Mar 19, 2000 17:21 PST
The man behind the anti-free-trade revolt.
By RYAN LIZZA
Issue date: 01.10.00
Post date: 12.30.99
I'm on the phone with Mike Dolan, the Public Citizen activist who led the
charge against the World Trade Organization in Seattle a month ago. The
lefty Dolan is packing for a much-needed vacation to (where else?) Cuba as
he banters in his friendly, Jesse Ventura-esque voice about his yearlong
effort to bring the anti-free-trade movement to the Pacific Northwest. "I
was the first one out there," he says. "I pulled together a whole lot of
people." Suddenly we're interrupted. "I'm sorry; I have to put you on hold
for a second," he says. Three minutes later, he's back on the line, telling
me he can no longer talk with me. His boss, Lori Wallach, chief Washington
lobbyist for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, has just instructed him
to end our on-the-record conversation. "You and I," he says, "are about to
go on deep background, OK?"
What's the problem? Something that has been whispered about on the left for
some time now: the suspicion that Roger Milliken--billionaire textile
magnate from South Carolina, founding member of the conservative movement,
and patron of right-wing causes for almost 50 years--has been quietly
financing the anti-globalization efforts of Public Citizen and related
organizations. "This is the dirty little secret in the anti-free-trade
crowd," says one prominent left-of-center activist. If it's true, then a
man who once banned Xerox copiers from his offices because the company
sponsored a documentary about civil rights played a key role in filling the
streets of Seattle with protesters in December. "They were out there [in
Seattle] months in advance. They were paying for offices and computers.
Where did all that money come from?" asks one economist whose organization
is a member of Citizens Trade Campaign, the anti-globalization coalition of
environmental, labor, and other progressive groups dominated by Public
Citizen. Milliken, Public Citizen, and the Citizens Trade Campaign all give
the same answer when asked about a financial relationship: they will
neither confirm nor deny it. But what is clear is that Milliken's
decade-long fight against free trade is finally bearing fruit.
Never heard of Roger Milliken? You're not alone. His name is unfamiliar
even to most political junkies. But, to historians of conservatism,
Milliken is synonymous with the rise of the American right. From Barry
Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich, from the John Birch Society to
National Review to the Heritage Foundation, Milliken has been a key
financial backer at every juncture. He has a history of picking
winners--candidates, journals, and think tanks that have shaped American
All of which makes his ideological shift so striking. In recent years
Milliken has shed his financial ties to mainstream conservatism, choosing
to lavish his millions on nationalist causes instead. From the battle
against nafta to the street warfare in Seattle to the Pat Buchanan
presidential campaigns, the anti-globalization eruptions of the 1990s have
seemed disparate and ad hoc. But Milliken has been a major player behind
each one, and, unlike most of his new allies, he has the means and the
experience to build the infrastructure of an American political movement.
If the anti-free-trade turbulence of last fall leads in the coming years to
a genuine nationalist counter-establishment--complete with intellectuals,
magazines, lobbyists, and legislators--it will be largely the work of one
practically invisible man. A man who has built a counter-establishment once
It's often said that William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater are,
respectively, the intellectual and political co-fathers of modern
conservatism. Milliken financed both men before most Americans knew them as
conservative icons. In 1954, when Buckley was trying to scrape together
half a million dollars to start National Review, Milliken was one of a
dozen people invited to a dinner where Buckley pitched the idea for his new
conservative journal. A Yale University alum like Buckley, Milliken
committed the largest single contribution ($20,000), and he became one of
National Review's few corporate sponsors in the magazine's early years. To
this day his South Carolina textile firm, Milliken & Co., runs a full-page
ad in each issue.
Milliken helped launch Goldwater's career, as well. At the 1960 Republican
convention in Chicago, although Richard Nixon was sure to win, Milliken led
a band of conservatives who bluntly informed the reluctant Goldwater that,
with or without his permission, he was going to be nominated. In 1961,
Milliken and 21 other conservatives began a successful movement to draft
Goldwater in 1964. Milliken was the wealthiest man among them and became
one of Goldwater's most significant benefactors. Former South Carolina
Governor Jim Edwards says matter-of-factly, "Roger was responsible for
getting Goldwater the nomination in 1964."
