The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ugly truth about the right-wing grift machine has been revealed

Former president Donald Trump. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)
8 min

In addition to building a damning case that Donald Trump and his co-conspirators hatched a premeditated scheme to steal a presidential election they knew he’d lost, the Jan. 6 committee has exposed the latest chapter in a story that’s at least half a century old.

We’re talking about the sordid, ongoing phenomenon otherwise known as the right-wing grift machine. For decades, the peddling of hallucinatory tales of impending doom aimed at conservatives has overlapped with the crassest of money-grabbing schemes.

The Jan. 6 committee has documented in vivid new detail how Trump and his allies wielded the stolen election lie to raise up to $250 million from Republican and conservative voters. Yet the “Official Election Defense Fund” that was supposed to be the repository of these funds appears not to exist. Much of that money, the committee says, was channeled back to political outfits run by top Trump allies.

Historian Rick Perlstein, who has written many books about the American right, is uniquely suited to place this story in the larger context of the modern conservative movement’s predilection for such grift.

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At least since the 1960s, Perlstein argues, conservative elites have seen extremist tendencies on the right as a ripe target for manipulation, for the purposes of mobilizing mass political movements. That has often shaded into money-raising schemes that smack of outright grift.

Perlstein has traced this pattern from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign through conservative activist Richard Viguerie’s self-serving direct mail fundraising in the 1970s. It runs through Ronald Reagan’s 1966 bid for governor of California, his 1980 presidential race and even his hawking of miracle cancer cures.

It goes through Newt Gingrich’s 1994 House takeover and then through the tea party. Now, it runs right down to Trump’s monumental stolen-election scam.

I reached out to Perlstein to make sense of the latest developments. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent: The Jan. 6 hearings have uncovered extraordinary grift on the part of Trump and his fellow coup plotters. They raised huge sums of cash off their lies about the election, then channeled a bunch of it back into groups run by top Trump allies.

What do you see in this particular form of grifting?

Rick Perlstein: What is the distinction between the Republican Party under Trump that we see on full display in these hearings and the Republican Party prior to Trump?

This phenomenon of conservative Republican leaders seeing their constituencies as a pool of marks to squeeze money out of really does go back to the beginnings of the conservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1960s.

As is so often the case in the Republican Party under the Trumpist reign, it takes normal historical patterns of behavior and turns them up to 11.

Sargent: The “big lie” actually was the “big grift.”

Perlstein: It’s partially an opportunity to raise money. It’s also partially an opportunity to keep power. The important thing to understand about how grifting works in conservative culture is that the two things work together.

It’s impossible to understand where the ideological con ends and the money con begins. They work together.

In the late 1970s, when people started drilling down into Richard Viguerie’s operation, they would say, “You’re making tons of money, and the people you’re raising money for are receiving little or none of it.”

He would say, “Every time we send out one of these letters, we’re also educating the public. We’re also building power. We’re also telling a story about the liberals.” Their own self-understanding was: This is also a political project.

Sargent: You see that overlap very clearly here: Trump and his allies told millions of voters that the election was being stolen from them — and that their country was being taken from them as well.

That had the effect of bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars. But it has also had the effect of creating something akin to a social movement.

Perlstein: Right-wing voters are acclimated into an understanding of the world in which they are being victimized by dark forces. That’s a great way for conservative leaders to get money shoveled in their direction. But it’s also a great way to form what Marxists used to call a “cadre,” a group of fanatically dedicated followers.

Now we face the phenomenon of millions of people, many of them armed, who are identifying their own safety, comfort and flourishing as human beings with the political success of Donald Trump and his allies.

Sargent: In what sense has this given rise to a movement that’s akin to previous movements on the right?

Perlstein: Successful movements on the right always manage to persuade their followers that the stakes are apocalyptic. The preeminent example is fundamentalist Christianity, in which the stakes are the fate of humanity itself.

A lot of these techniques are parallel to the way televangelists win followers and get rich.

Sargent: I want to bear down on the apocalyptic nature of these movements. Right now, various offshoots of this apocalyptic politics — for instance, the “great replacement theory” — are inspiring mass shootings and serious political violence.

Perlstein: If you think the stakes are whether civilization itself survives, and that you’re dealing with a cabal of shadowy enemies, of course you’re licensed to use any means to stop them.

If the stakes are racial replacement, and the shadowy enemies are the Jews said to be controlling the replacement of Whites, then it’s okay to kill Jews. It’s okay to shoot up Black churches. It’s okay to shoot up a Walmart.

Sargent: Does the fact that Republican leaders aren’t unambiguously condemning these tendencies fit into a broader history, in which conservative elites have frequently failed to police extremists on the right?

Perlstein: One of the patterns since time immemorial is that mainstream conservative Republican leaders have fully understood that they benefit from these forces politically.

That was precisely the context for Barry Goldwater’s convention speech, when he said “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” That was his way of saying to the extremists: “I don’t intend to condemn you. I welcome you into our fold.”

And the extremists of that time were burning down churches in Mississippi. The extremists of that time were murdering civil rights workers and burying them under earthen dams. This was literally the same month as the Republican convention.

Sargent: Do you think that pattern has recurred over and over?

Perlstein: Ronald Reagan played the same game in 1966. He played it in 1980. Newt Gingrich played it. The people astroturfing the tea party played it. The people who thought they could use and control Donald Trump as their ally played it in 2016. Now they’re reaping the whirlwind.

One of the canny things that the Jan. 6 select committee is doing is establishing a direct connection between the Republican Party’s parliamentary and paramilitary wings. Like prosecutors, they’re saying, “Here are the individuals who communicated with people within the White House, in order to basically spur the mob to breach the Capitol.”

Sargent: The point to be drawn out by the committee is that Trump and his allies came to see the mob and the paramilitary organizations as instrumental in putting pressure on Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers to carry the procedural coup to completion.

Perlstein: This does go back to the history of the conservative leadership corralling a fleeceable multitude — basically seeing their work as creating a mass of people who will believe anything.

That’s when you get into the miracle 29-cent cancer cures, which are indistinguishable from the narratives about how “they’re gonna take your guns” or “they’re gonna outlaw the Bible.”

Sargent: This new scamming around the stolen election lie is like the ultimate direct mail con, carried out in the social media age. Does the new communications technology supercharge the ability to run the big grift and fleece the multitudes?

Perlstein: The mainstream of the population wakes up to discover that millions of people believe that babies are being harvested in a pizza basement. The only reason that can happen under the mainstream’s nose is the structure of social media and targeted algorithms.

In the same way, direct mail was news that people got that wasn’t from a newspaper or network news. It was news they got directly from the instigators of this conservative countercoup.

Like so much of the relationship between Reagan-era conservatism and Trump-era conservatism, it’s the same phenomenon — supercharged.