Anyone who follows the conservative movement carefully could tell you that it’s about 25 percent politics and 75 percent mail-order scam. For more than half a century now, charlatans passing themselves off as conservative leaders have exploited ordinary conservatives’ anxiety about a changing America to collect addresses and now email lists in order to sell snake oil and raise funds that followers believe are going to political causes but frequently just line the pockets of the con artists. The conservative tendency to con their own people occasionally piques the interest of the liberal media. Media Matters, for instance, has run exposes on how conservative luminaries like Mike Huckabee and Scott Brown sold their mailing lists to con artists peddling fake “cures” for Alzheimer’s and cancer. Rachel Maddow has been reporting for years on how Newt Gingrich scams money off his followers through direct mail offers of “awards” and by trying to rope them into fraudulent investments.
But, until recently, even the more reputable conservative outlets have remained mum about their fellows’ habit of bilking their followers. Fox News even keeps bringing one of the worst offenders, Mike Huckabee, on air over and over, making it all the easier for him to earn the trust of viewers and then to sell them out to snake-oil salesmen.
But there are signs that some of the most rigidly conservative rightwing writers out there are getting sick of it and are ready to speak out. On Tuesday, Jonah Goldberg of the National Review highlighted a report from John Hawkins of Right Wing News that exposed how many of the Tea Party-style PACs are basically taking money gullible donors think is going to elect conservative politicians and using it for basically anything but that. Ten of the 17 PACs examined by Hawkins took in more than $50 million and only spent about $3.6 million of it on campaigns. SarahPAC, run by Sarah Palin, was a typical offender, spending only $205,000 of their $3 million, or about 7 percent of the funds.
“I doubt the average donor was under the impression that only a nickel out of every dollar he or she gave went to getting tea-party-friendly candidates elected,” Goldberg writes angrily.
Why is there this sudden interest on the right in shining a light on the way that conservative leaders see their followers less as fellow travelers and more as marks? Part of it is likely due to a major exposé of the same problem—scam PACs—run by Politico last month. “Since the tea party burst onto the political landscape in 2009, the conservative movement has been plagued by an explosion of PACs that critics say exist mostly to pad the pockets of the consultants who run them,” Vogel wrote. That means, as Hawkins noted in his coverage, that money that might otherwise help sway elections is instead just spinning down the drain.
But don’t start worrying that conservative leadership is growing a conscience about stealing Grandma’s Social Security check. Erick Erickson was quoted in the Politico story as saying that “[t]hese groups have the pulse of the crowd, and they recognize that they can make a profit off the angst of the conservative base voters who are looking for outsiders.” But Erickson himself is one of those people who profits off scams run, to use his own words, “by con men living well off other people’s money.” As Media Matters detailed last month, Erickson sells his email list to not just the scam PACs that Erickson criticizes, but to even sketchier charlatans. Erickson’s email list has hosted pitches that claim to have a “secret cancer cure,” that they need to stockpile food to avoid being thrown in “FEMA camps,” and trying to sell “a real and unusual retirement option that no bank will tell you about” with the alarmist claim that the government is shutting down ATMs.
When Politico asked Erickson about how he profits off scaring an elderly conservative audience with threats of the coming apocalypse, and he lamely replied that he doesn’t control his email list, “and it horrifies me that the list sometimes get rented to some of these guys.”
The problem is only going to become more visible in the next year or so, as Republicans gear up for another primary season. In 2012, some Republican presidential candidates such as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich ran campaigns that seemed to be less about actually trying to win the White House and more about getting more email subscribers to hit with the fake cancer cures and fraudulent investment schemes. Already Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson have been making noise about running for president in 2016, which is just more the same: A feint whose real purpose is getting the email addresses of people gullible enough to think that Mike Huckabee is a legitimate candidate so that you can sell them survivalist gear and ineffective erectile dysfunction pills.
It’s tempting to write off this problem, saying it’s hard to care if a bunch rightwingers are stupid enough to let Mike Huckabee con them out of their money. But just because the marks are often less than sympathetic doesn’t mean that conning them is any less deplorable. Hopefully, this willingness to talk about shady PACs suggests that conservative pundits will grow bolder about tackling the wider problem of flimflam in the ranks. The only way this problem is going to get better is if conservatives themselves start speaking out about it.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for Slate, the Rolling Stone, and Alternet. She has also written for USA Today, the American Prospect, and the Los Angeles Times, amongst other places. She’s originally from Texas but currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can follower her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.