Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Books: "The Longest Con" By Joe Conason


The Longest Con: How Grifters, Swindlers, and Frauds Hijacked American Conservatism

By Joe Conasonl; Foreword by George T. Conway III

St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 320 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, July 9th

Joe Conason is one of the most respected American journalists, author, and liberal political commentator. He has covered every presidential election since 1980, and his articles have appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The New York Observer, and the Guardian. He has authored two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts The Truth.

Conason's new book, perfectly timed for this presidential election season, just as it gets its most chaotic, is The Longest Con: How Grifters, Swindlers, and Frauds Hijacked American Conservatism, a deep dive into the cheaters, grifters, and phonies in the political system, and he delivers the extensive and somewhat comical discoveries he uncovered.

The focus is on the scamming and deceptions that have come from the right wing, and Conason traces its origins back to the 1950s, with Roy Cohn's rebaiting swindles, right up to the ascent of his most famous client, Donald Trump. 

Conason creates a through-line of what got us to this moment, with Trump and his Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement. It started with Richard Nixon's election in the late 1960s to the Moral Majority in Ronald Reagan's era in the '80s, the Christian Coalition into Bill Clinton's presidency, and the Tea Party when Barack Obama took office, which fed right into MAGA when Trump announced his run for President in 2015.

The epitome and master of this phenomenon of partisan con artists who play their trade by stoking political history for personal profit is, not surprisingly, Trump. His rise to power represents a celebration of trickery, which relied on the public image he created as a bold tycoon in 1980s New York, through his bankruptcies and failures in businesses such as casinos, right up to "The Apprentice" reality TV show.

In addition to Cohn, one of Trump's biggest advisers was Roger Stone, a lobbyist and consultant who promoted the idea of a Trump campaign going back to 1988, the first of many false starts on running for President that went up until he finally took the plunge for the 2016 campaign. Stone saw that the idea of Trump could sell, and he understood why the American political environment was perfect for a character like the bombastic Trump.

Conason looks at how "Trump" the media brand was conceived in the early 1970s when his father, Fred Trump, made it seem that Donald was responsible for the development of the Grand Hyatt, the massive hotel on East 42nd Street next to Grand Central Terminal. In reality, it was Fred, then known for a portfolio of outer-borough apartment complexes, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-subsidized financing from Democratic machine politicians that owed him favors. He was eager to have Donald take credit, and that started the meteor of hype, with Cohn knowing how to work the New York tabloids. Trump would even call the papers himself as "John Barron" to give supposed scoops to the city's gossip columnists. 

While Trump was laying the groundwork for his ultimate goal of running for President, the Republican brand was being fortified while Ronald Reagan was running for the White House. In the spring of 1979, Richard Viguerie, a direct-mail entrepreneur, and Paul Weyrich, who oversaw the creation of the Heritage Foundation and other "movement" organizations, met with Rev. Jerry Falwell, a local pastor in Virginia who was building a national profile, as they saw the potential new market for their New Right political messaging in the Evangelical church. Falwell launched a new ecumenical conservative movement, which was termed "the Moral Majority, with Vaguerie building up the fundraising operation, and Weyrich was in charge of developing a political and legislative program. What formed was a religious Right that subsumed the Republican party and the conservative movement. 

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Falwell saw it as a moment he could return to politics after stepping away after Reagan left office, and he initiated a "culture war," a term still used for the political battles today. In 1994, Falwell reactivated the Liberty Alliance, a political committee that had been an umbrella for Moral Majority operations. This was his way to join, as they were termed, the "Clinton Crazies," devoted volunteers who turned conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton into political weapons. Falwell distributed videos through his church and political networks, and the first one was Circle of Power, which opened with testimony from a Clinton adversary named Larry Nichols, who contented that many people around Bill Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas, had died of mysterious circumstances. The launch point was the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster, which was disputed, and went on to include a list of 34 names.

This conspiracy culture continued into the era of Barack Obama's presidency, in the early 2010s, but this time it was media celebrities whose entire careers depended on fighting the culture battles. One of the "disreputable figures," as Conason calls them, was Glenn Beck, who went from being an AM radio morning show host in the Pacific Northwest, through radio syndication and mass television when he had a show on Headline News, right up to Fox News. As Conason notes, and as most people who viewed his show remember, Beck was known for drawing diagrams on a whiteboard that delved into imagined plots involving Obama and financier George Soros, with the investment bank Goldman Sachs and the ISIS terror network thrown in, to overturn the sovereignty of the United States and create a New World Order, with promises of market collapses.

