The NRA and the Long Con

The New York and D.C. attorneys general have uncovered self-dealing, lavish spending on executive luxuries, and outright fraud at the National Rifle Association. Why is the conservative movement such fertile ground for this kind of thing?

Alarm bells. In 1973 I was a junior in high school, and a friend who had recently discovered the John Birch Society gave me a copy of their 1971 best-seller None Dare Call It Conspiracy. Thus was I introduced to the conspiracy theory of history: Forget all this talk of deep social forces evolving in unpredictable ways; in reality a cabal of powerful people has (for decades, or maybe centuries) been steering the planet towards a one-world dictatorship.

I was open to stuff like that in those days. Being 16, I wasn’t exactly invested in any other theory of history, or in established worldviews of any sort. In addition to conspiracies, I also had an open mind about ancient astronauts, lost continents, and the Velikovsky theory of the solar system. I had recently broken away from the literal-truth-of-the-Bible religion I had learned in a Christian elementary school, so the idea that authority figures of all sorts had been telling me tall tales seemed pretty credible. Why shouldn’t the world be explained by a sweeping hidden truth that the Powers That Be didn’t want me to know?

So I was undecided about NDCiC until I got to the last chapter, the one explaining what You the Reader could do to save America and the World from these sinister forces: Buy a lot of copies of None Dare Call It Conspiracy and pass them out to people in your neighborhood.

To summarize: You do not necessarily have to be an articulate salesman to make this “end run” [around what we now call “the mainstream media”]. You do not necessarily have to know all the in’s and out’s of the total conspiracy – the book is intended to do this for you. All you have to do is find the wherewithal to purchase the books and one way or another see that you blanket your precinct with them.

If 30 million copies got bought and distributed before the 1972 election, the conspiracy would be exposed beyond the conspirators ability to cover it back up again. (Apparently they fell short, because the cover of the 2014 edition claimed only 5 million copies sold. And so the Great Conspiracy rolls on.)

In short, an author was telling me that in order to save the world, I needed to “find the wherewithal” to “one way or another” make him rich. That set off alarm bells in my head, and caused me to re-evaluate the book’s whole argument.

Looking back, I now think those alarm bells are why I eventually became a liberal. Conservatives might have their internal alarm bells tuned to a variety of other threats — and perhaps are often appalled that mine stay silent when theirs start clanging — but apparently not to scams.

Grifters and their marks. As many writers have observed, entering the conservative information bubble puts you in a high-grift zone. Amanda Marcotte put it like this:

Look at the ads in conservative publications or on right-wing sites: It’s a chaotic dogpile of snake oil pitches, predatory gold-bug scams, and “survivalist” supplies that are drastically overpriced or worthless. Most of the familiar characters in the Fox News pundit universe — as well as Donald Trump’s Cabinet — have their own email newsletters, and subscribing to one means a nonstop onslaught of email pitches for “miracle” cures and get-rich-quick scams. There are countless shady conservative political action committees that promise to help elect Republican candidates, but whose real purpose is to enrich the folks who run them. Onetime GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin ran one such PAC that drew lots of incoming donations and spent very little of it on real-world political campaigns. To a significant degree, the conservative movement exists as a way to compile lists of gullible marks used by scammers and con artists.

Liberal media personalities like Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes may occasionally also have a book to sell you, but Sean Hannity endorses the Homearly Real Estate Group, which claims to donate $500 to the Wounded Warrior Project every time it sells a home. In daisy-chain fashion, Wounded Warrior has at times been a scam itself; its top executives were fired in 2016 after CBS News discovered that the “charity” was spending tens of millions of dollars a year on lavish parties at five-star resorts.

This kind of thing has been going on a long time. In his 2012 article “The Long Con“, Rick Perlstein traced it back as far as the 1970s (my high school days), and gave 2012 examples like Ann Coulter’s endorsement of a skeezy investment newsletter. (For contrast, I admire Nobel-prize winning liberal economist Paul Krugman, but it never occurs to me to wonder where he gets investment advice.)

Liberal and conservative pundits, it seems, are doing something subtly different. Liberals are telling you what is happening; conservatives are telling you who to trust. Liberals divide the world into True and False; conservatives into Good People and Bad People. Good People can introduce you to other Good People, and those introductions are worth serious money.

