Seb Gorka, Trump’s international man of bigotry, is selling miracle fish pills. Former Governor and Presidential Candidate, Mike Huckabee, enjoyed a side-gig hawking an herbal diabetes cure. NRA spokesmodel, Dana Loesch, sells some sort of beet thing. After his failed attempt to sell a book, Sean Spicer is now selling himself, making a run on Dancing with the Stars to break into the third tier of the celebrity industry. Poor Omarosa has yet to find a product that anyone will buy, but just give her some time.
Modern conservative politics is the Silicon Valley of grifting, with a culture of predation so powerful it has replaced most, if not all of the Republican Party’s interest in governing. As conservative insiders see the threat of a terminal electoral debacle dimming their horizon, they have little reason not to strip this edifice of its pipes and fittings ahead of the bulldozers. There’s always been an odor of scammyness around movement conservatism but here at its end, the sheer breadth of corrupt innovation spreading across the rotting hulk of the GOP is so spectacular as to inspire wonder. What could once be dismissed as the amusing hijinks of a few hucksters has grown into a dangerous culture of corruption that threatens democracy itself.
Attempting to document the full reach of the conservative Griftopia would be like trying to identify every bird, fish, mammal and microbial species feasting on the putrid bounty of a beached whale. These are merely the keystone scams, the foundational predatory habits that give the Republican ecosystem its unique character, ranked in order of impact and innovation.
9) Conservative Publishing (or, Books for People Who Don’t Read)
Ever wonder why books ghost-written at a 4th grade reading level by wingnut “authors” like Mark Levin, Newt Gingrich or Bill O’Reilly constantly sit at the top of sales lists though no one appears to be reading them? Publishing could be considered the founding scam of movement-conservatism, fueling the rise of its first major national figure, Barry Goldwater. Published in 1960, Goldwater’s New York Times bestselling book, Conscience of a Conservative, wasn’t his book and it didn’t sell many copies, telling us everything we need to know about the role of conscience in conservatism.
Goldwater’s book was written by L. Brent Bozell, Jr., a man so enchanted with Franco’s Fascism he later moved to Spain to bask its glory. Goldwater thumbed through the finished work for a few minutes before waving it off to print.
To manipulate sales figures for Conscience of a Conservative, millionaire right-wing donors were persuaded to buy the book in bulk at discounted prices. Copies were then filtered through the political organizations they were already funding, often sending them free to those already on key mailing lists. Once the book caught wind, the could also push copies as giveaways in exchange for donations.
A dull book, written for a niche audience, with no commercial appeal rose to #10 on the New York Times bestseller list in its first month on bookstands. By the 1960 Election, there were half a million copies in print. Reporters and mainstream commentators then felt they needed to know what was in it, addressing it in their work, thus amplifying the book’s reach. It was a scam so elegant it remains the core business model of conservative publishing today.
All the Times’ editors could see was an obscure political screed soaring up national sales lists, suggesting the emergence of a powerful movement. Goldwater himself got a quiet, substantial, and entirely legal personal donation for doing nothing. Donors bought for themselves an inflated façade of national political support, while gaining a chance to set the conservative agenda. Publishers and sellers all through the chain got a cut. And it would take years for those on the outside to understand the scam.
This model rambled along under the radar until Tea Party grifters took it too far. Like everything else in the Tea Party Era, the right-wing publishing scam got greedier and uglier after Sarah Palin became the face of the Republican Party. Palin’s entire political career was an audition for reality TV, a dream she briefly made real with her own channel.
In the leadup to his ’12 Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney manipulated sales of his unread and utterly unreadable book by forcing sponsors of his paid speeches to pay him in part with large bulk purchases of his book. Ted Cruz hired a publicity firm to pay people to buy his garbage book. When the Times started placing an asterisk by titles of books manipulated, or leaving them off the bestseller list altogether, conservatives cried bias. It’s the oldest, most reliable scam in conservative politics, but it isn’t the most lucrative. Over time, others have been developed with far more financial pull.
8) Predatory PACs
With his direct mail business starting in 1965, Richard Viguerie pioneered a scam that would morph in our time into a multi-billion-dollar vampire. While working on the Goldwater campaign, Viguerie was involved in fundraising via postcards and hit on an idea. He started using public data to assemble a massive mailing list of right wing donors. He then offering fundraising services to candidates and interest groups. One of his political favorites was segregationist crusader, George Wallace.
By the late 70’s, Viguerie was sitting on the world’s most lucrative network of marks, and the money was rolling in. What evolved out of that direct-mail innovation was a nascent monster, the zombie PAC. Pay the fee for Viguerie’s mailing list, craft an appeal set to frighten his stable of credulous bigots, and they’d send you millions which you could use for anything, or increasingly, nothing. Nothing, that is, but the salaries of your PAC’s “employees” and fees to “service providers.”
