue to welcome Phillips as a fresh convert to their side decades after his defection from the right. Alan Brinkley, a distinguished historian who should know better, last week praised American Theocracy in the lead essay of the New York Times Book Review as "frighteningly persuasive" and "a harrowing picture of national danger … that none should ignore." Time calls the book "indispensable."

Let me help dispense with it. Phillips' argument is that oil dependency, Christian fundamentalism, and excessive debt are destroying the country. He is not wrong that these are dangers. But he wildly misunderstands, distorts, and overstates all of them.

The Phillips method is to begin a chapter with a boldly stated thesis: America invaded Iraq to seize its oil. Having gotten your attention, he departs on a pompous, pedantic history tour: tar in the Bible, medieval mineralogy, Italian olive oil, the Basque whaling trade, the British carve-up of the Middle East, the rise of the automobile, and so on. Thirty pages later, having presented no evidence and answered no objections (So, why did the oil companies oppose the Iraq war?), he restates his claim more hyperbolically: "During the first George W. Bush administration, that reliance [on automobiles] dictated an attempt to turn the Persian Gulf into an American filling station so as to maintain high energy consumption." At least Michael Moore tries to make us laugh when he says stuff like this....

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