the national interest

Why Are Republican Small Donors So Easy to Swindle?

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans have long complained, usually in private, that their fundraising apparatus is overrun with fraudsters. National Review’s Jim Geraghty has a column, “The Right’s Grifter Problem,” saying what many of them have been whispering. Many of President Trump’s most publicly strident loyalists are in the business of raising money for political projects that spend virtually all their funds on operating expenses.

Geraghty lambastes these hucksters for betraying Trump’s interests by diverting money intended to help the president into their own pockets. Operators who “are acting contrary to the president’s interests and putting their own self-interest first” and “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.”

An unstated irony behind Geraghty’s complaint is that there is an agency tasked with overseeing the kind of misconduct he denounces: the IRS. When the first wave of tea-party scam PACs appeared, the IRS did look into them. Republicans insisted the agency was “targeting” the right for political reasons, probably at the behest of the Obama administration. While they spent years investigating the agency and making wild charges, a series of investigations by the agency’s inspector general, the Senate Finance Committee, and the Department of Justice refuted all their claims. The Obama administration had no involvement in the IRS’s enforcement priorities, and the agency was not even targeting the right at all — its criteria for regulating donors included keywords to search for activists on the left as well as the right.

It was in fact clear all along the tea-party fundraising apparatus was rife with grifters. Stephanie Mencimer reported a clearheaded analysis of this in 2013, at the height of the “targeting” hysteria. But Republicans did succeed in their goal of harassing the agency into leaving political donors almost totally unscrutinized. The ironic result is that it has left their own party vulnerable to the financial parasites they rallied to protect themselves from.

The fact Republicans have rejected the conclusions of all these investigations and clung to their targeting theory tells you a lot about the intellectual environment that has proved so welcoming for grifters. In theory, the regulatory void Republicans created ought to open up opportunities for con artists to bilk small donors on both sides of the political spectrum. In practice, the grifting is heavily weighted to the right.

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.

It’s no surprise that, as Arthur Allen reported, the anti-vaccination movement is creeping into mainstream Republican politics. The conservative movement has all but eliminated the healthy antibodies that would ward off such nuttery from taking over a healthy party.

Geraghty laments that one notorious conservative grifter brushed off charges of misconduct as “fake news brought to you by a collaboration of the biased liberal media and unabashed left-wing activists.” This response is the standard epistemology of the conservative movement.

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. Geraghty complains that many tea-party groups are a “pyramid scheme,” but the essence of a pyramid scheme is that they connect a partnership of con artists with the greatest share of profits flowing to the person at the top.

The fact that the conservative media can publish a column entitled “The Right’s Grifter Problem,” and that the column will depict Donald Trump as a victim rather than a perpetrator, tells you most of what you need to know about why the phenomenon exists in the first place.

Why Are Republican Small Donors So Easy to Swindle?