Viguerie himself would occasionally horn in on his clients’ action, mimicking his customers’ appeals to solicit donations to organizations he set up himself. This was cute for a while, but as others came to understand the scam it took on tremendous scale.
By the time the Tea Party rolled around, the conservative Griftosphere was ready to cash in, stealing Tea Party brands and appeals to divert money into phony PACs. Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party this and Tea Party that, old white bigots were bombarded with appeals from political groups that had no intention of wasting money on politics or advocacy. As cancerous as the Tea Party was to our political system, it’s horrifying to imagine the impact it might have had if most of its energy hadn’t been diverted into scams.
By the time Trump showed up to force his campaign to buy stuff from his companies, nobody cared anymore. Everyone still left in the conservative movement who wasn’t a mark was a grifter.
7) The Pro-Life Movement
Imagine a scam that lets you win elections and, much more importantly, raise money, by promising to do something that everyone knows you can never do. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement is the political equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Republicans can use it to raise money and turn out voters without any accountability for their endless failure to deliver.
This scam emerged in the late 70’s as segregationist figures were scrambling for a new headline issue. “Segregation forever” had lost its legitimacy, but Southern preachers were facing a crisis. Lucrative whites-only private schools that had emerged in response to desegregation were being threatened by the federal government. Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell teamed up to form the Moral Majority to protect segregated private schools. Instead of talking about school segregation, they trialed a series of cover-issues from porn to school-prayer to abortion, eventually settling on abortion for its perfect blend of bigot-appeal and immortality. Thanks to Roe, they’d never be able to do anything about abortion, which meant they could fundraise on abortion forever. Pro-life politics is the grift that keeps on grifting.
6) Professional Science Denial
Science denial is as old as science, but across centuries it seldom grew more sophisticated than the simple religious bigotry that dogged Galileo and Charles Darwin. It was the tobacco industry, starting in the late 1950’s, that pioneered a systematic, calculated line of attack on science, a kind of upside-down pseudo-science of denial. As cigarette companies continued to lose ground in the fight against regulation, they moved into right wing politics in the eighties and a new conservative scam was born.
Central to this scam was the Heartland Institute, a “libertarian” organization that almost immediately after its 1984 founding whored itself to tobacco companies. While the companies funded “scientific research” that was manipulated to cast doubt on real studies, Heartland helped convert their results into conservative propaganda. What they built together was a sophisticated doubt machine, making it far more expensive and difficult for public officials to legislate in the public interest.
Heartland found a steady stream of revenue, later expanding beyond their tobacco/cancer hustle into the even more lucrative world of climate denial. An entire industry of copycats emerged, funneling cash from polluters, school privatization entrepreneurs, opponents of health reform, and just about anyone fighting against a scientific consensus, toward “researchers” and propagandists who can deliver phony data. Today, Heartland alone cycles through millions each year, just a small corner of a booming industry.
5) Religious Entertainment
How would you like to run a multi-million dollar, tax-free business demanding very little intellect or time, which also converts you into an influential political figure? Religious entertainers on TV and radio have the best gig in Griftopia, performing one show a week before a credulous audience while also pimping out their congregations to politicians. For those shiftless heirs lucky enough to inherit a thriving religious media complex, it’s a dream-life of zombie-eyed followers, fawning public officials, and smokin’ hot pool boys.
There was a time when preachers had to be careful with their politics, but that time is forgotten. After white Southerners switched to the Republican Party and took control of its infrastructure, their religious entertainers found themselves free to add politics to their grift. Pat Robertson was the first to expand his lucrative ministry into politics, opening the floodgates. Now every religious huckster from Jim Bakker to Franklin Graham is scrambling to get aboard the Trump Train, with its rich horde of credulous marks. As the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves.
4) Dietary Supplements
What better to way to fleece people who believe prayer steers hurricanes, heals diseases, and stops gun violence, then by selling them faith-based medicine. So-called “dietary supplements” are perfectly legal as long as they fail to do anything. Like every other pillar of the modern Republican ecosystem, from Supply-Side Economics to the dangers of immigration, the pill scam hinges on faith. The only real failure in conservative politics is the failure to believe.
Dietary supplements are a relatively recent market on the right, emerging early in the 00’s from the fever swamps of conspiracy-vendors like Alex Jones, WorldNetDaily and Glenn Beck. There was a time when conservatives had a degree of dignity, keeping their scams in the shadows. Now Sarah Palin is trying her hand as an “Instagram influencer” by hawking some miracle tea. Failed Tea Party Senator Scott Brown is pitching Advocare’s pyramid scheme. Ben Carson endorsed a snake-oil cancer cure, claiming it was so powerful it helped him escape prostate cancer.