Foundational myths. If you wonder why conservatives are such easy prey for con-men, the answer is pretty simple. The conservative movement’s whole ideology is based on a series of easily disprovable myths: tax cuts pay for themselves, the American healthcare system is the best in the world, racism ended with Jim Crow in the 1960s, more guns make us all safer, and so on. The movement’s movers and shakers expected Obama’s decreasing deficits to enrage their people to the point of violence, but Trump’s increasing deficits to pass without comment. Obama’s executive orders (like DACA) were outrageous steps towards dictatorship, but Trump’s far more sweeping decrees (like this week’s unilateral extension of unemployment benefits without the consent of Congress) are legitimate expressions of Article II power. And so on.

The people Rush Limbaugh refers to as “dittoheads” don’t just mouth these absurdities, they actually believe them. They are, in short, easy marks. If you can collect a lot of them in one room, or on one mailing list, you have created an ideal fishing pond for hucksters.

In “The Long Con” Perlstein began with the pervasive mendacity of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. (I believe Romney was the first major-party nominee to continue repeating a lie after the media had fact-checked him on it; that may seem like par for the course now, but as recently as 2012 it was flabbergasting.) Then he pulled back to examine the central role con-men and scams have played in the conservative movement.

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.

To adapt another bit of Perlstein imagery: Once the politicians have you worrying about an invisible river, the grifters will happily sell you an invisible bridge.

The NRA. Here’s what brings this topic to mind this week: Thursday, New York Attorney General Letitia James laid out in a lawsuit an explicit account of one of the conservative movement’s longest-running cons: the National Rifle Association. According to the NYAG’s press release:

four individual defendants [Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and three other top executives] failed to fulfill their fiduciary duty to the NRA and used millions upon millions from NRA reserves for personal use, including trips for them and their families to the Bahamas, private jets, expensive meals, and other private travel.

These actions contributed “to the loss of more than $64 million in just three years for the NRA”. The corruption is so pervasive that James is asking a New York court to dissolve the NRA, which it can do because the NRA has been incorporated there since 1871.

The same day, D. C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued the National Rifle Association Foundation, a charitable foundation incorporated in the District of Columbia. Donations to the NRA Foundation are tax-exempt, while donations to the NRA are not. Consequently, there are more restrictions on what the Foundation can do. (This arrangement may look suspicious, but in itself is not uncommon or necessarily corrupt. For example, the ACLU has an associated Foundation, which can pay legal fees for the ACLU’s clients, but can’t lobby for legislation. As long as the laws are followed, there shouldn’t be a problem.)

Just as James accuses executives like LaPierre of using the NRA as a “personal piggy-bank”, Racine charges that the officers of the NRA Foundation were allowing the NRA to abuse Foundation funds by making sweetheart loans to the NRA, letting the NRA overcharge it for management fees, and in general placing the interests of the NRA above the interests of the Foundation. In short, the Foundation was just a pass-through that allowed the NRA to use tax-exempt donations.

The D.C. lawsuit is not seeking to dissolve the NRA Foundation, but to force the NRA to repay the money it took from the Foundation, and to reorganize the Foundation to restore its integrity as a charitable institution.

Marcotte comments on how the con has worked:

The NRA’s grift has been almost comical in its bluntness. The group traffics in over-the-top rhetoric designed to play on some of the darkest and most irrational emotions of American conservatives, including racist fears over the nation’s changing demographics, overblown fears of crime and paranoid fantasies that liberals are trying to “take over” the country in illegitimate ways. So much of the hyperventilating conspiracy-theory discourse found on the right, especially the wild fever-dreams about progressive “violence,” starts with the NRA, which sought to convince conservatives that they needed to spend ungodly amounts of money on buying guns and on supporting the NRA itself, in order to protect themselves from the imaginary threat of gun-grabbing libtards and antifa terrorists.

Misdirected outrage. The two lawsuits led to howls of rage from conservatives pundits. You might think the howls would be directed at LaPierre and his crooked cronies, for ripping off the millions of NRA members and contributors, and for spending the conservative movement’s money on themselves. But no: The outrage is at the two attorneys general for catching them. Marcotte summarizes:

Far from thanking James for trying to shut down an organization that spreads shameless lies in order to separate conservatives from their money, Republican leaders and right-wing pundits are crying foul. Some of the defenses have been, uh, interesting.

