The New York Times recently ran a blockbuster report on a Republican fundraising racket. WinRed, a for-profit company doing fundraising for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, made it hard for online donors to realize they were inadvertently agreeing to recurring donations. Among the victims was a 63-year-old dying of cancer and living on less than $1,000 a month. He gave $500 to Trump, only to have the campaign take $3,000 from his bank account in less than 30 days. “It felt like it was a scam,” his brother said.

The Trump campaign had to refund $64.3 million to online donors after the election. But that money allowed Trump to be competitive in the weeks before the vote, and it delivered a tidy windfall for WinRed. “WinRed even made money off donations that were refunded by keeping the fees it charged on each transaction,” the Times reported.

This is shocking, shoddy, shady — but hardly surprising. Decades ago, in 1992, the New York Times ran an earlier exposé of Republican fundraising. The direct-mail pioneer Richard A. Viguerie had started an organization called the United Seniors Association that bombarded retirees with letters warning that “All the Social Security Trust Fund Money Is Gone!” and demanding $5 membership dues to protect their benefits. Most of the money raised went into more fundraising — including generous payments to Viguerie’s own companies.

Viguerie, who had once worked with George Wallace, was one of the creators in the 1970s of the direct-mail fundraising juggernaut that helped elect Ronald Reagan and lots of other Republicans. But the direct-mail wizards raised money by introducing to politics the kind of high-pressure sales tactics normally reserved for the sales of penny stocks or timeshares. Before long, the profit motive became as important as politics. While fleecing the faithful, the fundraisers radicalized Republican politics.

As Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee said: “The shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.” Conservative fundraising appeals, now on the Internet, depend on “triggering” right-wing voters on incendiary issues such as abortion, gun rights, marriage equality, transgender rights, immigrant “invasions,” and now “cancel culture” and “wokeism,” while warning of imminent doom unless you send in your donation today. That creates a financial imperative to wage culture wars to keep the cash registers ringing.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma, recently wrote in the Bulwark about his experience as chairman of the American Conservative Union in the early 1980s, when the process was just beginning:

“The ACU, and conservatives generally, had long been focused on a few things — keeping taxes low, keeping regulation in bounds, adequately funding national defense, and, more generally (this was how conservatism was defined in political terms), prudence and skepticism in the face of proposals for sweeping overhauls. However, what I found in the fundraising letters I was being sent to sign were harangues centered on social issues. Waging the culture war was a more effective way of raising money.”

Edwards edited out the social issues, but over time they took precedence in Republican politics — and policy. “These fights began to creep into Congress as well,” Edwards wrote, “the usual partisan squabbles over tax policy, defense spending, foreign policy, assistance programs, and budget levels joined by bitter and continuous partisan fights over social issues: abortion, gay rights, women’s empowerment, etc.”

Fast-forward to today. I recently received a fundraising email from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R.-Ga.), the kook who blames Jewish space lasers for wildfires. Alongside a picture of her holding an assault rifle, she writes that she will “fight” President Biden “with everything I have.” “Will you stand with me against Joe Biden’s tyranny?” she demands, seeking a “gift of $50, $100, or even $1,000 TODAY!” Such violent appeals work: According to Politico, Greene raked in a whopping $3.2 million in the first three months of 2021 despite (or, more likely, because of) being kicked off her House committees for her extremist rhetoric.

Of course, that’s chump change compared to the kind of bucks Trump can rake in. The Trump campaign and its joint committees with the GOP raised $255.4 million in the eight weeks after the election to contest the results. Little wonder that Trump is so determined to steer donors to his own political action committee rather than to party organs: He has tapped a geyser of cash, and he doesn’t want to share the spoils. The more outrageously he acts, the more money he brings in.

I’m no economic determinist, but if you want to understand how the right got the way it is, follow the money. The GOP highlights culture-war issues to shake down rank-and-file donors while cutting taxes to please wealthy donors. Republicans have won the presidential popular vote only once since 1988, but they can’t afford to broaden their appeal by embracing a more populist economic agenda or by toning down the divisive social messages because either move would jeopardize the flow of fundraising. The right-wing money machine has become the tail wagging the Republican elephant.

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