Donald Trump And The Triumph Of The Conservative Grifters

At least some conservatives appear to finally be recognizing that their movement has been taken over by grifters and frauds. The only question is, what took them so long?

Jim Geraghty at National Review makes note in a recent column of the fact that much of what constitutes fundraising among conservative organizations seems to be little more than grifting and convincing people who probably can’t afford to do so to part with their money for some conservative cause. After reciting a long history of Tea Party-related PACs and other organizations that have been seemingly engaging in the practice dating back to at least 2013, Geraghty asks a question that he finds puzzling:

Why is the conservative movement not as effective as its supporters want it to be? Because day after day, year after year, little old ladies get called on the phone or emailed or sent letters in the mail telling them that the future of the country is at stake and that if they don’t make a donation to groups that might as well be named Make Telemarketers Wealthy Again right now, the country will go to hell in a handbasket. Those little old ladies get out their checkbooks and give what they can spare, convinced that they’re making a difference and helping make the world a better place. What they’re doing is ensuring that the guys running these PACs can enjoy a more luxurious lifestyle. Meanwhile, conservative candidates lose, kicking the dirt after primary day or the general election, convinced that if they had just had another $100,000 for get-out-the-vote operations, they might have come out on top.

What’s more, most of these PACs thrive on telling conservative grassroots things that aren’t true. Clarke didn’t want to run for Senate in Wisconsin, Laura Ingraham wasn’t interested in running for Senate in Virginia, and Allen West wasn’t running for Senate in Florida. The PACs propagate a narrative in which they’re the heroic crusaders for conservative values, secure borders and freedom, up against corrupt establishment elites . . . when they’re in fact run by those coastal political operatives and keeping most of the money for their own operations.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh, every PAC does this.” Nope. In that RightWingNews study, Club for Growth Action PAC had 88 percent actually went into independent expenditures and direct contributions. Republican Main Street Partnership had 78 percent, and American Crossroads was at 72 percent. That allegedly corrupt “establishment” is way more efficient at using donors’ money than all of these self-proclaimed grassroots conservative groups. Over on the liberal or Democratic side, ActBlue charges a 3.95 percent processing fee when passing along donations to campaigns.

When these individuals get called out for the way they’re spending donors’ money, they revert to a familiar responses of denial, evasion, and blaming the messenger. When asked about how little of the money his group raised was spent on political activity, Bossie’s first response was “this is fake news brought to you by a collaboration of the biased liberal media and unabashed left-wing activists.” Never mind the fact that the criticism was based upon his own group’s periodic reports of contributions and expenditures with the IRS (forms 8872) in addition to annual tax returns (forms 990).

Geraghty goes on to list several House races in the last election where incumbent Republicans or challengers lost by incredibly narrow margins and suggests, not without reason, that the money that went to line the coffers of these PACs and SuperPACs arguably would have been better spent trying to help candidates like those keep or win the seats they were contesting. That, of course, is by no means certain. The headwinds that the Republican Party faced in 2018 were such that it’s likely that the Democrats still would have gained control of the House no matter how much money was dumped into the campaigns of candidates that ended up losing. This seems to be especially true in states such as California, New Jersey, and Virginia where antipathy toward the President was so strong that voters took it out on long-serving incumbents who represented districts that ordinarily would be safely Republican.

Geraghty continues:

Of course, assessing that folks like David Bossie and Roger Stone are part of a major impediment to the effectiveness of the conservative cause means criticizing people who are considered close to Donald Trump. And for far too many inattentive grassroots conservatives, an association with Donald Trump is a moral get-out-of-jail-free card — even when these guys are acting contrary to the president’s interests and putting their own self-interest first. There are a lot of self-proclaimed watchdogs that will find it easier and more convenient to bark at whatever talking head said something about Trump on Morning Joe that day rather than point out that former allies of the president are using his name to raise money and line their own pockets, diverting funds away from efforts that would actually help the president enact his agenda. If you’re a Trump supporter, you should be livid with these guys.

Kevin Drum responds to Geraghty by noting that this seems to be exclusively a problem on the right:

Part of the problem, sadly, is that the right trends older than the left, and the elderly have always been prime targets for scammers for reasons having nothing to do with politics. But I think there’s something more fundamental at work: namely that the modern right is a scam at its core. I don’t mean this in the sense that the Republican Party doesn’t always deliver what it promises. No political party does that. What I mean is that since at least the late 70s, the cold, hard nugget at the heart of the conservative movement’s electoral strategy is an attempt to win working-class votes for a party that’s dedicated to the interests of corporations and the wealthy.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean that conservatives expend a lot of energy appealing to conservative social values. There’s nothing dishonest about that. Plenty of people are willing to vote their social consciences over their pocketbook interests, and every big political party has to find a way to win votes from people who agree with them only partly. It would be political malpractice not to appeal to different audiences with whatever arguments are most likely to win them over.