Edwards also credits Milliken with rebuilding the Republican Party in the
South: "I've said many times that Roger Milliken will never get the credit
that's due him." Milliken was instrumental in convincing Strom Thurmond to
switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP, a switch that instantly made
it respectable for conservative Southerners to vote Republican. Milliken
was also a major financial backer of Nixon's 1968 Southern Strategy, the
plan, run by hardball political operative Harry Dent, under which Nixon won
the South with a racially tinged appeal. "If there had been no Roger
Milliken," says Dent, "it would have been very difficult to pull off what
we did." And Edwards has his old friend Milliken to thank for helping him
become, in 1974, the first Republican governor of South Carolina in 100
years. But, despite his indispensable philanthropy, Milliken has remained
in the shadows. "He's the guy that stays behind the scenes," says Dent.
"You couldn't see him out there directly in politics." Adds the Heritage
Foundation's Lee Edwards, "He's even more quiet and off-the-record and
afraid of interviews than Mr. [Richard Mellon] Scaife." (Sure enough, my
requests for an interview with Milliken for this story were rebuffed.)
Given Milliken's long, ultraconservative history, it's hardly a surprise
that many leftists cringe at the thought of forming alliances with him
today. Indeed, Ralph Nader, the unions, and the environmentalists have all
gone head-to-head with him in the past. Milliken is notoriously anti-labor,
establishing that credential in 1956 by shutting down his Darlington, South
Carolina, plant after his workers voted to unionize. He then fought his
former workers for 25 years before being forced to give them $5 million in
back pay, by which time 144 of them had died.
Milliken has fought Nader, too. In the early '70s, Nader launched an attack
on the textile industry, accusing manufacturers like Milliken of
"unparalleled obstruction" and "political pressure to suppress the results"
of studies showing that thousands of textile workers were developing a
fatal disease known as "brown lung." But, instead of issuing new
Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines on exposure to the
cotton dust that causes the disease, the Nixon administration used the
issue to raise campaign funds. The textile industry gave Nixon almost $1
million for his 1972 campaign, and, according to The Washington Post,
Milliken personally delivered $363,000 in hard cash and checks from textile
executives to Nixon's campaign finance director hours before a new law
requiring public disclosure of such contributions went into effect. The
Post referred to the incident as a "little-known part of Watergate." The
government would not issue a cotton-dust standard until the Ford
administration, when Nader's Public Citizen filed suit.
But, in the era of globalization, these partisan battles are ancient
history, relics of the cold war. If Milliken's political philosophy was
once driven by anti-communism, today he's animated by protectionism and
nationalism. Milliken's move away from free trade began in the 1980s. Or,
more accurately--since the textile industry has long been one of the most
protected industries in America--in the mid-'80s official Washington began
to move away from Milliken. In 1984, the Heritage Foundation--perhaps the
most significant conservative institution in the country, and one that
Milliken had showered with annual six-figure donations almost since its
founding--refused to support Congress's plan to further limit textile
imports. Milliken immediately pulled his funding. "He went from $200,000 a
year to zero," says John Von Kannon, Heritage's vice president.
Milliken was also rebuffed by Reagan, the man he had supported for
president since 1976. In 1987, Milliken met with Pat Buchanan, then
Reagan's communications director, in the White House and implored him to
persuade Reagan not to veto a textile quota bill. Buchanan snarled at
Milliken, telling him he was "in the office of the stoutest free trader in
the West Wing," save Reagan himself. Reagan vetoed the bill.
So, in the late '80s, Milliken turned to the next rising conservative star:
Newt Gingrich. Milliken was one of the small circle of wealthy donors who
funded Gingrich's influential GOPAC (he gave $255,000). He and his company
were rewarded with gushing praise in Gingrich's lecture series "Renewing
American Civilization" and his book To Renew America. Milliken had built
"the most successful textile company in the world," Gingrich told his
students in a lecture devoted partly to Milliken's corporate philosophy.