“I prosecuted organizations or individuals who cheated their organizations, OK,” said Jeanine Pirro, the former New York prosecutor turned histrionic Fox News commentator on Friday morning. “It happens all the time. It’s no big deal, all right?”

The previous night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham warned that this was a sign of things to come and Democrats will soon “go after pro-life groups, conservative think tanks, conservative radio shows, cable networks, even churches.”

And well they might, if executives of “pro-life groups, conservative think tanks, conservative radio shows, cable networks, even churches” have been ripping off their organizations and spending the donors’ money on their own lavish perks. Ingraham seems to be taking for granted that they are. (I’m particularly amused by the “even churches” in that quote, because mega-church and televangelist ministries have been famous for spending money collected for “the Lord’s work” on the lavish lifestyles of their ministers. The worst offenders are preachers you have probably never heard of if you don’t watch Christian cable channels, but Jerry Falwell Jr., who finally lost his job this week for a fairly silly reason, had previously been accused in Politico of self-dealing with Liberty University’s money.)

And of course our Law & Order President is perfectly fine with thieves running the NRA. New York’s lawsuit is “a terrible thing”, Trump says, and he suggests that the organization dodge the law by moving the Texas. (He should know that wouldn’t work, because it wasn’t an option when New York dissolved the fraudulent Trump Foundation, or when he had to pay $25 million to settle the Trump University fraud.)

Marcotte sums up:

It’s not just that the NRA has been a major player in helping Republican politicians over the years, both in terms of funding and in keeping the right-wing base riled up over imaginary threats. It’s that grifting and con artistry are the backbone of the conservative movement.

If New York is actually successful in dissolving the NRA, it’s quite true that, as Ingraham suggested, similar efforts could follow against right-wing activist groups. But that won’t happen because of their ideology, but because so many of them rely on the same kinds of grifting and fraud the NRA has thrived on for years. The entire right-wing movement is awash in this kind of corruption.

Will they learn? It would be pleasant to imagine conservatives all over the country finally hearing the kinds of alarm bells I heard in 1973, and realizing that they need to be more careful about what ideas they accept and who they send their money to. But that’s almost certainly not going to happen.

When a series of televangelists had scandals in the 1980s, the effect on televangelism as a whole was small and short-lived. Believers disillusioned by one preacher mostly just changed channels and watched another. And when Jim Bakker got out of prison, he made a comeback. After all, why shouldn’t you send your money to a convicted fraudster, if he sounds good on television?

There is still considerable attraction in conservatism’s Manichean worldview, in which Good People struggle against Bad People, and you don’t need to do the work to figure out what’s true, you just need to know who to trust. It is in some perverse way comforting to believe that our problems do not arise from the fact that life is difficult, or that substantial effort is required to find solutions to hard problems. There is no need to spend your life looking for cures and treatments, like Dr. Fauci has; miracle cures like hydroxycholaquine are everywhere, and we just need to listen to the Good People like Donald Trump who tell us about them. There are simple secrets to getting rich, and we could all be rich if only we could put aside our doubts and trust the Good People who want to let us in on the ground floor. No one needs to work out the details of complex programs like Medicare for All, we just need a Good Leader with the courage to tell the healthcare system to work better.

And so, as the NRA faces a possibly fatal legal storm, Q-Anon is rising. They have a conspiracy theory that swallows all the others like the plot of Illuminatus! made real. And their founder can never be discredited, because we don’t know who it is.

And guess what? There’s plenty of merchandise you can buy.

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  • Roger  On August 10, 2020 at 10:38 am

    Your theological roots in childhood are very similar to mine. I abandoned the church for most of my twenties as a result.

  • S. David Blakeley  On August 10, 2020 at 11:12 am

    Minor note: I remember the book as “None Dare Call it Treason”, John Stormer, 1964. Every right winger I knew in the 60s had a copy.

  • Anonymous  On August 10, 2020 at 2:30 pm

    Liberals divide the world into True and False; “anti-racists” into Good People and Bad People. Sounds about right?

  • Anonymous  On August 10, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    “Liberals divide the world into True and False; conservatives into Good People and Bad People.”

