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How the Tea Party became as corrupt as the Beltway it loathes
The Tea Party movement started in opposition to Washington's self-dealing. But the sad irony is that they have become mirror images.
 
Meet the new boss...
Meet the new boss... (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

This week, ProPublica released a report on the financial (and moral) corruption of a Tea Party group operating under the name Move America Forward, which was founded by one Sal Russo. Russo also helped start the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, aka the Tea Party Express. Move America Forward has run fake drives to give care packages to troops, stolen images of other charitable campaigns and passed them off as its own, and trumpeted a nonexistent partnership with Walter Reed Hospital — all while funneling very real millions to itself. The group is an industry leader at taking your Tea Party sentiments (if you have them) and turning them into profits.

Unfortunately, the continuing success of Sal Russo and the Tea Party Express is emblematic of a larger failure of the American right — and perhaps the larger project of American self-governance.

Earlier this year, The Daily Caller's Alexis Levinson reported that other Tea Party groups that had raised millions spent up to 80 percent of their money on operating expenditures, salaries, consultants, and mailing list companies, which were often owned by the people who ran the groups themselves. The Tea Party is essentially a landlord class; its fiefdom is the truly felt convictions of others.

There is nothing new about this. The Tea Party gained traction in an environment defined by massive resentment and fear directed at the Obama presidency, disgust at the bailouts of the Bush and Obama eras, and the wreckage of a Republican electoral defeat, all of which was especially conducive to the growth of parasite groups like the Tea Party Express.

In February of 2010, I reported a story from a "Tea Party Convention" in Nashville, hosted by the for-profit group Tea Party Nation. Leader Juddson Phillips left his job as a lawyer to draw a salary. Tickets for this grassroots uprising cost more than $500. The great motive behind it was transforming the organizers into richer men and political kingmakers in their state.

This gross profiteering is not unique to right-wingers. Political consultants do hilariously weird things. John Weaver, a consultant who advises prominent Republican candidates to enact his own distaste for conservatives, pulled an all-timer when he convinced his candidate's campaign to pay him, partly, through a corporation that shared the exact same name as that of another consultant's business. That helped to hide how well he was doing — until it didn't.

People who give themselves to full-time political activism deserve some recompense for their work and expertise. And of course, even the most populist of political movements will attract, and even require, professional leadership from without. After all, even punk rock bands require "the suits" to handle business and arrange for the to-be-destroyed hotel room. Even St. Paul demanded payment for his services.

But there was something especially galling about the level of self-dealing enrichment and deception at the head of the Tea Party movement, particularly because the movement started as a disgusted response to the self-dealing enrichment and deception in Washington.

Profiteering has been an acute problem almost right from the beginning for the Tea Party. It is like the reverse mortgage industry of politics: making money by giving an awful deal to an older, whiter customer base, then leaving town just as the fools realize it leaves them with nothing.

It's easy to write them off as just another bunch of opportunists. But the endemic corruption of this movement should trouble the American right, if not the American conscience. The conservative diagnosis of Washington's brokenness is that Americans have outsourced the task of self-government to a managerial class in Washington, a corruption that has transformed our nation's capital into "the Beltway," a shorthand for D.C.'s toxic culture of cronyism.

The populist right's instinctive response — the Tea Party — immediately became just another added layer of cronyism. A grassroots corruption. Really, a weed. If the American people have outsourced their self-government to Washington, the conservative movement made another dirty deal, allowing itself to be entertained in outrage carnivals run by for-profit activists. Excepting the exceptions, the populist right's response to dishonesty and graft was to generate another set of swindlers who wear flag-lapel pins, lie to their faces, and help themselves to the cash.

Yes, we built that. And H.L. Mencken laughs. Self-government is just another product, and no one can be bothered to read the fine print.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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