One Nation Under the Hustle: Right Wing Financial Scams, Ranked

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.

A sample scam email sent to readers of Red State, merging the snake oil and publishing scams into a powerful con.

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.

Climate denial billboard sponsored by the soulless ghouls at the Heartland Institute.

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.

17 Comments

  1. My top movement conservativism scam is libertarianism, because it’s elegant: scammers scamming their targets by telling the targets that they can be in the scam. The targets then preach to the non-believers that scams should be legal, because the targets both believe that they will then be able to pull off amazing scams and also will be smart enough to avoid being scammed. Because they are so confident in their ability to scam and not be scammed, they are scammed the hardest. The victims of the scam actively participate in dismantling the institutions set up to protect them from the scam they’re the target of.

    Nancy MacLean makes very clear in her book Democracy in Chains that the economic rationale of libertarianism was invented to protect the rich in hoarding assets rather than ‘observed’ and built out of theory from how economic actors actually act. It was facts invented to create an ideology, not an ideology that started in a premise in facts (note that I personally define ideology as the area of belief that leaves behind facts, so I am not saying that libertarianism as an ideology is less fact based than other ideologies. All ideologies are factless, it’s just that some derived from when facts failed at one point. Libertarianism has never been based on facts in the first place).

    One of the reasons why I focus on the libertarianism scam is because I find it so appealing. It would be super great if we could organize the world, or at least just a nation, around a very laid-back, “Fuck it, do whatever you want, just don’t hurt people. If you hurt yourself, tough luck.” I get that appeal. I can see how young white men who don’t have to deal with real shit and don’t like being told that their behavior bothers or sometimes hurts other people can find it appealing.

    But it’s literally the policy and codification — in fact, with the aim of constitutional constraints in favor of — victim blaming. Everyone who suffers are not only at fault for being scammed, or hurt, or enslaved, but are themselves responsible for the costs personal and social charged up by the bad actor who committed the real offense.

    1. It’s very much a scam ideology: It allows the people who subscribe to it to justify their selfishness. It’s privatization of all social benefits, with the biggest benefits going to those who start out with the most money; coupled with socialization of all risk, with the lowest level of risk, once again going to those who start out with the most money. It’s basically economic conservatism without costs- at least on an individual level. It’s libertine liberalism for me, and draconian conservatism for thee….every 17 year old boy’s political dream.

      Of course, reality doesn’t work that way. And the poor saps who latch onto libertarianism keep wondering why it only seems to work for the Charlie Kochs of the world, without it ever occurring that they’re playing a rigged game.

    1. I don’t want to come off as crudely, poutingly jaded. If that’s happening, it’s my fault and it’s not intended. I do think we’ve generally, as a society, across the world’s major democracies, allowed ourselves to settle into a certain complacency with regard to “white crime,” the scams and shenanigans of figures like Donald Trump, Berlusconi, Netanyahu, and so on. We’ve written off bribery, fraud, money laundering and a whole range of polite criminality as the cost of doing business. If calling out these crimes has any effect, I hope it’s to make us more aware of the danger of these soft crimes, because they are horribly dangerous.

      1. We’re outraged at the person who robs a bank. Justifiably so, as they endanger the people in the bank. But our lack of equivalent outrage over white collar crime, which has many more victims, makes some degree of cynicism very hard to avoid.

    2. I was trying for humor, actually, while hemi semi demi wondering about the state of your head in these dark Republican times.

      Given the topic, though, humor should be rejected.

      The complacency you mention is perhaps the same complacency that liberals in Texas settled into, decades ago. Times passes, and then you’re tight in a gerrymandered corner while your employees hightail it to Mexico.

      Staying alert every hour of every day is very difficult, maybe impossible.

  2. > The Pro-Life Movement

    And that’s what makes it hard for someone like me who is pro-life. The conservative branch is not only tied to extremist nutjobs that bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors, its tied to extremist nutjobs that want to 19th Amendment. Wanting to care about the unborn is hard when its tied to such terrible people and political policies that everybody but the rubes know will never be implemented. Pro-life has become seen as sexist and backward thinking. Instead, I try to identify as a person who believes in a “consistent life ethic”. I’ve also taken to backing liberals because at this stage because the only way I feel things will get better is if we get cradle-to-grave care through a government-based ‘Medicare for All’ plan. At least a ‘Medicare for All’ plan would include medical care and a better safety net for women so they don’t get automatically funneled down the lowest common denominator path that leads directly to abortion.

