Why the Political Grift Won’t Stop

It didn’t take long after New York Attorney General Letitia James announced her $250 million fraud lawsuit against the Trump Organization for Twitter’s toy cannon brigade to strap into their Aerons, crack their knuckles, and start issuing proclamations that the walls around the 45th president were finally closing in.

“The noose is tightening on Trump,” American Enterprise Institute emeritus scholar and DC think tank lifer Norman Ornstein exulted: “Decades of grifting, corruption, rank criminality coming to an end.” Mueller-investigation attorney turned MSNBC contributor Andrew Weissmann seconded the thought: “that sucking sound you hear is [the Trump Organization] circling the drain.”

It is a perennial consternation to the Resistance Twitter set that Donald Trump’s decades-long career as a snake-oil salesman has never managed to derail his political ambitions. “If Donald Trump committed these offenses against the law for decades,” historians and Biden-whisperer Michael Beschloss said on MSNBC, “how is it that our political system allowed him to be elected president?” If only the rubes knew they were being had!

The imputation of false consciousness, and the almost touchingly naïve hope that today’s new outrage will be the one to finally break the spell, lacks a crucial piece of analytical self-awareness. Trump’s critics are absolutely right to see the ex-president’s grip. But they fail to recognize the universality in both the American political system and human nature itself when it comes to people willing to fork over money and affection to obvious blowhards and crooks as long as the recipients have the right enemies. The grift is happening across the street, yes—but it’s also coming from inside the house.

Take Letitia James. The ink wasn’t yet dry on her quarter-billion-dollar civil lawsuit when the ambitious prosecutor—who once tried running for New York governor for a hot minute—sent out a sleazy fundraising email bragging, “Guess who’s in the headlines again? “

“Once again, powerful and corrupt men have taken over the headlines, friend,” the appeal continued, likely referring James’s contentious role in chasing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo out of office by investigating allegations of sexual harassment. “But I’m not surprised. Ever since I took my oath as your attorney general and swore to do everything in my power to finally bring the most corrupt actors to justice, they have worked tirelessly to take me down.” (Self-impressed italics in the original.)

Like so much political excreta, Tish’s monetization of her ostensibly impartial justice-seeking was gross, legal, and probably inevitable. The attorney general is an elected position, James is a career politician in a deep-blue city and state, and nothing excites her base of support more than the prospects of at long last harpooning the orange whale.

Fervent consumer-side political passion—the more negative, the better—is the raw material of huckster fortunes: in politics, in media, in publishing, in advertising, in think-tanking, in lobbying, in consulting. And most vaporwarish of all, in headline-chasing overnight nonprofits, preferably attached either to quasi-celebrities or to a celebrated cause (or both).

Such was Steve Bannon’s probably illegal We Build the Wall campaign. Hatched by Iraq War vet Brian Kolfage as a GoFundMe project in December 2018 after Trump and Congress had come to a noisy impasse over paying for the president’s signature campaign promise, the stunt raised $9 million in three days; Bannon and anti-immigration clown Kris Kobach quickly joined it. By 2020, the group—which pledged to spend 100 percent of its donations on construction—had raised $25 million, paid themselves very handsomely, and built very little border fencing.

Kolfage and a second partner plead guilty to fraud and other charges in April 2022. (“I knowingly and willfully conspired to unlawfully receive money from the donations…I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime,” Kolfage told the presiding judge. ) A trial against a third partner ended in a hung jury this June. Bannon initially escaped federal prosecution through a pre-emptive last-minute pardon from Trump, but earlier this month the state of New York indicted him on counts of conspiracy, fraud, and money laundering. Said politician Letitia James at the corresponding press conference: “Regular, everyday Americans play by these rules, and yet too often powerful political interests, they ignore these rules….They think they are above the law, and the most egregious of them take advantage .”

To the bewilderment of the federal judge, grassroots donors kept on sending money to the border-wall project long after the initial August 2020 indictment. Bannon’s luster in MAGA World has remained largely unimmed, even after literally being arrested on a $35 million yacht. The New York Times‘ coverage of the state prosecution suggested that this lucrative fundraising sector and seeming lack of consequence for mismanagement was uniquely Trumpy:

Capitalizing on a president’s popularity to make or raise money is nothing new—nor partisan. Neither are accusations of moneymaking in politics. But with several endeavors launched by those in Mr. Trump’s orbit, prosecutors have argued that donations were not put to their purported use and instead enriched the organizers.

A federal grand jury is investigating the formation, fund-raising and spending of a political action committee created by Mr. Trump, which raised millions of dollars to support his efforts to contest the results of the 2020 election.