Jonathan Chait is harsher in his assessment and points out that, given the long history of grifting on the right, it’s no surprise that their movement has culminated in a President who, prior to taking office, grifted his way to billions of dollars at the expense of others:

Geraghty’s column lacks any operating theory as to why Republican politics in particular has attracted so many grifters. Such types have exploited two long-standing aspects of conservative thought: a tendency toward Manichaean thinking and a rejection of neutral expertise.

Every victory for the Democratic Party or incremental extension of the welfare state is a twilight struggle to safeguard the last flickering hopes for freedom from the ravages of socialism. If Medicare was enacted, warned Ronald Reagan, “you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” Barack Obama’s policies would bring about ” total societal collapse and global conflagration,” predicted National Review.

These predictions are not just scare tactics. They reflect the authentic ideology of the American right, which treats liberalism as either indistinguishable from, or an unstoppably slippery slope toward, Bolshevistic central planning. But these beliefs are also very effective as scare tactics. Conservative fears that Democrats will usher in total societal collapse are good ways to scare conservatives into buying gold (an especially lucrative Obama-era conservative grift) or guns.

The right hardly has a monopoly on fearful predictions, of course. But their impact is magnified by the conservative distrust of the intellectual elite. Conservatives have spent decades training their supporters to reject the authority of bureaucrats, professors, the media, or any institution not explicitly committed to the right-wing agenda. Thus kook notions like the Laffer curve and climate-science denial have become cherished precepts of Republican Party thought. A man who claims a February snowstorm refutes climate science can chair the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and a person who says things like “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler” can become a leading Trump administration climate adviser.

(…)

The most supreme unstated irony of Geraghty’s complaint is that Trump himself is a grifter. This is true not only in the general sense of Trump’s lying constantly and exploiting his supporters’ loyalty, but also in the specific sense that Trump ran fraudulent business enterprises. “Trump University” was, according to charges brought by a suit Trump settled with state attorneys general, a sophisticated scheme to bilk his marks. Financial “consultants” pretended to analyze their customers’ assets but were in fact prying open their financial information to calculate how much Trump could swindle them for in return for his worthless “business secrets.”

Trump, of course, has continued to personally profit while in office. His business leverages his office for private gain in numerous ways that have leaked to the public, some of which — like Trump’s hotel that allegedly wildly padded inauguration reimbursements — may well involve outright criminality. The almost unanimous Republican position is not only that Trump is entitled to profit from his public office but that the public does not even have a right to know how much income he is getting or from what sources it comes.

So it seems a little strange for Geraghty to complain that Republican grifters are letting down President Trump. Donald Trump grifted his way to the presidency and has kept on grifting. It seems positively unfair that his fellow grifters should have to stand down while he keeps wetting his beak.

As Drum and Chait both note, the grifting that Geraghty complains about is hardly something new. Indeed, my first question for Geraghty would be, what took you so long to acknowledge this?”

I noted the same thing that he points out this week nearly six years ago in connection with an examination of conservative-leaning PACs that seemed more interested in punishing Republicans who strayed from orthodoxy than they did in winning elections:

This “purity for profit” model seems to be prevalent throughout the Tea Party movement. Rather than acting to bring about real legislative change, or advocating positions that will lead to the kind of electoral victories that the Tea Party would actually need to accomplish anything, they specialize in stirring up outrage, whether its over the Affordable Care Act, the Debt Ceiling, or even something as trivial as light bulbs, and then fundraising off that outrage. During election cycles, they seem to specialize more attacking Republican candidates for perceived deviations from orthodoxy than anything else. Behavior like this suggests that these groups aren’t’ really interested in winning any of these ideological battles, but in keeping the outrage going because it helps with their fundraising. That becomes even more apparent when these groups end up backing candidates that obviously can’t win General Elections, such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, or Matt Bevin many of whom seem to be fundraising vehicles rather than actual serious candidates.  The question that remains is when the donors sending them money are going to figure the scam out and stop sending them checks.

