“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” –Eric Hoffer

You can debate when the conservative movement became a racket — I nominate 1996, the year Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes created Fox News Channel to monetize right-wing outrage — but there is no doubt it has long since passed that point. If you have any doubt, look at the recent revelations about the National Rifle Association, probably the single most powerful conservative lobbying group in America.

The NRA’s long-serving executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, told his followers: “It’s up to us to speak out against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.” So LaPierre must be a man of the people, selflessly dedicated to the goal of two assault weapons in every house and a bazooka in every garage, right?

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Actually, protecting the “right” of anyone to buy any gun at any time turns out to be a lucrative racket. The NRA paid LaPierre $927,863 in 2014, $5,051,249 in 2015 and $1,358,966 in 2016, according to the group’s tax returns. In 2016, eight other NRA executives also made more than $500,000. But that is only the beginning of their compensation.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a leaked accounting of LaPierre’s expenses. These include “$39,000 for one day of shopping at a Beverly Hills clothing boutique, $18,300 for a car and driver in Europe,” “$17,550 for ‘Air Charter’ between Budapest and the Italian city of Brescia,” “air transportation charges” of nearly $70,000 for one trip to and from the Bahamas, and “$13,800 in rent” for an apartment for a female intern. LaPierre even billed $1,096 for “Frankfurt Airport Assistance.” Funny, I’ve been to Frankfurt airport many times and never paid a euro for any assistance. (The NRA responded by saying, “It is troubling and pathetic that some people would resort to leaking information to advance their agendas.” Not exactly a denial.)

LaPierre’s reported compensation is just part of a larger, troubling pattern at the NRA that could threaten its tax-exempt status. An investigation by the New Yorker and the Trace found that “a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements. Memos created by a senior N.R.A. employee describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed, whose leaders have encouraged disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships, and have marginalized those who object.”

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The fallout has included a very public spat at the top, with LaPierre forcing out NRA President Oliver North after North reportedly tried to get rid of LaPierre. North himself has been a major beneficiary of these sweetheart deals, making roughly $1 million a year from the NRA’s public-relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, which is now being sued by the gun group.

A similar culture of impunity exists across the right. Leaders are being lavishly rewarded, and their misdeeds are being covered up as long as they rile up the rubes. Fox News host Sean Hannity makes a reported $36 million a year and owns his own airplane while railing, like LaPierre, against “elites.” Fox News’s parent company, meanwhile, became notorious for paying tens of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits regarding sexual harassment charges brought against some of its biggest stars, including Ailes and then-anchor Bill O’Reilly.

President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen — now in prison for, among other offenses, helping the evangelicals’ favorite president cover up an affair with an adult-film actress — also claims to have helped Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. by preventing the release of embarrassing photographs that would normally be kept “between husband [and] wife.” (Falwell denies the story.) Then there are mysterious news reports that Falwell loaned $1.8 million to a Miami hotel pool attendant. Tellingly, Falwell worships Trump as an exemplar of his values; he recently tweeted that “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”

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The grifter in chief is Trump himself. He marketed himself as a fabulously successful businessman. Except — oops — the New York Times revealed that he received much of his wealth from his father — more than $400 million — and that he had more than $1.1 billion in losses from 1985 to 1994. “Year after year,” the Times reported, “Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.”

So it turns out that Trump is a big loser. But his followers were not remotely fazed by the news. On “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite show, co-host Ainsley Earhardt marveled, “Wow, it’s pretty impressive, all the things that he’s done in his life. It’s beyond what most of us could ever achieve.”

It’s as though Bernie Madoff’s clients were congratulating him for being so successful at swindling them. Likewise, many farmers continue to support Trump even as they fall victim to his trade wars. America’s conservatives are Trump’s willing marks in no small part because, long before he came along, they had already gotten used to being fleeced by self-serving rabble-rousers — the real-life versions of Elmer Gantry, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip and Larry "Lonesome” Rhodes.

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