Earlier this year, the attorney general in Washington, DC, said Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee and business would pay $750,000 to resolve a lawsuit claiming the Trump Organization misused nonprofit funds intended for the 2017 inauguration. The lawsuit, originally filed in 2020, said inaugural organizers had used the money raised from donors, intended for inaugural events, to enrich the Trump family.

In at least one other case, donors themselves have cried foul—as in the operation set up by Mr. Trump’s 2020 election campaign, in which supporters unknowingly opted into making recurring online donations.

While it is probable, given his superlative qualities, that Trump et al have exceeded prior levels of brazen scuzzbucketry, the market for ideological pocket-stuffing exists everywhere there are people to express their political emotions by mashing the “donate” button.

In the racially supercharged year of 2020, perhaps no political slogan had such potency and ubiquity as “Black Lives Matter.” People outraged by the killing of George Floyd and the attendant racial and policing issues could signal their solidarity by marching in protests, placing signs in their windows and yards, or donating online to groups with that slogan in their name.

So it was that the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF) raised a staggering $90 million in 2020 alone. The organization’s leaders promptly spent the money on such items as a secretly purchased $6 million mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Now the leadership is in disarray over claims of gross mismanagement.

Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter Grassroots, a sub-organization of BLMGNF, sued the parent group’s Shalomyah Bowers for allegedly “siphoning” $10 million of donations to create his own “personal piggy bank,” and through fiduciary irresponsibility exposing the entire organization to Multiple investigations by state and federal tax officials.

“This is the case of a rogue administrator, a middleman, turned usurper, who was hired to collect donations and account for expenditures of the Black Lives Matter movement” and caused “a path of irreparable harm to BLM in less than eighteen months,” the lawsuit alleges.

No doubt there are some individual donors miffed that their generosity helped finance the lavish lifestyles of a few chosen insiders without otherwise delivering many results. But as with the wall project, BLMGNF was the biggest and most obvious receptacle for expressive giving at a specific and particularly emotional moment in time. The end product was not necessarily specific criminal justice reforms, or even the completion of a border wall project that was right there in the name, but rather in the act of giving itself.

Kat Rosenfield, in a perceptive and perhaps cynical Unherd essay this May, reflected on the “utter incuriosity” among wealthy progressive BLM donors about how their money was misspent, concluding: “But of course, there was no outrage. Those donations were indulgences: a tax-deductible expense after which you, the giver, were free to keep living your privileged life. Whether the money did anything to help was immaterial. The point was to give, and to be able to say you gave.”

Political hucksters with their hands caught in the cookie jar benefit not only from donor indifference, but from the willingness of political tribalists to believe that any alleged misconduct on their own side is just proof of further malfeasance from The Man.

“They will never shut me up. They’ll have to kill me first,” Steve Bannon vowed when being indicted this month. And the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation responded to this month’s lawsuit by insisting that it has been “consistent and truthful—even in the face of right wing media attacks that have created doubt and distrust among the Black communities we aim to protect and support, It added: “We will not be quiet or idle while lies are spread about our work and our integrity….[W]hite supremacy is the winner when movement leaders take the approach of publicly ‘calling out’ comrades instead of ‘calling-in.'”

All the conspiracy theorizing in the world won’t help you in a court of law, of course. That’s a lesson Donald Trump would have learned a long time ago, if he was the learnin’ type. But in a populist moment of deep and abiding negative political polarization, the court of public opinion is still credulous enough to at least pay for the man’s legal bills from here to eternity, and keep him in the good graces of the Republican electorate.

The same is largely true, albeit at different magnitudes, for Trump’s tormentors.

The Lincoln Project, that group of current and former GOP political consultants and dirty tricksters turned #NeverTrump troll artists, keeps raking in the lefty bucks no matter how many sexual harassment scandals, fake-white-supremacist stunts, and dodgy payouts to disgruntled founders the organization racks up. This month, in one of those episodes that will only perpetuate the long, stupid moment we’re in, the Project unveiled this ad:

“Every dollar you sent him paid to keep his shady business empire and lavish lifestyle going,” said the group, lavish self-dealing has been heavily reported. Judged Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler: “we could not find any evidence to support [that] statement.”

No matter: The Lincoln Project got the media attention it craves, Trump threatened to sue, and no doubt both sides will have ample money available to pay for any legal bills and the continued maintenance of their lifestyles. The battle for our democracy is just too important to stay on the sidelines, friends. We need your donations today.

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