Will grift bring America down?

“Who better suits a marketing strategy than a group that voluntarily organizes itself according to their most passionately shared beliefs? ” Rick Perlstein asks in The Long Con, an article he wrote almost a decade ago. While this works for liberals and conservatives — subscribers to Mother Jones or National Review are obvious targets for certain kinds of pitches — Perlstein shows how snake-oil salesmen have become a fundamental part of the right. Direct mail lists become the target of fund-raising lies (like this recent one from homophobe lawyer Matt Staver, or this Stover pitch); lists are sold to let more people milk the marks; and hucksters offering miracle cures (the secret ones the Deep State is hiding) bleed people for more money. “In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins.”

For example, Republican governors may sincerely want to get people off unemployment for principle — but some of them also want more people applying to work at businesses the various governors own.

Wayne LaPierre, for instance, may sincerely believe in the NRA’s stance the second amendment is sacred, using the NRA as a personal piggy bank gave him a vested interest in their mission. Donations and advertising from gun manufacturers makes up a lot of their financing; I’m sure having an extremist screaming at people to buy guns before the government makes it illegal kept the money spigot turned on.

Or consider Hank Kunneman, one of the many self-appointed prophets who declared Trump won in 2020. As I’ve mentioned before, he has books to sell, he has religious souvenirs to hawk, so despite being proven wrong he keeps insisting he’s a real prophet. He’s one in a long train of Christian hucksters from the medieval pardoners to Jim Bakker selling fake Trump Virus cures. Mike Warnke, for instance, had a long, lucrative career posing as a reformed Satanic high priest who’d gone from human  sacrifice to Praise Jesus!

Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman is raking in money from QAnon believers by claiming all elected officials from 2020 are illegitimate, therefore they can simply sue to take those officials’ places. It can’t miss! Of course someone probably claimed the same about replacing Congress and Biden with the Steward of Gondor.

A growing number of Republicans are approaching their roles as elected officials more as reality show stars than legislators. And at least 10 states divert TANF funding for needy families to finance anti-abortion groups.  Supporting forced-birth and abstinence-only education is a way to channel money to religious conservatives who loyally vote Republican.

Or consider Jesse Lee Peterson telling OAN viewers that the Tulsa race massacre was exaggerated to make whites look bad. Lies like that undoubtedly endear the black radio host to the white OAN audience (much as right-wingers love an antifeminist woman pundit). Or radio host, misogynist and right-wing minister E.W. Jackson accusing the Bidens of eating French food on Memorial Day instead of American food. It’s gibberish but some right-wing rageaholics will be happy to believe it so they can get their fix. And that’s money in the bank for Jackson.

Does this mean they don’t believe? Some, I’m sure, are complete manipulators (Bakker, for sure). Others fall on the borderline: I don’t doubt Staver’s hates gays just as Rick Wiles hates Jews. However neither one has any qualms using bigotry to raise money. Maybe that encourages them to get more outrageous: the uglier lies they tell about the Zionist/Gay Agenda, the more they can drive their fund-raising. Roy Edroso argues pundit Peggy Noonan blaming liberals for right-wing conspiracy theories may be a calculated career move: Republicans are solidly Trumpite now, so while she may disapprove, she wants them to know it’s Not Their Fault.

Then there are dudes like Paige Patterson. The misogyny he’s shown as head of the Southern Baptist Conference is certainly sincere, but he’s allegedly also a crook, stealing valuable art from the SBC for his own HQ (they kicked him out a while back) and also the donor list for fundraising — which he’s now using to channel money to his own organization.

Others, as Paul Campos says, may know specific claims are bullshit yet still believe in their truthiness. Sure, Sidney Powell and Maras-Lindeman are liars, there wasn’t any election fraud, but it’s still cheating for Democrats to win when Republicans are the only Real Americans. I suspect something similar is true of most of the marks for all this grift: they’re not so much fooled as choosing to believe. They want to believe their enemies are devils or that they’re virtuous, and fighting QAnon’s nonexistent Satanic pedophiles makes them feel so. Some of them may start off choosing and eventually convince themselves into absolute belief.

But regardless of their sincerity, they’re doing damage.  Prosecutors cited Warnke’s claims about Satanism in America to prove the Satanic Panic of 30 years ago was real. People went to jail in that witch-hunt, for years.

Believing the Trump Virus vaccines are the Mark of the Beast doesn’t make sense (how are the unvaccinated able to buy or sell when Antichrist only permits that from those who take the mark?) but it makes it harder to fight the virus.

Whipping up claims of election fraud and how audits are proving it is killing our democracy; they won’t remove Biden from office but a system in which every election result people don’t like has to be litigated is unworkable. Democracy, as others have pointed out, hinges on the belief that even if you lose, the government is legitimate. Without that, we’re screwed.

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