On politicians and (possible) pyramid schemes

April 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 7, 2016

I referred on Tuesday to a post by Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan that asked “Do Any of the Republicans Running for President Actually Want to Win?” I happen to disagree with some of Ryan’s takes. For instance, I think that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) very badly wants to be president — although I also believe that he’s keenly aware of the fact that his fervently courting evangelical audiences and throwing red meat to them will eventually redound to his benefit, whether or not he’s ever elected to another office.

Ryan wrote that “this entire election makes a lot more sense if you think of it like a political sequel for The Producers.” She continued:

Mel Brooks’s 1967 farce-musical tells the story of a pair of down-on-their-luck men who realize that they can make more money producing a musical that’s a flop than they can producing one that succeeds. Money raised by backers, reason Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom (as played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder), will make them rich, and if the show closes after only a night, they get to keep all of the money themselves rather than paying investors their share of profits. To maximize its offensiveness, they hire a Nazi to write it, the worst director on Broadway to direct it, and an [sic] semi-lucid man to star in it. Much to their horror, Springtime for Hitler is a smash hit.

Politicians left, right and center have long been associated with all manner of grift, but the link seems to be especially deep when it comes to conservative politicos. Back in the fall of 2012, the left-leaning historian Rick Perlstein, author of books about presidents Nixon and Reagan, argued that “the reflex of lying [is] now sutured into the modern conservative movement’s DNA” and asserted that “conservative leaders treat their constituents like suckers.”

One of Perlstein’s many examples of this is Linda Chavez, who withdrew from consideration to be George W. Bush’s first secretary of labor because of questions over her allegedly having housed an undocumented immigrant. She later became a syndicated columnist and direct-mail fundraiser. Referring to and then quoting a 2007 Washington Post article about Chavez’s fundraising activity, Perlstein wrote:

[I]t’s quite clear from the Post report that she had mastered the art of the shakedown. In her direct-mail career, she had “used phone banks and direct-mail solicitations to raise tens of millions of dollars, founding several political action committees with bankable names: the Republican Issues Committee, the Latino Alliance, Stop Union Political Abuse and the Pro-Life Campaign Committee. Their solicitations promise direct action in the ‘fight to save unborn lives,’ a vigorous struggle against ‘big labor bosses’ and a crippling of ‘liberal politics in the country.’” But true to the Viguerie model, less than 1 percent of the money that Chavez’s groups raised went to actual political activity. The rest went either back into further fundraising pitches or into salaries and perks for Chavez and her relatives. “I guess you could call it the family business,” Chavez told the Post. I guess you could.

Viguerie is Richard Viguerie, a Texan who in the early 1960s worked for Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group that claimed 25,000 paid members despite having less than 10 percent of that number. He went on to found a fundraising company distributing direct mail pieces to right-wingers who had contributed money to or otherwise supported political campaigns. Perlstein writes that the solicitations from the Viguerie Company

brought the message of the New Right to the masses, but it kept nearly all the revenue streams locked down in Viguerie’s proprietary control. Here was a key to the hustle: typically, only 10 to 15 percent of the haul went to the intended beneficiaries. The rest went back to Viguerie’s company. In one too-perfect example, Viguerie raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia — who paid $889,255 for the service.

In this context, it’s important to remember that Dr. Ben Carson, who spent part of November in a virtual tie for the lead in GOP presidential polling, put his campaign on hold for two weeks in October to promote his latest book. Carson, moreover, was associated for a decade with a medical supplement manufacturer that in 2009 agreed to pay millions of dollars after the state of Texas accused the company, Mannatech, of “a particularly egregious case of false advertising.”

The firm and its officials “made sweeping claims that their products could cure a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, cystic fibrosis, Tay Sachs disease and Down syndrome, among others.” When asked by CNN “why he takes Mannatech’s ‘glyconutrients’ when there is no proof that the product works, Carson said, ‘It may not. And all I say is that I take it and I almost never get sick anymore and I used to get sick a lot. So I like it.’” In addition, Carson told CNN that he thought the supplements had helped his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s also important to remember that Carson was accused of a degree of heedlessness and ignorance that is frankly astounding in a candidate for the highest office in the free world. (Remember when one of Carson’s top foreign-policy advisors complained told a major newspaper that “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East”?) Recall, too, that shortly before ending his presidential run, Carson told CNN that some of his former top campaign officials either hadn’t understood finances or had and were deliberately running a scam operation. In making these comments, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon voiced suspicions that previously had only emanated from outside observers.

Let’s also remember that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is facing two class-action lawsuits and another suit from the attorney general of New York State regarding the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative,  Trump University. (The organization was renamed on threat of action by the New York State Education Department because it wasn’t authorized to award degrees.) The plaintiffs in all three cases allege that the organization was a scam. Trump admitted in recent depositions “that he had never met instructors whom his marketing described as ‘hand-picked,’ and that some unqualified candidates had ‘slipped through the cracks.’” A year ago, the organization was ordered to pay nearly $798,000 in legal fees to a former student when, after she filed suit against the entrepreneur initiative, Trump associates responded with an unsuccessful countersuit accusing her of defamation.

Nor is the entrepreneur initiative the only alleged scam to which Trump has been linked. In September, journalist Joe Miller described ACN, a multilevel marketing firm for which Trump has served as a pitch man. Last year, The Wall Street Journal’s James V. Grimaldi and Mark Maremont reported that ACN, which has paid Trump millions of dollars, had faced regulatory probes in multiple jurisdictions.

Now ask yourself: Did Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee or Lindsey Graham or George Pataki really think they had a solid chance to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, or even to influence the party’s policies during the 2016 campaign?

And ask yourself: Did Donald Trump really want to become president when he first entered the race, or did he just want to enhance his personal brand and his self-image and his status among the one percent?

I leave it to you, dear reader, to ascertain the answers.

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