More importantly, Gingrich occasionally championed protectionist
legislation for Milliken, and in 1990 the two men were spotted huddling
together outside the House chambers plotting their strategy on an important
textile bill. But Gingrich's protectionism was half-hearted and
short-lived. He soon became an ardent backer of NAFTA and GATT, and
Milliken dropped his support.
In the early '90s, scorned by so many former allies, Milliken had a
revelation. He could no longer simply fund conservatives in the hope that
they'd support protectionism. He needed to build institutions (right, left,
or center) that saw protectionism as their primary identity. He teamed up
with former Reagan Commerce Department official Clyde Prestowitz in 1990 to
start the Economic Strategy Institute (ESI), a think tank funded by labor
and business groups and, in its early days, hundreds of thousands of
Milliken's dollars. Milliken even moved his Washington office out of
Heritage's building and into ESI's. Prestowitz and economist Alan Tonelson
began laying the groundwork for what they hoped would become the
economic-nationalist alternative to Heritage and the Cato Institute. "We
thought we had a major institution created in the early '90s," says
Tonelson, who is probably the most significant economist spreading the
But Prestowitz, after coauthoring economic-nationalist tracts with
Tonelson, split from the Milliken camp and eventually backed nafta and the
Uruguay Round of gatt. Once again, Milliken had been betrayed. He pulled
his funding from ESI. Tonelson moved on to the U.S. Business and Industrial
Council (USBIC), founded in the 1930s to fight the New Deal and the closest
thing to a serious economic-nationalist think tank that exists today.
Milliken, of course, is usbic's most significant donor. In 1992, Milliken
also helped start the Manufacturing Policy Project by giving $120,000 to
Pat Choate, the 1996 Reform Party vice presidential candidate who recently
orchestrated Buchanan's flight from the Republican Party.
Choate and Tonelson, who see themselves not as conservatives or liberals
but as economic nationalists, are key players in Milliken's burgeoning
empire. Another is Jock Nash, Milliken's full-time Washington lobbyist.
Nash was the best man at Choate's wedding and is a regular guest on
Choate's radio show. He is also a close friend of Bay Buchanan, Pat's
sister and chief strategist. Nash is a legendary fount of anti-free-trade
information. Activists on both the left and the right speak highly of his
daily e-mail dispatches summarizing the day's trade news. "I probably get
fifteen e-mail messages from him a day," says one union activist. "It's
incredibly valuable." And, just as Nash has linked the Buchananites and the
Perotistas, he also connects the Buchananites and the Naderites.
During the 1993 NAFTA battle, for instance, Nash organized the anti-NAFTA
strategy sessions known as the "No-name Group," which included a Nader
representative, congressional aides from the right and the left, and others
fighting the legislation. The Wall Street Journal described the meetings as
sometimes "xenophobic" gatherings where imported wine was banned and
anti-Mexican banter was not unusual.
During the last decade of trade fights, Nash has forged a close alliance
with Wallach, Public Citizen's top trade lobbyist. When Maude Barlow, a
leading progressive anti-free-trade activist from Canada, came to
Washington for a conference four years ago, she says she was picked up for
a meeting by a man sent by Wallach. As she talked with her driver, Barlow
was struck by his conservative rhetoric. "I thought, who is this man?" she
says. "Why is this man driving me somewhere?" Barlow says the man was Nash.
"He said something about Roger Milliken, and I said, `Who's Roger
Milliken?'" Says Chip Berlet, an analyst at Political Research Associates
who charts right-wing influence on lefty groups: "It's a little
strange--you come down to visit Nader and Milliken's lobbyist picks you up."
The Naderites explain their relationship with Milliken simply as smart
politics, a "tactical alliance" no different from Senators John McCain and
Russ Feingold working together on campaign finance reform. But some in the
labor community complain that the relationship is not simply about tactics;
it's about a shared worldview. "What is Lori Wallach's or Ralph Nader's
positive agenda for the global economy?" wonders one labor official. "At
times it seems to me to be not that different from Buchanan's view."
