Officially, Michelle Van Etten will be speaking to the RNC in her capacity as a “small-business owner” who “employs over 100,000 people.” But as Tim Mak at the Daily Beast notes, that’s one and a half times the number of people employed by Apple in the United States. Which is to say, Michelle Van Etten does not employ more than 100,000 people. Nor does she appear to be a small-business owner, under the typical definition of that term. Rather, Van Etten is senior vice-chairman marketing director of Youngevity, a multilevel marketing system (a scheme in which salespeople earn a share of the sales of any salespeople they recruit, a setup not dissimilar to a pyramid scheme) that sells, among other things, vitamins with “anti-cancer properties.”
Experts who spoke with the Daily Beast described Youngevity as “a pyramid scheme,” with a website that “is littered with red flags for bogus health claims.” But according to Infowars host (and avid Trump supporter) Alex Jones, the medical benefits of Youngevity’s vitamins are as real as the attack on Sandy Hook was fake. The radio host, who suggested the Newtown massacre was a “false flag” operation, says the company’s “Tangy Tangerine” supplement makes him “want to stomp people.” Which is, apparently, what Alex Jones is looking for in a daily vitamin — the host has his own signature package of Youngevity products dubbed the Alex Pack.
There are plenty of reasons why it’s odd for Van Etten to have a prime-time speaking slot on the penultimate night of the GOP convention. For one, that’s territory typically occupied by either elected Republicans or the party’s elder statesmen, not random marketing directors. For another, this particular marketing director’s company bears a stunning resemblance to the Trump Network — a multilevel marketing scheme for selling pseudoscientific supplements, which Trump advertised as a “recession-proof” opportunity during the 2009 downturn. One would imagine the GOP nominee isn’t deliberately hoping to remind America of that controversial venture.
On another level, though, Van Etten’s speaking slot makes total sense. Grifters have been a central part of the conservative movement since its inception, and it’s about time they got their moment in the spotlight. Richard Viguerie built the conservative donor base through direct-mail scams, in which the pioneering profiteer got Social Security beneficiaries to give away their rent money for causes like “Friends of the FBI” and “Citizens for Decent Literature” — all while allocating roughly 80 percent of those donations to his own bank account.
And grifters helped finance the subsequent explosion of right-wing media, as peddlers of gold bricks, “food insurance,” predatory investment schemes, 23-cent heart-disease cures, and myriad other flavors of snake oil flocked to the conservative radio’s fleeceable devotees like moths to a flame. For scam artists, the right-wing audience was a gold mine — a paranoid demographic that views its preferred media personalities as arbiters of truth.
“Dear NewsMax Reader,” this appeal began, leaving no doubt that whatever trust that publication had built with its followers was being rented out wholesale. “Please find below a special message from our sponsor, James Davidson, Editor of Outside the Box. He has some important information to share with you.”
Here’s the information in question: “If you have shied away from profiting from the immense promise of stem cells to treat disease because of moral concern over extracting stem cells from fetal tissue, pay close attention. You can now invest with a clear conscience. An Israeli entrepreneur, Zami Aberman, has discovered ‘an oilfield in the placenta.’ His little company, Pluristem Life Systems (OTCBB: PLRS) has made a discovery which is potentially more valuable than Prudhoe Bay.” Davidson concluded by proposing the lucky investor purchase a position of 83,000 shares of PLRS for the low, low price of twelve cents each. If you act now, Davidson explained, your $10,000 outlay “could bring you a profit of more than a quarter of a million dollars.”
Perlstein referenced these soliciations in a 2012 essay linking Mitt Romney’s mendacious campaign to the conservative movement’s lifelong relationship with con artists.
The history of that movement echoes with the sonorous names of long-dead Austrian economists, of indefatigable door-knocking cadres, of soaring perorations on a nation finally poised to realize its rendezvous with destiny. Search high and low, however, and there’s no mention of oilfields in the placenta … And yet this stuff is as important to understanding the conservative ascendancy … The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.
For decades, the grifter wing of the Republican Party has been shunted to the shadows, never receiving public recognition for its contributions to the conservative project. But in 2016, the grifters have gotten the GOP to nominate one of their own. As the mogul’s primary rivals loudly argued, Donald Trump is a con man. Like so many peddlers of placenta oil fields before him, Trump was attracted to right-wing politics for its marketing opportunities. But that doesn’t mean he’s out of step with the conservative tradition. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Asked to evaluate the medical claims made on Youngevity’s website, repentant naturopathic “doctor” Britt Hermes told the Daily Beast, “These types of statements seem incredible, but remain broad and nondescript, so as to not implicate the company in false marketing.”
It’s no coincidence that this doubles as a description of Trump’s rhetorical style. The mogul’s nomination is a triumph for the right’s grifter class — and the cast of mind they helped create.