The answer to that question I raised more than half a decade ago appears to be no. If anything, Geraghty’s column establishes that it continued long after that and that it continues to this day. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that this kind of fundraising, which has its roots in the direct mail fundraising model perfected by people like Richard Viguerie and which has been adopted by others for use in the Internet age. Perhaps the most important thing that Viguerie and those who followed in his footsteps have taught conservatives is the value of amassing a mailing list of people who have donated to conservative causes in the past. Based on those lists, which organizations sell and trade on a regular basis, a person who donates to one candidate or another or one PAC or another quickly finds themselves bombarded with mail, email, and, if they gave out a phone number, phone calls, and emails asking them for more money via means that become increasingly shrill over time.

I came to know this phenomenon quite well shortly after my late father died. He had apparently donated some small amount of money to a veterans group in the past and, as a result, his mailbox soon became filled with fundraising appeals from all kinds of organization. The mailman who delivered in his neighborhood told me one day after he passed that he was putting more mail in my Dad’s mailbox than almost anyone else in the neighborhood, and most of it was junk mail asking for money. Fortunately, my father was smart enough to throw this stuff away, but it made me think of all those “little old ladies” that Geraghty makes note of in his post who get bombarded with appeals from conservative PACs telling them that unless they donate money the “evil” Democrats will win and destroy the country. These are, in many cases, people who can barely afford to live where they are and the fact that so many groups are fine with fleecing them out of their money is utterly detestable.

The Internet age has made this type of grifting even easier. While direct mail fundraising is among the most costly methods of fundraising, doing so via email is virtually costless for candidates, PACs, and other organizations with a good email list to send out thousands, or even tens of thousands, of emails out at very low cost. As anyone who has provided an email address on a political site knows, it doesn’t take much time for that address to quickly be shared among like-minded organizations and candidates. Indeed, many former candidates for office have raised money selling their list of email addresses to others, usually without the knowledge of the people who donated to them.

As it is, my email inbox regularly gets bombarded with appeals for money, usually from groups or candidates that I have never donated to and would never consider donating to. Fortunately, marking this email as spam has gotten me to the point where most of it ends up in my spam folder. But I often wonder about the people who don’t mark it as spam and get bombarded on a regular basis with an email telling them that they need to donate to this candidate or that PAC. In my case, I quickly learned to provide a “dummy” email address in most of these cases, but that hasn’t stopped campaigns and PACs from finding me, although the fact that I have been blogging for 14 years and have had an email address available on the websites where I post for people to contact me probably pays a role in all of that.

Finally, as I’ve noted, it’s not surprising at all this type of grifting has become a bigger issue on the right than it appears to be on the left. As Drum notes, one reason is the fact that Republicans tend to trend older than Democrats and older people seem to be particularly susceptible to these kinds of panicked appeals. Another reason, though, is quite simply the fact that Viguerie taught people that this kind of fundraising, while it is of dubious benefit to candidates, can be quite profitable for the people who run these operations. Finally, of course, there’s the fact that conservatives have made it easy for these people to get away with it, and in fact rewarded them for it.

Rush Limbaugh and his ilk rode the wave to radio contracts and syndication deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Fox News rode it to huge profits and ratings. People like Sarah Palin rode it to the point where she was able to quit her job as Governor and make more money being a full-time conservative grifter. And, of course, the biggest grifter of them all, Donald Trump, rode it all the way to the White House. As I noted in a post in late May, modern conservatism has become a haven for grifters and frauds and it’s no surprise that it is conservatives who brought us Donald Trump:

Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of many of the forces that Republicans and conservatives have been tapping into for years now in order to invigorate the party and the movement. The populism, the nativism, the anti-immigrant xenophobia, the outright bias against Islam that makes someone think that a proposal to exclude them from entering the country is reasonable, and the anti-intellectual chest beating that epitomizes the Trump supporter can all be traced to different elements of the Tea Party and the GOP base that have been cultivated over the past twenty years or more by politicians eager to grab political power. For the most part, all of these elements of the base and the Tea Party were apparent years ago, but few people on the right said anything about it because they were able to exploit it to win elections. Those who did criticize it were decidedly in the minority at the time and largely ignored or even openly derided. The 2010 elections and the rise of the Tea Party as a force in Congress, though, demonstrated quite clearly what happens when these forces are given political power, and now we’re seeing what happens when someone with the rhetorical skills and media savvy of a Donald Trump taps into those forces, and it’s difficult to see how he’s going to be stopped. In the end, then, Republicans have nobody to blame for Donald Trump but themselves. They opened Pandora’s Box and now they’re paying the price.

