The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The right’s grift machine is only growing stronger

Supporters cheered as former president Donald J. Trump spoke in support of Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) during a rally at the Dalton Municipal Airport on Jan. 4. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the grift shall never die.

I speak (with a nod to Ted Kennedy) of the long tradition in which prominent conservatives go around scamming, fleecing, and conning their own rank-and-file. While in some alternate universe the experience of electing a flimflam man as president of the United States — and then watching as he loses the White House and Congress — might have alerted those masses to the fact that their own party elites regard them as marks waiting to be separated from their money, that has not happened here.

And as a fascinating new report in The Post shows, while sometimes the victims are little old ladies in Lubbock, Tex., sending $50 to a phony PAC, at other times bigger fish get landed. A major GOP donor named Fred Eshelman was eager to help Donald Trump, so he got out his checkbook — but now says he was taken to the cleaners by an organization he thought would help Trump hold the presidency:

Eshelman has alleged in two lawsuits — one in federal court has been withdrawn and the other is ongoing in a Texas state court — that True the Vote did not spend his $2 million gift and a subsequent $500,000 donation as it said it would. Eshelman also alleges that True the Vote directed much of his money to people or businesses connected to the group’s president, Catherine Engelbrecht.

Though I can’t vouch for Eshelman’s claims, what he’s alleging is one of the oldest right-wing scams in the book.

You set up an organization that sounds like it must be associated with a prominent figure or cause, such as a president, then you solicit contributions ostensibly to support that figure’s efforts, like getting elected. But the donors don’t realize that their contributions will all disappear down a hole marked “operating costs” or “fundraising,” which means funneling them to other organizations controlled by the very same consultants who set up the first organization. In the end almost no money gets spent on the cause the donors support, but the consultant gets a new lake house.

True the Vote doesn’t seem to be exactly that; it has its roots in the tea party movement that sprang up after Barack Obama was elected, and has been making wild accusations of voter fraud ever since. But it’s hard to imagine that a group like it could have spent $2.5 million fighting the results of the 2020 election even if it tried. After all, most of the “evidence” of fraud was along the lines of “I heard a guy say his brother’s girlfriend’s mom saw someone with a Biden T-shirt holding a piece of paper outside a polling place, so you know, that’s fraud right there.”

But you have to have a tiny bit of sympathy for someone like Eshelman. If you wanted to drop a seven-figure donation on this effort, who could you trust? That’s the really hard question.

One of the consequences of the Trump era is that so many people at so many levels within the Republican Party turned out to be grifters, lunatics, or both. It wasn’t just some second-string media consultant you’ve never heard of creating a PAC called Americans For a Trumpier America, buying an email list, and milking it for cash (though there was plenty of that). People with renown and credentials were getting into the act.

Take someone like Michael Flynn. Before signing on with Trump he was a three-star general — one with a bit of a troubled reputation, but most people wouldn’t know that. Now, he’s a full-fledged QAnon nutbar.

Or Rudy Giuliani. He used to be “America’s Mayor,” hero of 9/11, and Time’s Person of the Year. Today, he’s the laughingstock of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, hawking gold coins and cigars on his YouTube channel while trying to find a hair dye that won’t pour down his temples when he sweats.

Even Sidney Powell, whose conspiracy theories about the election were so unhinged that eventually even Trump distanced himself from her, was a reasonably prominent lawyer and legal pundit before 2020. Prior to the election, had you done a cursory web search on her — say, to see if you wanted to donate to her efforts — you probably would have said, “She sounds legitimate.”

If you’re a truly savvy conservative donor, you can see some of these scams coming a mile away. And indeed, many of them are targeted at people who are not at all savvy. If you send emails saying “WE NEED YOUR HELP RIGHT NOW OR THE LIBERALS WILL DESTROY AMERICA” to a few million Fox News-watching retirees, you only need a tiny percentage to reply with their credit card numbers to turn a tidy profit.

But in the Trump and post-Trump eras, even famous and established people have turned out to be on the make. It’s getting harder and harder for conservatives to know who to trust. That’s not even to mention Trump himself, who will no doubt find innumerable ways to use the continued loyalty of his base to prop up his ailing businesses.

All of which means that far from withering in the face of Trump’s defeat, that grift machine will probably grow even stronger. The conservative base has proven that they’ll be willing to believe almost anything, and to so many in the Republican Party, that means money.

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified former national security adviser Michael Flynn's rank in the U.S. Army. This version has been updated.

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