In 2000, Donald Trump boldly told Fortune magazine, “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” Sixteen years later, he’s structured an entire presidential campaign around making good on that boast. While Trump is turning out to be a disaster for the Republican Party, the real estate magnate is pretty much guaranteed to come out richer. That was the plan all along. And conservative voters, conditioned by decades of right-wing politicians and media exploiting and enhancing their gullibility, make the perfect victims for his ruse.
Not so long ago, in the days before Marco Rubio endorsed Trump, the Florida senator called him a “con artist.” It’s hard to imagine how anyone could dispute Rubio’s evaluation. The operations of Trump University alone paint the convincing portrait of a swindler. Yet the deeper question is how such an obvious mountebank could win the majority of a major party’s delegates. Is there something in the nature of the Republican Party and its conservative base that made them particularly vulnerable to Trump’s deceptions?
Trump continues to baffle pundits and politicians alike, because most can’t yet bring themselves to believe that the presumptive presidential nominee of a major party is running a Potemkin campaign—an elaborate ruse that looks like one thing but is actually another. But there is no other way to make sense of Trump’s bizarre campaign—his amateur-hour fundraising, his spending nearly 20 percent of his meager campaign funds on businesses owned either by himself or his family, his refusal to run ads in swing states.
Republican strategist and Never Trump stalwart Rick Wilson hit upon the perfect coinage when he described Trump as running a “scampaign.” It’s not that Trump doesn’t want to be president. It’s that the real objective, win or lose, is relaunching his lucrative brand. In recent years, Trump was getting diminishing returns with his main reality-show career, with The Apprentice facing dwindling ratings despite Trump’s false claim that it was the number-one show on TV. So his move to politics was a way of revitalizing his celebrity and opening up a new revenue stream. And now with talk about creating Trump TV, which he plans to launch in the wake of the election (whatever the result) to monetize the ratings that are currently being enjoyed by CNN and FOX, Trump looks to have a financially rewarding future even after his likely defeat. The move toward Trump TV will be especially helpful since his other traditional brand—as a hawker of high-end goods—has been tarnished by his political escapades. In effect, Trump’s campaign amounts to a very public re-branding maneuver.
That makes Trumpism something genuinely new in American politics. To be sure, there have been corrupt administrations in the past—the presidencies of Warren Harding and Richard Nixon being the most notable. There have been ex-presidents who have enriched themselves by dubious means, as the George Bushes and Bill Clinton have by giving high-dollar speeches to plutocrats. But there has never been a presidential nominee whose primary raison d’être is to make money, and who has organized his or her campaign around that goal.
The nub here is the pinnacle Trump has reached as the presumptive presidential nominee. Below that august level, there have been many operators and less successful candidates who have paved the way for Trump by showing that the campaign trail can be a yellow brick road leading to an Emerald City of riches. William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner” and three-time Democratic nominee, ended his days promoting a disastrous real estate bubble in Florida. Following in that venerable tradition, Republican candidates like Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have converted their 2008 and 2012 campaigns into running scams. But Huckabee and company are relatively amateur and benign flim-flam men compared to their successor. If Cain can be compared to someone trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, Trump is the real deal, a Bernie Madoff-level political master of chicanery.
In a sense, conservative voters have been groomed for Trump since the 1960s. As the historian Rick Perlstein wrote in The Baffler and The Nation in 2012, the American conservative movement has become more and more amenable to get-rich-quick schemes, snake-oil salesmen, and confidence men. Direct-mail barons like Richard Viguerie began raking in the dough in the 1960s by stirring up ideological hysteria and convincing an audience of senior citizens that only their small-dollar donation could fend off union bosses, abortionists, and gays. Of course, most of the money ended up with the fundraisers.
From the direct-mail bunco artists, it was a natural progression to conservative media selling ads to the most outlandish dream peddlers and conspiracy-mongers. After Perlstein subscribed to email lists for publications like Townhall and Newsmax, he started getting some strange notices, including “the 123-Cent Heart Miracle,’ the one ‘Washington, the medical industry, and drug companies REFUSE to tell you about.’ (Why would they? They’d just be leaving money on the table: ‘I was scheduled for open heart surgery when I read about your product,’ read one of the testimonials. ‘I started taking it and now six months have passed and I haven’t had open-heart surgery.’).”
Conservative ideology, as Perlstein persuasively argues, is particularly vulnerable to grifters because of its faith in the goodness of business and its concomitant hostility toward regulation—which makes it easy for true believers to buy into the notion that some modern Edison has a miraculous new invention that the Washington elite is conniving to suppress. In Perlstein’s words, “The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.”
There’s another factor at work here: The anti-intellectualism that has been a mainstay of the conservative movement for decades also makes its members easy marks. After all, if you are taught to believe that the reigning scientific consensuses on evolution and climate change are lies, then you will lack the elementary logical skills that will set your alarm bells ringing when you hear a flim-flam artist like Trump. The Republican “war on science” is also a war on the intellectual habits needed to detect lies.
It was only natural that politicians themselves would want to get in on these scams. Writing in the New Republic in 2014, the journalist Ben Adler documented how an entire class of Republican politicians, including Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee, used mailing lists built up in their presidential campaigns to sell dubious products afterward. In Cain’s case, anyone who gave money to his campaign would get ads, after the campaign ended, promising a “breakthrough” remedy for erectile dysfunction, “one of more than 50 similar pitches for miracle cures and easy-money tricks that Cain has passed along to his e-mail followers.” Gingrich and Huckabee, ostensibly more “serious” and established politicians, did much the same:
Newt Gingrich now pings the e-mail subscribers to his Gingrich Productions with messages from an investment firm formed by a conspiracy theorist successfully sued for fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mike Huckabee uses his own production company’s list to blast out links to heart-disease fixes and can’t-miss annuities.
These scams, risible as they seem, bring in serious money. By Adler’s calculations, Cain and Huckabee made small fortunes from selling their email lists to advertisers: “At $36 per thousand list members for an ad filling an entire e-mail, and no fewer than 33 such ads sent last year, Cain made more than $420,000 from e-mail ads in 2013—minus Newsmax’s cut and the costs of maintaining his list. For Huckabee, whose list is nearly twice as long as Cain’s and commands a rate of $43.25 per thousand, the rough haul is north of $900,000.”
Cain, Gingrich, and Huckabee all proved that running for president could in fact be what Trump thought it was: a money-making enterprise that gave you access to a nearly unlimited supply of rubes to buy your products. By actually winning the nomination, Trump has simply taken the con game Cain and the others pioneered to the next level.
The affinity of conservatives for hucksterism not only explains Trump’s rise—but also why the Never Trump movement has never gained enough traction to stop him. By the time Trump launched his campaign, the conservative movement had already destroyed the intellectual immune system that is necessary to resist grifters. A telling example can be found in the famous “Never Trump” issue of National Review from February. Amid all the editorials and articles warning of the dangers of Trump was a full-page ad for something called “The Patriot Power Generator 1500.” The ad begins: FORMER CIA OFFICIAL WARNS; “ISIS TERRORISTS WANT TO CRIPPLE AMERICA’S ELECTRIC GRID!” Further down is a series of alarming sub-headlines designed to sell the generator: “IT May Have Already Begun,” “You Know We’re Targeted,” “Weather Is the Other Enemy.”
Here is the paradox of Never Trump in a nutshell: Could the people who have been conditioned to think they need to buy the Patriot Power Generator in order to fight off an ISIS attack on America’s power grid really be expected to see through Donald Trump? Conservative publications like National Review have spent a generation cultivating an audience of gulls. Now they’re shocked that a far more talented hustler has stolen them away.