If you’re a Republican voter, I have some bad news for you. The people who lead the movement that supposedly represents your views — the politicians, the media figures, the activists — think you’re an idiot. In fact, they count on it.
That’s the real meaning of an extraordinary story The Post has published, about an effort by well-known right-wing fraudster James O’Keefe and his organization Project Veritas to entrap this newspaper into publishing a false story about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, with the obvious intention of using that to discredit the well-documented allegations that Moore preyed on teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
This is much larger than O’Keefe or this one Senate race. It’s about a poison of exploitation and deceit that courses through the conservative movement. Some conservatives have tried to expunge this poison, without success. If anything, the scam has gotten even more pervasive and influential.
Here’s the summary of the story:
A woman who falsely claimed to The Washington Post that Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, impregnated her as a teenager appears to work with an organization that uses deceptive tactics to secretly record conversations in an effort to embarrass its targets.
In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public.
The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.
But on Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover “stings” that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.
O’Keefe first gained fame in 2009 with a misleadingly edited video in which he claimed he got staffers for a group that did things such as voter registration to give him advice on setting up a prostitution business. By the time O’Keefe’s deceptions were exposed (he later agreed to pay $100,000 to an ACORN employee), Republicans had already cranked up their outrage machine, and in the resulting controversy ACORN essentially imploded and went out of business. O’Keefe then rode that success to legitimization within the conservative movement.
In subsequent years, O’Keefe has launched one failed scam after another designed to “catch” liberals and Democrats on video doing something unethical or illegal. The tactic has failed again and again. O’Keefe and three others were arrested and pled guilty to charges after posing as telephone repairmen in an apparent attempt to bug Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office. After calling a staffer at George Soros’s Open Society Institute using an assumed name, he forgot to hang up the phone and left a long message in which he and colleagues discussed their plan to infiltrate the foundation. He put on an Osama bin Laden mask and waded into the Rio Grande.
In short, O’Keefe is a fraudster and a buffoon. But here’s what’s important to know about him: He’s a fraudster and a buffoon who is treated like a serious person by substantial parts of the conservative movement. His organization, Project Veritas, had a budget of just under $5 million in 2016. He’s got dozens of employees.
And O’Keefe won’t be slowed down by this latest embarrassment, because people on the right will still give him their money. How do I know that? Because it’s what they’ve been doing for decades.
There is an entire industry on the right whose purpose is to separate gullible conservatives from their money. The way it works is that they send urgent appeals — in letters, in emails, on television and radio — that if you want to fight Hillary Clinton or save fetuses or stop the decline of our culture, you have to send a contribution now. Some of those appeals come from familiar faces, such as Mike Huckabee or Dick Morris. But the money just goes right into their pockets, or the pockets of clever consultants, with only a tiny fraction going to anything resembling political action. It’s why conservative media figures promote conservative groups, bringing in millions of dollars, part of which the groups then funnel right back to the media figures in an endlessly lucrative circle of scam.
To be clear, there are many perfectly legitimate organizations on the right who do the work they claim to do. But there’s also a grift machine generating huge amounts of money for conservatives who know just how gullible their marks are — and know how important it is to keep them angry and ignorant. As I said, some conservatives have tried to expose this ongoing scam, but the problem is that it’s been woven too deeply into the conservative movement for too long. (Rick Perlstein offers a vivid history of “the strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers” using “tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place”).
The success of that scam is why conservatives don’t cast someone like James O’Keefe out. It’s why a serial fraudster such as John Lott, who has been caught creating a false identity and almost certainly falsifying data, is treated on the right as an honored policy expert. It’s because conservatives think their rank-and-file are too dumb to identify the con men in their midst, and barely seem to care whether they’re being lied to.
O’Keefe counts on rank-and-file conservatives not understanding how journalism works or what kinds of information can be trusted. And that, of course, is the foundation of much of the conservative media world: don’t believe anything you hear from anybody other than us. It depends on people having no critical faculties of their own but just outsourcing anything resembling thought to Rush and Sean and Tucker.
The scam reached its apogee with the campaign and election of Donald Trump, not only because he declares any information he doesn’t find amenable to be “fake news” but because he found tens of millions of conservatives perfectly happy to support a candidate who lies to them constantly. It isn’t just the size of his crowds or the spectacular accomplishments of his presidency that he lies about, it’s also the promises he makes about the future — that he’ll bring all the coal jobs back, that North Korea will do whatever he says, that a tax bill larding riches on corporations will actually improve the lot of the middle class, that there will be a great, big, beautiful wall on our southern border, and on and on.
They lap it up, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do by a party and a movement that relies on their ignorance. The entire GOP is in on the hustle; indeed, they depend on it. And guess who gave James O’Keefe a $10,000 donation just two years ago? That’s right: Donald Trump.