Nash himself speaks effusively of Nader. When I ask him what he thinks of
the sniping about Nader and Milliken working together, he says: "I met
Ralph Nader and I was so impressed. I had grown up being taught that Ralph
Nader was the devil. OK? And that he didn't like the capitalist
free-enterprise system. And he didn't like this and he didn't like that.
And then I met him and I saw him up close. And I said, `My God, this is a
man with courage. This is a man with enormous intellect. And he's honest.'
Courage, intellect, honesty? Excuse me, but that's the same thing Roger
Milliken is!... When Mr. Milliken met him ... through the whole meeting
these two men were like Velcro to one another. They sat together, talked
together, bounced ideas off one another. It was incredible."
As for Nader, he chuckles at Nash's description of the two men's encounter
and downplays any relationship with Milliken. "I wouldn't call it a
relationship," he says. During the fight over NAFTA, "I had about two or
three meetings with people both on the right and the left with Roger
Milliken being there," he adds. Nader is understandably coy about his
association with the South Carolina textile magnate, but he and Milliken
have fought together on every significant trade battle this decade. And
Milliken is one of the few rightwing corporate titans Nader doesn't
denounce. As far back as 1992, Nader and Nash got together to watch the
famous NAFTA debate between Ross Perot and Al Gore on "Larry King Live."
And they will certainly team up to fight the coming battle over permanent
normal trading relations with China.
As further evidence that Milliken has made inroads on the nationalist left,
some point to Dolan, Public Citizen's field director for trade issues. When
Buchanan announced his decision to run for president last March, Dolan
wrote in an e-mail on Public Citizen's private trade-strategy discussion
group, "[W]hatever else you say about Pat Buchanan, he will be the only
candidate in the 2000 presidential sweepstakes who will passionately and
unconditionally defend the legitimate expectations of working families in
the global economy." The subject line of the e-mail read, "Trade Patriot
Buchanan." Others report that, privately, Nader has spoken positively of a
Buchanan candidacy, arguing that Buchanan will raise important
global-economy issues rather than dwelling on social issues.
Indeed, Buchanan's Reform Party candidacy, with its $12.6 million in
federal matching funds, is the spark that could light all the institutional
tinder that Milliken has been constructing for more than a decade. Milliken
is Buchanan's most generous benefactor. In 1994, he gave the nonprofit
organizations that Buchanan and his sister Bay operate in between
presidential campaigns, American Cause and Coalition for the American
Cause, a staggering $2.2 million. Buchanan used the money to buy $1 million
in anti-GATT TV advertisements and to lay the groundwork for his 1996 run.
But, although he hosts fund-raisers for Buchanan, Milliken doesn't just
raise money. He's also an adviser; he reads drafts of Buchanan's books, and
he assured Buchanan of his continued support when Buchanan left the
Republican Party last year. In October, Milliken hosted the Washington book
party for A Republic, Not an Empire, Buchanan's revisionist take on World
War II. Employees of Milliken & Co. have donated more money to Buchanan's
campaign than those of any other company, and Buchanan has raised more cash
from Milliken's zip code than from any other in the United States. "We love
Pat Buchanan, always have," says Nash. "We'll do everything we can to help
Buchanan get the Reform Party nomination."
Buchanan's Reform Party candidacy is the latest sign that Milliken's long,
dogged crusade to build a nationalist movement in America is bearing fruit.
But the more success and scrutiny this movement receives, the more it will
face one overriding problem. The conservative counter-establishment of the
'70s succeeded because of more than just money and strategic smarts. In an
era of bloated and mismanaged government, it suggested serious policy
alternatives--alternatives that Reagan tried during the '80s with some
success. The Buchanan-Milliken counter-establishment, by contrast, has no
plausible alternative to globalization. To understand why, you need only
head to upstate South Carolina, home to Milliken's headquarters and a
shining example of why America can never be the sovereign economy that the
textile baron imagines.
