The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Devin Nunes’s new media job for Trump explains the GOP grift machine

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), arrives for a House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill on May 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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If you want an emblematic story about the Republican Party in 2021, consider the case of Rep. Devin Nunes of California. Once considered a moderate, he transformed himself into the Trumpiest of Donald Trump’s defenders, even aping Trump’s habit of filing frivolous lawsuits (in his case, against a parody Twitter account of a cow). With Republicans poised to win the House, Nunes was in line to become the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the nation’s tax laws.

There was a time when the Ways and Means chair was considered second only to House Speaker in prestige and power. But Nunes is quitting Congress at the end of the month to become CEO of the Trump Media & Technology Group, an enterprise that looks like it will have all the legitimacy and success of Trump University.

The highest aspiration anyone in today’s GOP can have, apparently, is to get in on the grift. For instance, Sidney Powell, the lawyer behind some of the most fantastical incarnations of the pro-Trump “stop the steal” campaign, turns out to have raised $14 million for her traveling road show of misinformation and legal buffoonery. What all the money is for is unclear.

Republican voters have shown themselves particularly vulnerable to PACs in which an organization solicits donations for a political project (“Send us $20 to defend Trump!”) that actually do nothing but line the pockets of the operators. The con man behind a group of such grifts, who also stole Paycheck Protection Program money, was just sentenced to four years behind bars, no doubt making a lot of Republican consultants nervous.

The company Nunes is going to lead is supposed to be the home of Trump’s fabulous new social network, Trump Social. It’s all a bit confusing if you’re not an aficionado of obscure financial instruments, but here’s how it works.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. (DWAC) is a new special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that is supposed to facilitate the whole thing. SPACs are formed, then taken public, then merged with another organization to quickly turn the latter into a public company. DWAC is merging with the Trump Media and Technology Group (TMTG), which will allow Trump’s venture to take advantage of all the opportunities the stock market has to offer, including large infusions of capital.

When the merger was announced, the price of DWAC shares skyrocketed as enthusiastic Trump fans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) rushed to invest. DWAC’s market capitalization is now around $1.6 billion. Judd Legum notes: “That’s not bad for a company that has no product, no users, no publicly identified executives, and no revenue.”

As Legum documents, the Trump Media & Technology Group’s latest investor report lists its team of experienced professionals building Trump Social, which is already way behind schedule. They are people like chief technology officer “Josh A.,” vice president of engineering “Steve E.” and chief information officer “Vlad N.”

Do these people even exist? They might. But as Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine says, “so far there is almost no sign that TMTG is actually building a social network or a streaming platform or anything else.” Yet the company claims that by 2026 it will have 81 million users and $3.6 billion in revenue.

If you believe that, I’ve got some steaks to sell you.

Even if it might involve novel tools like an SPAC, this is really just the maturing of habits and propensities that long existed on the right. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party merged a longtime con artist with a party whose base had for decades been milked for contributions by scammers who found it all too easy to push the buttons of people who thought they were helping the conservative cause by opening up their checkbooks.

Today, the common denominator running through all these schemes is empowerment. You feel like the world is changing too fast, that people who reject your values are in control of the culture, that established institutions you used to trust don’t represent you anymore? Give us your money, and you can impose order on a chaotic world, you can undo elections, you can reveal the truth behind the lies, you can stick it to the libs. You can even get rich.

It’s hard to imagine Trump’s venture fulfilling that promise. You can be sure of one thing, though: Even if it goes down in flames, Trump is going to line his pockets with the money of gullible people who are all too willing to buy whatever he sells them.