    I do think that the conservative branch of the Pro-Life Movement, like the NRA, is running out of steam. Society is changing and religion is dying off. The culture that formed the foundation and pillars for these movements is crumbling slowly but surely. Even when society might agree with the ideas they groups claim to espouse, the groups themselves and the conservative movement in general has become repellent to more and more people.

    1. Going back many decades, even before Roe, there was an authentic pro-life movement, almost exclusively Catholic, that actively promoted a consistent agenda. I’m not really a fan of their goals or ideology, but I have deep respect for their seriousness and ethics. They always grounded their views in honest, value-driven reasoning.

      They were also always quite a small group. Almost a fringe. They founded the original organizations fighting abortion (and birth control), but were overwhelmed very quickly. They no longer represent the pro-life movement.

      1. DFC

        Whatever dignity and gravitas the pro-life movement could ever have claimed is gone. If the ones who call themselves pro-life now were actually to achieve what they say they want, they’d fail in their real purposes: 1) to raise money for the right; 2) to keep the passion boiling and transferable to other causes.

        Pro-life voters reliably support Republicans who need to be Sisyphus, just one vote, one dollar away from victory. Those dollars and those votes are the ones that end up as tax cuts, gerrymandering., while the actual issue of abortion pro- or con- goes unresolved and therefore useful in the next election. Keeping that hate level high is essential. It pays off.

    2. Unfortunately the real pro-life movement has long since been co-opted by segregationists. The bottom line is that pro-life is nothing more than pro-birth, and as long as America is predominately white, that means that the pro-life movement keeps white women pumping out white babies. It also keeps the social hierarchy (of white dominance) in place by keeping black women in poverty, and working class women from having careers and climbing the social ladder to power.

      At the end of the day, all the pro-life movement is really about is propping up the birth rate of white babies.

      1. I judge the pro-lifers by their willingness to go to what should be the common ground: preventing unwanted pregnancies. If you are trying to kill sex-Ed and make birth control harder to get, I call bullshit on your claim of being motivated to “save babies”.

  3. Nothing new under the sun. If you read history and that includes the Bible every grift has been done multiple times in history. Not all people are scammers or evil. That includes politicians. The whole concept of modern capitalistic economics depends on trust. That you give what you promise to receive what was promise to you.

    Government’s role is to make sure contracts are honored. When that breaks down people quite trading and they reduced what they produce and tend to hide what they have. Years earlier I went to Haiti. There some strong man could show up with his goons and just order you out of property and take it. No respect for private property and no guarantee of contracts being honored except at gunpoint.

    The Great Recession was at it’s essence a problem of trust. Banks among other institutions had bought up securized housing loans with our money and then when that scam ( caused by unwise deregulation) was exposed did not know the real worth of their investments. Banks have to have capital reserves (called liquidly) by law to do business. They froze up lending even to each other. The government bought up the debt , freeing up the banks up so they had liquidly again and lending resumed. Our economy runs on credit. The government can print up money to do stuff like that. And had time to go through the assets , selling them off. Ultimately made a profit.

    The point I am trying to say is if we do not fix this problem of rampant fraud and scam our capitalistic system will fall. Replace with something I believe like feudalism. Capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other invention we have come up with. It is worth saving. As well as our democracy. Like Ryan I am leaning towards Senator Warren. Her expertise is economics and she knows financial fraud well. Also she is a strong woman who will tackle head on those profiting off the current system of fraud and corruption. And smart enough I think to get the job done.

  4. >] 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.

    I don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but I think the odds against avoiding complete catastrophe are depressingly low at this point. The sheer scale of political capital and power required just on this alone are an order of magnitude greater than most anything we’ve seen in this country for a *very* long time. Probably the only thing that comes close is President Obama immediately after ’08.

    It’s not just about throwing people in jail. Our system’s nigh irrevocably broken, and if we can’t reform it to meet the needs, time and patience (and a more favorable administration) is all that’s needed for these snakes to sink their fangs in again.

    On that note, Elizabeth Warren’s almost certainly our only choice. But if she doesn’t have a favorable Congress to work with (read as a non-filibustering Senate), I’m afraid even her best efforts will amount to little more than patchwork.

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