    That’s one of the two best ways I’ve ever heard of to describe the difference between liberal and conservative mindsets. It’s also the biggest difficulty, isn’t it? How do you shake people free of that mindset? You can’t – by trying to shake them free, you are definitionally one of the Bad People.

    (For the curious, the other best way was coined in a comment section, here.
    The key quote is this: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

    There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

  • Guest  On August 10, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    As we consider the origins of conservative stupidity, the following comes to mind:

    “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

    Not suggesting there is no value in chronicling these stupidities. Not even saying that conservatives haven’t as a group come off as dumber on any number of metrics and issues. But thinking that the only thing that liberal pundits (to say nothing of the corporations writing their checks) are selling is books is incredibly, even dangerously, naive. The last paragraph of the above “Grifters and their marks” section in particular has a lot of dubious assumptions to tease apart. The only way I could make sense of it was to only read its first four words and its last four words together.

  • nicknielsensc  On August 10, 2020 at 9:30 pm

    My background is slightly different from yours. My father was killed while in the Air Force and I grew up on military and SS survivors benefits during the Rockefeller era in New York. And, yes, I was very much into Velikofsky and von Daniken, the mainstays of late 60s/early 70s teenage “scientific thought” at about the same age as you.

    Much of my political outlook was influenced by my uncle and my grandfather, neither of whom had any truck with conspiracy theories and taught me how to recognize them, so I never read “None Dare Call It Conspiracy”. I did try to read “Atlas Shrugged”, but simply could not finish John Galt’s speech without laughing at how selfish and self-justifying it was. To this day, I have not been able to finish the book and don’t believe I’ve missed anything. Based on observations of those who have, though, I heartily agree with John Rogers: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  • David Goldfarb  On August 10, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    @nicknielsensc: As someone who has read Atlas Shrugged all the way through, I can testify that you are indeed not missing anything.

  • krohde2014  On August 10, 2020 at 11:20 pm

    The anti-liberal left is definitely going in that direction. White lady, Robin D’Angelo, makes big bucks for giving workshops for corporations so they can check their “anti-racism” box without actually making any changes in their organizations. Her workshop involves the original sin of whiteness from which you can never escape but must none the less try in order not to prove yourself not only racist but fragile. More books and workshops rather than political organizing seem to be her prescription. She is one of the biggest financia beneficiaries of recent nationwide protests. She is the most well known of her breed, but that type that looks for money and/or influence by preying on Liberal guilt and has lopped off the heads of many a insufficiently abject liberal, seems to be the up and coming counterpart to Rightwing grifters.

    • Guest  On August 11, 2020 at 10:43 am

      This is a great recent example of the kind of thing I had in mind, krohde, although D’Angelo seems more like an avatar of the liberal establishment or neoliberalism if you like, rather than an anti-liberal left. If we can just check some boxes (elect Clinton *because* she’s a woman, Biden *must* nominate a black woman VP) we can brush aside any structural or policy problems. If we can just diversify representation among the 1% and inundate them with HR trainings then no need to revisit the underlying power dynamics.

      A related con on the left is convincing us that liberal news are straight-shooters, that they are simply “telling you what is happening” to use the phrasing above. This is a huge blind spot for liberals in general, not just the Sift in particular. Looking closer at this con we find counterexamples abound, take the NYT drumming up the case for war in Iraq. Maddow’s myopic, self-assured hysteria over a supposed slam dunk Trump Tower Russia Gate case, to the exclusion of any number of juicier crimes and misdemeanors, may also fit here. Fear sells, but the sources of fear are carefully curated.

      An antidote to this con can be found in taking a more critical look, and exploring an alternative definition of liberal news media, and news in general, to the one on offer above of simply telling us what is happening. “The alternative conception is that the media will present a picture of the world which defends and inculcates the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate the domestic economy, and who therefor largely control the government.” That’s Chomsky from the must-read “Understanding Power.” Would love to see Doug do a deep dive book review on it, and encourage all my fellow Sifters to pick up a copy.

  • Uncle Josh  On August 11, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    I think another core difference is between those who value the truth and those who value certainty. Some people cling to lies to be Certain and Know They Are Right., while others can look at fact and truth and be comfortable admitting they aren’t certain, so they change their mind.

  • Ed O  On August 31, 2021 at 12:52 pm

    Paul Krugman just caught up with you:


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