How We Got a Con Artist as President

A recent article by Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker in the Washington Post caught my attention.

Thousands of Facebook users in Arizona may have been startled to see a strange warning appear in their social feeds earlier this month. “Official records show that your voter registration is incomplete,” began the post. “Follow the link below to complete your voter registration NOW!”

But the message didn’t come from local government officials or civic groups that encourage people to vote. Rather, it was an ad from a super PAC supporting President Trump — part of an effort by allies of the Trump White House to mobilize users on Facebook and harness their personal data…

Some of the ads falsely suggest that Democrats are purging voter rolls; others direct viewers to some version of a voter-registration form, but only after they submit information, such as their names, email addresses and political affiliations.

Young Mie Kim, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, called the tactic “data-bait” — harvesting valuable information about a key demographic using “eye-catching, fearmongering content.”

After being notified by the Washington Post about this scam, Facebook either removed the ads or added fact-check warnings. But what was fascinating to me about this story is that these Trump super PACs came up with a scheme to “data-bait” Facebook users with claims that Democrats have been purging voter rolls, even as Republicans have practically been bragging about their voter suppression efforts.

About the same time that I read that story by Romm and Stanley-Becker, I saw this tweet.

Roberts followed up by linking to a 2012 article by Rick Perlstein—who has been called “a chronicler extraordinaire of modern conservatism”—titled, “The Long Con.” Mitt Romney was running for president at the time it was written, so here’s how Perlstein began.

Mitt Romney is a liar. Of course, in some sense, all politicians, even all human beings, are liars. Romney’s lying went so over-the-top extravagant by this summer, though, that the New York Times editorial board did something probably unprecedented in their polite gray precincts: they used the L-word itself. “Mr. Romney’s entire campaign rests on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites,” they editorialized. He repeats them “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” “It is hard to challenge these lies with a well-reasoned-but-overlong speech,” they concluded; and how. Romney’s lying, in fact, was so richly variegated that it can serve as a sort of grammar of mendacity.

Seven years later, we now know that Donald Trump has taken Mitt’s mendacity to a whole new level. But Perlstein’s point is that, when it comes to Republicans, the con game of blatant lies is a feature, not a bug.

Back in 2007, Perlstein signed on to the email lists of several right wing publications: Townhall, Newsmax, and Human Events. Soon after, he started getting pitches for things like the “hidden money mountain,” the “23-Cent Heart Miracle,” and the “the oilfield in the placenta.” He hadn’t seen all of that coming.

Back in our great-grandparents’ day, the peddlers of such miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes were known as snake-oil salesmen. You don’t see stuff like this much in mainstream culture any more…But tenders of a 23-Cent Heart Miracle seem to work just fine on the readers of the magazine where Ann Coulter began her journalistic ascent in the late nineties by pimping the notion that liberals are all gullible rubes…

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

Perlstein walks through the history of how the ideological and money cons converged. Then he returns to Mitt’s mendacity.

Romney’s prevarications are evidence of simple political hucksterism—“short, utterly false sound bites,” repeated “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” But the Times misses the bigger picture. Each constituent lie is an instance pointing to a larger, elaborately constructed “truth,” the one central to the right-wing appeal for generations: that liberalism is a species of madness—an esoteric cult of out-of-touch, Europe-besotted ivory tower elites—and conservatism is the creed of regular Americans and vouchsafes the eternal prosperity, security, and moral excellence of God’s chosen nation, which was doing just fine before Bolsheviks started gumming up the works…Since reality is never Manichean enough, fables have to do the requisite ideological heavy lifting—to frighten the target audience to do the fabulists’ will. That’s the logic of the pitch for the quivering conservative masses.

To the extent that Perlstein has captured something significant about the conservative movement, it makes perfect sense that it eventually led to the election of the ultimate con man as president. The entire edifice has been building toward that for decades, with the equivalent of snake oil salesmen consistently feeding lies to those who are predisposed to believe them.

When we marvel that Trump’s supporters stick with him no matter what he does, it is that predisposition to believe the con that is at work. I understand that Democratic presidential hopefuls feel the need to declare themselves as the one person who can heal the political divide in this country. But to the extent that is even possible, it will mean overcoming decades of what Perlstein called “the long con.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.