Opinion by Paul Waldman
If you thought Stephen K. Bannon was going to end up in handcuffs, you might have predicted that it wouldn’t be for a small-time con. After all, Bannon went from running a far-right online publication to the heights of U.S. conservatism, first as CEO of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign and then as “chief strategist” in the White House. He even had ambitions to take his political project global.
But it turns out that the scheme that Bannon has just been criminally charged with is indeed a species of penny-ante grift. Yet it’s the sort of grift the American right has been running on its own voters for decades, which makes this absolutely fitting:
Federal prosecutors in New York on Thursday unsealed criminal charges against Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, and three other men they alleged defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors using an online crowdfunding campaign that was advertised as raising money to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
In a news release, prosecutors said Bannon and another organizer of the campaign, Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, claimed they would not take any compensation as part of the campaign, called “We Build The Wall,” but that was a lie. Bannon, prosecutors alleged, received more than $1 million through a nonprofit he controlled, sending hundreds of thousands out to Kolfage while keeping a “substantial portion” for himself.
If you’re keeping score, the group of people around the president who have been charged with crimes now includes Trump’s campaign CEO, Trump’s campaign chairman, Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, Trump’s personal lawyer, Trump’s national security adviser and Trump’s longtime friend and political adviser.
Why in the world would all these people find their way into Trump’s inner circle? It’s a mystery.
But the story of Bannon’s arrest isn’t just a reflection on Trump — though it certainly is that. It’s also an extremely common story on the right and has been for decades, long before Trump came along.
Conservative operatives such as Bannon have always viewed the right’s rank-and-file with utter contempt, as little more than a collection of fools to be taken advantage of. Their perspective is that of the con man who looks at his marks and says: These people are so dumb, it would almost be a crime not to separate them from their money.
Bannon fancied himself a historic figure, who through his visionary genius and tactical ruthlessness would shape the world to come. Yet now he has been accused of running one of the oldest right-wing scams in the book.
Its roots go all the way back to the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, out of which grew a nationwide grass-roots network of conservative activists and supporters. Innovators such as direct-mail king Richard Viguerie realized that these people — or more specifically, lists of these people and their addresses — could be a powerful tool to collect money, a few dollars at a time. Viguerie later called one of his first lists of conservative donors “my treasure trove, as good as the gold bricks deposited at Fort Knox.”
You could raid that trove to aid conservative causes, but you could also use it to get rich. It wasn’t hard to figure out which buttons to push — the liberals are destroying the country, please send a check to save America! — and the donations would pour in. As the technology changed, the list miners adapted, moving the operation onto email and websites.
Make a donation to a Republican politician or a conservative cause and you’ll be put on a list, one that will be traded and bought and sold, so you’ll be deluged with urgent pleas for funds. And while there’s plenty of legitimate fundraising that happens this way, from the beginning, this system was awash in scammers, people who pleaded for donations but never actually used them to aid the causes they claimed.
When they aren’t hawking political products, they’re peddling miracle biblical cancer cures or erectile dysfunction cures or “glyconutrients” and all other manner of snake oil, certain of the gullibility of the conservative masses ready to type in their credit card numbers.
Whatever the cause of the moment is — defeat Barack Obama, support the tea party, help Trump, build the wall, stop antifa — it will become a vehicle for these scams. Every now and again a conservative will publicly object to the fact that their movement is overrun with con men, but it never changes. Today, the Trump reelection campaign is surrounded by groups vacuuming up money the donors mistakenly believe is going to the campaign itself, when it’s actually just buying a bunch of consultants new vacation homes.
Of course, you might say the same for the Trump reelection campaign itself, which has raised and spent over a billion dollars on … something or other.
Which is also fitting, since this history of conservative cons reached its apogee when the Republican Party made a con man its leader, the person behind Trump University and the Trump Network and the Trump Instituteand the Trump Foundation, every one a scam.
Perhaps Bannon is innocent, and this is all a big misunderstanding. But these kinds of cons will continue forever, the symbiosis of unethical right-wing operators and gullible right-wing multitudes. And come January, Trump himself may rejoin the game. If he loses, he’ll no doubt find some new scheme to try to convince his devotees to turn over their life savings to him. They might wise up and realize that they’ve been victimized again and again. But I doubt it.
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