Small-time scams are dissolving America from the inside
Steve Bannon and "We Build the Wall" are only one small wave in an ocean of profit-driven madness
Few were surprised when the "We Build the Wall" crowdfunding effort, where rank and file conservatives shelled out to build a tiny section of the big, beautiful border wall, turned out to be a gigantic scam, according to a recent federal indictment. It was only slightly more surprising that Steve Bannon, President Trump's former chief strategist, was a central part of the grift. He was arrested by federal marshals last week, and faces charges of money laundering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. Hilariously, it seems one of the alleged conspirators, Brian Kolfage, spent some of the ill-gotten proceeds on a boat called the "Warfighter."
But this scheme is one small wave in an ocean of fraud. Half of conservative politics now — particularly the infestation of conspiratorial insanity that is rapidly devouring the Republican Party — runs on this kind of small-bore grifting. Look behind the latest bug-eyed theories about Democrats being space lizard cannibals or coronavirus vaccines being a secret plot to brainwash citizens, and odds are you will find some kook hawking snake oil remedies to eagerly receptive rubes. It follows that a stringent crackdown on petty scams and quack medicine would go some distance towards cleansing American politics of madness.
Probably the most disturbing conspiracy theory on the right at the moment is QAnon, which has quickly taken over most of the conservative base and is making rapid inroads among Republican elected officials. Among a slew of utterly crack-brained beliefs, QAnon holds that the world is run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles, who somehow started the coronavirus pandemic. (Trump, of course, has played footsie with the movement.) Believers and Q-curious candidates have won multiple congressional primaries, while followers have committed many violent crimes.
QAnon is rooted in cryptic online posts by a purported government employee that are then interpreted by an ersatz cult priesthood of D-list online media celebrities. As Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins write at NBC News, these livestreamers and YouTubers pushed the Q narrative to a broader audience, with the semi-deliberate intention of getting attention and money for themselves through Patreon, merchandise sales, and direct donations (indeed, one of them may in fact be the author of Q). The strategy "proved to be the key to QAnon's spread and the originators' financial gain." Lately, QAnon loonies have barged into anti-sex trafficking and crunchy wellness online spaces, turning them towards Trump, soliciting donations, and hawking quack remedies and other merch. A huge set of #SavetheChildren rallies planned to take place soon nationwide are similarly a thinly-disguised veneer covering QAnon maniacs.
In this they are following a long tradition of other right-wing grifters. Alex Jones of InfoWars has long sold supplements with ridiculous lies about how they will make you stronger, healthier, and smarter (or cure COVID-19). BuzzFeed News sent some of them to a testing lab and found they were just vitamins and other ordinary supplements sold at a preposterous markup. As Alex Pareene and Rick Perlstein have written, this kind of thing has been a foundational part of conservative politics for decades.
By the same token, basically all of Trump's business empire — the fraudulent Trump University, the grift Trump Foundation, and various other Trump-branded trash — has been a similar type of scam after he squandered his father's inheritance (on which he dodged taxes in a likely illegal fashion) on real estate and casino failures. Of course as president he is constantly violating the Constitution by nickel-and-diming the government to use his own facilities.
It thus makes perfect sense that the very top of conservative politics, the Trump re-election campaign, has apparently been infested with fraud and self-dealing. Trump's previous campaign manager, Brad Parscale, recently departed the effort under suspicion that he had directed millions of dollars into his and his friends' pockets. As Josh Marshall writes at Talking Points Memo, "Criminality and fraud come like breathing to the president and seemingly everyone around him. Like recognizes like. Thieves and cons sense a fellow traveler." No wonder the campaign has crossed the billion dollar mark in its spending faster than any in history.
A great deal of this kind of behavior either is already illegal or should be. Soliciting donations for a baldly fraudulent purpose is a species of theft, but laws and regulations on scam foundations, nonprofits, and philanthropy — for instance, the common practice whereby an organization solicits donations for some charitable or political purpose, but spends most of its money on its own staff — could be tightened up without running afoul of the Constitution. Elsewhere, the state could place requirements on social media platforms so they do not amplify dangerous craziness, or simply ban them from using any kind of algorithm to control people's attention in the first place.
Similarly, regulations around health supplements are ridiculously lax. This is thanks to the deregulation craze of the 1990s, and especially Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who was deep in the pocket of the supplement industry. He pushed through the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which opened the floodgates of snake oil. It's a political and public health issue — tens of thousands of people have gotten severely ill and some have died from taking quack remedies that never should have been allowed to be sold. Keeping our food and medicine pure is one of the foundational tasks of any state.
And that in turn folds into a general problem: even when this kind of stuff is illegal (as it often is), the federal government has been incredibly reluctant to prosecute white-collar crime of any sort. Is it any surprise that the same government is now crawling with fraudsters and con artists?
Now, it is not only grifting that fuels the epidemic of conspiracy theorizing on the far right. In the case of QAnon, it is plainly being driven by the deep need to square the right's hero-worship of Trump with his dismally incompetent performance. It can't be that our big, beautiful president just horrendously botched the response to the pandemic, it must be the dread Deep State foiling him at every turn.
But cracking down on small-time swindles and frauds would help, potentially quite a lot. If we don't want a future President Brian Kolfage invading Liechtenstein to root out an imaginary conspiracy of Spaghetti-Os devil monsters, we should start attacking a foundation of right-wing conspiratorial extremism: fraud.