At one point during Wednesday’s Republican debate, Ben Carson was asked about his involvement with Mannatech, a nutritional supplements company that makes outlandish claims about its products and has been forced to pay $7 million to settle a deceptive-practices lawsuit. The audience booed, and Carson denied being involved with the company. Both reactions tell you a lot about the driving forces behind modern American politics.
As it happens, Carson lied. He has indeed been deeply involved with Mannatech, and has done a lot to help promote its merchandise. PolitiFact quickly rated his claim false, without qualification. But the Republican base doesn’t want to hear about it, and the candidate apparently believes, probably correctly, that he can simply brazen it out.
These days, in his party, being an obvious grifter isn’t a liability, and may even be an asset. And this doesn’t just go for outsider candidates like Carson and Donald Trump. Insider politicians like Marco Rubio are simply engaged in a different, classier kind of scam – and they are empowered in part by the way the grifters have defined respectability down.
About the grifters: Start with the lowest level, in which marketers use political affinity to sell get-rich-quick schemes, miracle cures, and suchlike. That’s the Carson phenomenon, and it’s just the latest example of a long tradition. As the historian Rick Perlstein documents, a “strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers” goes back half a century. Direct-mail marketing using addresses culled from political campaigns has given way to email, but the game remains the same.
At a somewhat higher level are marketing campaigns more or less tied to what purports to be policy analysis. Right-wing warnings of imminent hyperinflation, coupled with demands that we return to the gold standard, were fanned by media figures like Glenn Beck, who used his show to promote Goldline, a firm selling gold coins and bars at, um, inflated prices. Sure enough, Beck has been a vocal backer of Ted Cruz, who has made a return to gold one of his signature policy positions.
Oh, and former Rep. Ron Paul, who has spent decades warning of runaway inflation and is undaunted by its failure to materialize, is very much in the business of selling books and videos showing how you, too, can protect yourself from the coming financial disaster.
At a higher level still are operations that are in principle engaging in political activity, but mainly seem to be generating income for their organizers. Last week The Times published an investigative report on some political action committees raising money in the name of anti-establishment conservative causes. The report found that the bulk of the money these PACs raise ends up going to cover administrative costs and consultants’ fees, very little to their ostensible purpose. For example, only 14 percent of what the Tea Party Leadership Fund spends is “candidate focused.”
You might think that such revelations would be politically devastating. But the targets of such schemes know, just know, that the liberal mainstream media can’t be trusted, that when it reports negative stories about conservative heroes it’s just out to suppress people who are telling the real truth. It’s a closed information loop, and can’t be broken.
And a lot of people live inside that closed loop. Current estimates say that Carson, Trump and Cruz together have the support of around 60 percent of Republican voters.
Furthermore, the success of the grifters has a profound effect on the whole party. As I said, it defines respectability down.
Consider Rubio, who has emerged as the leading conventional candidate thanks to Jeb Bush’s utter haplessness. There was a time when Rubio’s insistence that $6 trillion in tax cuts would somehow pay for themselves would have marked him as deeply unserious, especially given the way his party has been harping on the evils of budget deficits. Even George W. Bush, during the 2000 campaign, at least pretended to be engaged in conventional budgeting, handing back part of a projected budget surplus.
But the Republican base doesn’t care what the mainstream media says. Indeed, after Wednesday’s debate the Internet was full of claims that John Harwood, one of the moderators, lied about Rubio’s tax plan. (He didn’t.) And in any case, Rubio sounds sensible compared to the likes of Carson and Trump. So there’s no penalty for his fiscal fantasies.
The point is that we shouldn’t ask whether the GOP will eventually nominate someone in the habit of saying things that are demonstrably untrue, and counting on political loyalists not to notice. The only question is what kind of scam it will be.