With those predictions came one of the more humorous gambits, that the only way to protect yourself was by buying gold. And, not just any gold, but from Goldline International, a firm based in California that was one of the largest precious metal dealers. Beck, along with other right-wing media stars, including Fox News colleagues Mark Levin, Mike Huckabee, and Laura Ingraham, sent thousands of customers Goldline's way, and they raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Fox News commentators, especially Tobin Smith, a business commentator, were also known for known for promoting dubious penny stocks, which were also highlighted in right-wing email newsletters or lists from Dick Morris, the late Herman Cain, who ran for President in 2012, and National Review magazine, while they were compensated monetarily form the companies they were pumping up. Smith also had the NBT Group website and newsletter, which reaped $50,000 from a small tech firm known as IceWeb, and then had the same arrangement with Boldface Group, and that was billed as an "editorial fee." 

In this excerpt, Conason writes of what was the linchpin for this engrossing book, and how he sees money affecting politics all over the map: "The most appropriate way to introduce The Longest Con is by paying homage where it is owed. The inspiration for this book's title - and much of what you will find in its pages - was a magazine article written more than a decade ago by Rick Perlstein, the historian of modern conservatism whose skill, integrity, and commitment have been widely celebrated across our nation's political divide. 

'The Long Con' appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Baffler, a bimonthly journal of culture and politics that melds a left-leaning perspective with a surely temperament and a deft style. Published on the eve of a national election that pitted President Barack Obama against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Rommey, Perlstein's essay amusingly dissected the Republican nominee's prevarications as an object lesson in right-wing chicanery. But then, as any serious historian is called to do, he delved far deeper.

Peering through the scrim of Romney's falsehoods and beyond his deceptive campaign, Perlstein described a highly developed, very profitable system that marketed lies in many forms to millions of gullible American conservatives - and had mined that vein for a long time. He recalled subscribing some years earlier to several right-wing periodicals online, a decision that soon filled his email inbox to overflowing with fervent pitches for miracle 'cures,' get-rich-quick 'investments,' and assorted additional examples of 'important information' from what an earlier generation would have called snake-oil salesmen. Their messages promised to cure heart disease, reverse arthritis, end diabetes, ensure a secure retirement, provide thousands of dollars a month for little or no effort, and more - all endorsed by the trusted celebrities and outlets whose pronouncements are conservative gospel...

Indeed, literature tells us that grifting was an abiding feature of human society for centuries before the advent of modern politics. The history of cons, scams, and rackets in America dates back to the dawn of the Republic and no doubt earlier; frauds of every flavor have proliferated over the past century or more, growing in scope, complexity, and damage. More than once, these cons have inflicted terrible consequences, whether in the financial crash of 2008 or in the anti-vaccine uproar that left so many unnecessary dead from the COVID pandemic. 

There may or may not be something inherent in right-wing ideology that encourages dishonesty. Conservative philosophy demands civic virtue and moral rigor - and yet Americans who call themselves conservative are undeniably more susceptible to the multiplying varieties of politically tinged fakery, from phony charities and direct-mail boondoggles to cancer and COVID 'cures,' watered penny stocks, overpriced gold, and useless dietary supplements.

While such con artists have come to play a dominant role among the Right - where rejection of government and science leave the gullible unprotected - it is only fair to acknowledge there are and always were crooks identified with the Left. The most notorious example in recent years was the national leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose sincere donors were dismayed to learn of the gross mismanagement of nearly $100 million since 2020, with vast sums squandered on luxury real estate, big payouts to the relatives of its officials, first-class travel, and other insider abuses.

A more complicated case is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the most prominent voice of the anti-vax movement, with all its attendant sleaze and profiteering from human misery. Kennedy has always represented himself as a man of the Left, trading on his family's illustrious liberalism, despite his now extensive and evidently warm connections with the extreme Right both in the United States and Europe. His rhetoric and name also drew in a cohort of disgruntled liberals and may well continue to attract them - along with many millions of dollars. Charlatans can work both sides of the aisle.

Still there are fundamental distinctions in outlook between Left and Right that make one side more vulnerable than the other. It doesn't seem accidental that the principal Democratic campaign fundraising website, ActBlue, is a nonprofit organization that only takes money for credit card fees and operating costs, while WinRed, the main Republican fundraising site, is run for private profit - and announced in 2023 that it will be raising prices during the next presidential cycle. There have been a few scammy political action committees on the Democratic side, but there have been dozens that fleeced Republicans. If your ideology dictates that profit is the highest aspiration, you will probably try to wring surplus value from everything and everyone - and your moral character may well deteriorate in that process."

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