As long as people keep being rewarded for suckering people out of their money, they’ll continue doing it and conservatives like Geraghty will continue wondering why it’s happening.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’m reminded of the revival scene in the first season of True Detective (mildly NSFW):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RfUj09pWfM

  2. steve says:

    A particular South Park episode seems appropriate.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Cr6ee0Pkfw

    Steve

  3. CSK says:

    People who truly believe that Donald Trump is our greatest president ever, a man of unimpeachable rectitude and intellect, can be conned out of everything and into anything.

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  4. EddieInCA says:

    With all due respect, Doug, I could ask the same question of you and @Dr. Joyner. You two kept hoping, and hoping, and hoping, that many of the things liberals were saying about the GOP were wrong. Turns out many of us were 100% correct long, long before you two came to the same conclusion.

    There is no “whataboutism” on this issue. The GOP has been playing a con since the early 90’s. That’s it’s taken so long for it to become an issue says more about the former enablers of the radical elements of the GOP (looking at you Dr. Joyner) than the actual GOP, which has been bereft of ideas for close to three decades.

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  5. EddieInCA says:

    @DougMataconis

    Let me save you the trouble of your response.

    “I haven’t supported the GOP in XXX years, but would never vote for a Democrat. I’m a Libertarian. You’re wrong to blame people like me, who only want GOP fiscal policies and Democratic social issues, but I’d never vote for a Democrat. So tough.”

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  6. Teve says:

    @EddieInCA:

    There is no “whataboutism” on this issue. The GOP has been playing a con since the early 90’s.

    Gingrich had a ton of scams going on. Wasn’t there something where like he would give you an award for being a Great American Businessman Patriot, but oh by the way you had to pay his group like a few thousand bucks, and they were sending out those exclusive invites so exclusively that a strip club got the offer??

  7. @EddieInCA:

    I haven’t been a Republican since at least 2004, probably longer. And I haven’t voted for a Republican for President since 1992.

    You may think you can read my mind, but your entire premise is flawed.

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  8. @EddieInCA:

    Ah I didn’t read down far enough to see your cynical and condescending non-response. Don’t bother responding to me any further so I don’t risk violating our own comment policies.

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  9. SenyorDave says:

    Just consider this: the leader of the Republican party is Donald Trump, a lifelong thief. Yes, he is also a con man, but first and foremost is a criminal – cheats on his taxes, steals from his own charity, stiffs contractors, violates any law to enrich himself. He doesn’t “stretch” the limits of ethical behavior, he has no ethics whatsoever, he is a complete sociopath who doesn’t believe any rules to him or his associates.
    This is just the behavior we know about. My guess is that Trump is capable of committing almost any offense, including murder, rape, violent crime. I would be shocked if someone like Trump who has no morals whatsoever has done far worse things than what we already know.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieInCA: Yeah, but even in fiscal policies the conservative movement has no moments to be proud of. How many of us need/want Social Security cuts? Reduced taxes for oligarchs? Cuts in the safety net? Less regulation on the people/industries that participate in our modern day Tragedy of the Common? Conservative fiscal policy is simply “send the bill for government elsewhere; I’m not paying it.”

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I can beat that; I haven’t voted for a Republican OR a Democrat for President since 1976.

    ETA: “…steals from his own charity…” Point of objection, it’s not actually stealing from your own charity if the purpose of the charity is to provide you with money from other people to meet expenses you don’t want to pay.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    @SenyorDave: I was recently reminded of the Sith in Star Wars, and asked myself if they ever explained what the Sith were. I looked at WIKI, where they said they got to it in some of the spinoffs, but in the movies, no, the Sith just showed up without explanation. WIKI says that in exchange for the power of the dark side “the trade-off is the severe cost of adapting a dark triad personality, that corrodes their basic capacity for empathy, kindness and love.”

    The dark triad in psychology refers to the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, which are called “dark” because of their malevolent qualities.

    Research on the dark triad is used in applied psychology, especially within the fields of law enforcement, clinical psychology, and business management. People scoring high on these traits are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress and create severe problems for an organization, especially if they are in leadership positions (for more information, see psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism in the workplace).

    All three dark triad traits are conceptually distinct although empirical evidence shows them to be overlapping. They are associated with a callous-manipulative interpersonal style.

    -Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.
    -Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.
    -Psychopathy is characterized by continuing antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness.

    Stumbled into this by accident, but it’s impossible to not reach the obvious conclusion. And 30 to 40% of our electorate either refuse to recognize this in Trump or are OK with it.

  13. Teve says:

    This could go either here or on the NAFTA thread.