Pitching snake-oil remains a gig still for the lowest, most unashamed money-grubbers in the conservative movement. Thing is, that’s just about everyone who’s left over there. If you were counting on pride or dignity to keep Republicans from scamming the rubes, I’ve got a vitamin pill that will help you shed ten pounds overnight.
3) The NRA
Hard as it may be to believe, the NRA, like the Republican Party, was once an authentic public advocacy group with a sincere interest in policy. Wayne LaPierre became the NRA Chief Executive in 1991, aligning the group with the broader rise of conservative grifting and turning it into a personally lucrative business. LaPierre now earns more than $5 million a year from a career in “public service.”
The NRA gets its own category because it has learned to harness every tool of right wing Griftopia, from scammy products to conspiracy media to money laundering. LaPierre’s gun-nut empire is at the crossroads of the right wing hustle, raking in money while the body-count climbs.
Thanks to the case against Maria Butina, we know now that the Russians looked to the NRA as a vehicle for laundering their money and influence into US politics. How much of the record $30 million the NRA spent on the ‘16 Election came from Russian sources remains undisclosed, though in-fighting among greedy insiders wrangling over the spoils may spill the guts of this machine into daylight. One donor lawsuit, aimed at the organization’s lavish spending on its executives, poses a particular threat. Greed and overreach may be inching the NRA toward a well-deserved oblivion.
2) The GoFundMe Campaign to “Build the Wall”
Welcome to the future of the conservative Griftopia, where social media celebrity merges with paranoid strain to produce instant millionaires. Severely disabled Iraq War veteran and small-time conman, Brian Kolfage, hit on a brilliant idea. While Congress wrangled over funding for Trump’s stupid wall, he built a GoFundMe appeal to raise money for its completion. He had raised more than $10 million within days, ultimately raking in more than twice that figure before discreetly taking down the appeal.
There are no firm rules on how money raised through a GoFundMe campaign can be spent. Kolfage’s haul quickly drew attention from other right wing celebrities nosing around for a slice of someone else’s action. Cretins like Kris Kobach, Sheriff David Clarke and Kurt Schilling, were invited to serve on the “board” of a new Build the Wall charity. For cover, the group spent a little money setting up a Potemkin wall on a ranch near the border, punctuating their effort with a publicity visit from Don Jr. Completely unconnected to these shenanigans, on an entirely different subject, here is a picture Brian Kolfage posted on Instagram of his new million-dollar yacht:
This is the new face of conservative scams, infinitely distributed, available to anyone possessing a social media account and lacking a conscience, seized on and coopted by the existing grifter infrastructure.
1) Money Laundering
In a relatively recent and far more dangerous development, the right wing Griftosphere has moved heavily into money laundering. This takes conservatism global, opening a secret pipeline of plunder from all over the world. It also moves them closer to bald-faced treason as the needs of global donors come into conflict not just with voters, but with the US military and intelligence infrastructure. All the playful naughtiness of right wing scams turns dark when you start accepting blood money from dictators.
Small-time money laundering, as a way to obscure or wash otherwise illegal campaign donations, has a long history on both sides. Explore how Nancy Pelosi or Rick Perry became wealthy on a public salary and you’ll see a string of suspect insider deals, mostly in real estate. Nobody got killed and nobody got cheated, at least not exactly. These were just gray-market campaign contributions, a brand of soft-bribery endemic to our system.
In recent years something far more powerful has emerged with little public attention. Look closely at Foxconn’s series of exploitative land deals in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, struck in exchange for job-creation promises that never materialized. Or the shady campaign by Chinese companies to buy up chunks of West Virginia. Ask why a guy who ran a Russian money-laundering hub in Cyprus is now in charge of the Commerce Department. Worst of all, examine the details of Mitch McConnell’s deal to let a Russian mobster escape sanctions in return for an investment, and a pattern of political money laundering takes shape with uncertain size or ambitions.
Our President is a well-known professional money launderer, having weathered almost three decades of convictions and fines for the practice. It’s the only business in which the family has enjoyed success, and it appears to be the basis of the Russian government’s influence over the White House. Since the President keeps his finances secret, his base has no interest in his corrupt dealings, and Democrats with shady finances of their own feel uncomfortable pressing the matter, there’s no relief on the horizon.
There’s an old saying that you can’t cheat an honest man. Few really cared about the hustler culture emerging on the right, since for many years it leaned entirely on the willingness, even the enthusiasm, of conservative voters to be exploited. We might chuckle at petty scammers like Brian Kolfage hitting the big one when they were only bilking credulous bigots who are pretty much asking for it.
With the arrival of large-scale, global money laundering into this ecosystem, a delicate balance has been wrecked. Our right-wing grifter culture has widened into a national security threat, placing the future of democracy in question. We can’t afford to ignore the hustle anymore. Someone’s gonna have to pay with some jail time soon, or our soulless right wing grifters will sell our country right out from under our feet.