As far back as the '60s, someone driving down Interstate 85 between
Spartanburg and Greenville would have seen Swiss and German flags on the
side of the road. Today, a visitor to the oddly European-flavored downtown
Greenville, which hums with the constant buzz of new construction, can
choose from any number of Austrian- or Italian-owned gourmet restaurants,
which are packed even during the week. Or he can get his car's windshield
fixed at Fuyao Glass, one of the only companies in America owned by the
People's Republic of China. At the local GreenvilleSpartanburg
International Airport (Milliken is its chairman), there is a constant
influx of European and Asian businesspeople. In fact, the mayor of
Greenville himself, Knox White, is an immigration lawyer. Per capita
foreign investment in the region is the highest in the nation.
How did all this happen? The answer is Roger Milliken. Several decades ago,
the dominant American textile loom-maker, the Draper Corporation, made a
bet that mill owners like Milliken would never buy the superior new
equipment being introduced by foreign competitors. "That was a terrible
mistake," Milliken told Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and David
Wessel. Milliken replaced the American equipment in his factories with the
far superior and cheaper foreign machinery. While Milliken and the foreign
loom-manufacturers prospered, Draper flailed and was eventually gobbled up
by an Indonesian conglomerate.
Although Milliken is the chairman of the Crafted With Pride in the USA
Council, the union and business coalition that has spent millions on ads
suggesting that imports are hurting the economy, for decades now he has
bought only foreign-made machinery to produce his American textiles. The
foreign manufacturers of this equipment, including Sulzer of Switzerland
and Menzel of Germany, began to establish a full-time presence in South
Carolina in order to service their equipment shipped from abroad. In fact,
as Davis and Wessel document in their book, Prosperity, Milliken & Co.'s
imports allowed foreign investors to get a foot in the door. Once they
realized that upstate South Carolina was a good place to do business, they
began pouring in. BMW attracted a great deal of attention in 1992 when it
moved to the area. But BMW was a latecomer; 45 German companies were
already in the county when it arrived.
Today, BMW, Michelin, Fuji, and a host of other foreign companies have
major factories in South Carolina. No longer is it feast or famine for this
region once tied to the vagaries of the textile industry; upstate South
Carolina is now a diversified economy that has soaked up lost textile
employment with new, high-tech, high-wage jobs. Between 1988 and 1994,
American-owned firms in the area lost 26,000 jobs, while the state's
foreign-owned firms added 20,600--with higher average salaries. Overall,
South Carolina added a total of 163,000 new jobs in those seven years.
"There's definitely a strong consensus," says Mayor White, "that we have
reinvented ourselves and have a big stake in the world economy." Locals
joke that the most ardent protectionist in America has inadvertently
created one of the crown jewels of the global economy right in his own
backyard. "More than any single person," Milliken brought in the foreign
investment, says White. As the Marxists Milliken once battled might say,
there is an internal contradiction in Milliken's "fortress America"
philosophy. He himself has constructed a powerful case for why, despite
Seattle and Buchanan and the rash of new institutions springing up in
Washington, a real nationalist revolt is probably not at hand. The man
behind the next American counter-establishment has feet of clay.
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs.
David Grann investigated the unholy alliance between Pat Buchanan and the
Fred Newman/Lenora Fulani faction of the Reform Party. John B. Judis argued
that the counter-establishment's opposition to China's entry into the WTO
is doomed to fail. Ryan Lizza last wrote for the magazine about Reagan
biographer Edmund Morris's unoriginal sins.
Currently (01.10.00 issue):
The Ironist: Sean Wilentz remembers C. Vann Woodward, 1908-1999.
Other People's Mothers: Peter Berkowitz on the utilitarian horrors of Peter
The Editors: Vermont, marriage, and civil rights in our time.
TRB: Orlando Patterson explains why race won't matter in 21st-century America
Campaign Journal: Dana Milbank asks, Can John McCain handle success?
Great Falls Dispatch: Montana reaches for the stars--literally. Florence
Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and Tim Robbins's
Cradle Will Rock are interesting failures.
Code Comfort: Cass R. Sunstein reviews new cyberlaw books from Lawrence
Lessig and Andrew Shapiro.
New York Diarist: Lee Siegel
(Copyright 1999, The New Republic)