    Donald J. Trump
    @realDonaldTrump
    MEXICO HAS AGREED TO IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BUYING LARGE QUANTITIES OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCT FROM OUR GREAT PATRIOT FARMERS!
    8:03 AM · Jun 8, 2019 · Twitter for iPhone

    andrew kaczynski
    @KFILE
    ·
    1h
    Bloomberg News: “Mexico never agreed to buy more U.S. farm products as part of a deal reached late Friday on border security and illegal immigration that averted the threat of U.S. tariffs, said three Mexican officials.”

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-08/mexico-never-agreed-to-farm-deal-with-u-s-contradicting-trump

  14. Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I love your benignly smiling Avatar above this comment. The beauty of this medium.

  15. Warren Peese says:

    Geraghty gets credit for exposing the grifting. The real issue is how few other conservatives are exposing it and going after the grifters, not to mention calling out Trump for the con man that he is.

  16. Teve says:

    @Warren Peese: I just went and read the column at national review to make sure I wasn’t missing anything so I’m confident when I say this–Geraghty couldn’t call out the real grift. Not the serious grift. Even that fairly brave column called out some random, mostly anonymous PACs, and David Clarke, and a televangelist who bought a jet? That’s it? When the whole operation, root and branch, is a scam, from Trump to Hannity to Arthur Laffer to Mitch McConnell to Kris Kobach to the NRA? Supply-side economics, global warming denial, build the wall, remember Benghazi Freedom Gas the abortion survivors protection act the entire conservative establishment from stem to stern is a scam.

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  17. Hal_10000 says:

    I have a slightly different take: the reason the grifters have taken over the GOP is because they are out of ideas. What they are peddling is a sort of warmed-over Reaganism. Fiscal conservatism without the conservatism or the fiscalness. Strong national defense without strength. Tax cuts! Defense spending!

    The problem is that Reaganism was a good solution to the problems we faced in the 80s, but not a good solution to the problems we face now. Global warming, for example, is screaming for a conservative alternative to the “solutions” the Dems are putting forward. But the GOP can’t think that far outside the box.

    into that vacuum has come a sea of grifters telling conservatives what they want to hear: all their problems are a result of liberalism and would go away if they just went back. Limbaugh is a prefect example. In the 90s, he made substantive arguments, even siding with Clinton on NAFTA. These days, it’s all about Libruls Baaad. And then enabled Trump, in the words of one of my Twitter followed, to scoop out the party’s brains and drive it around like a cheap car.

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  18. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Teve: He doesn’t object to the grift. He doesn’t object to the corruption. He doesn’t object to the scam. He’s objecting to the tawdriness of it all. What offends Geraghty’s sensibilities is that such lowlifes are ripping off people when only high quality people should. With decent intelligent scams.

    ETA: “…all their problems are a result of liberalism and would go away if they just went back.” Sorry, but that idea isn’t new to the millennium; this IS the conservative pitch. Always has been, always will be.

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  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Global warming, for example, is screaming for a conservative alternative to the “solutions” the Dems are putting forward. But the GOP can’t think that far outside the box.

    The problem isn’t a lack of ideas. The problem is that Republican funders make money off carbon and are determined nobody stops their gravy train til they dig every last molecule of carbon out of the ground and burn it, the planet be damned.

    Although to be fair, I guess the belief that every existing revenue stream is sacred does count as a conservative idea.

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  20. rachel says:

    @SenyorDave:

    My guess is that Trump is capable of committing almost any offense, including murder, rape, violent crime. I would be shocked if someone like Trump who has no morals whatsoever has done far worse things than what we already know.

    Trumps has no morals, agreed, but he’s lazy to the bone. Any offence that takes work on his part is a leeeeetle unlikely.

  21. Teve says:

    Global warming, for example, is screaming for a conservative alternative to the “solutions” the Dems are putting forward.

    Measles is screaming for an anti-vaxxer alternative to the “solutions” the CDC is putting forward.

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  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Teve: Heh. Got my morning giggle.

  23. Blue Galangal says:

    @Teve: Well played.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @Teve: Well, they could always go for the historical solution, a.k.a. let their children catch measles and have a certain percentage of them go blind, sterile, or die…

    Sometimes the only thing you can do about stupidity is let the consequences occur.

  25. Lit3Bolt says:

    There’s also the fact that the price for being wrong in conservative politics is zero, and the price for being right can result in expulsion from the tribe and/or grift.

    All conservative “policy” is holding power, making money, and punishing your enemies. Not much room for governance.