The GOP’s Grifter Problem

Why the Republican Party attracts provocateurs, faux martyrs, and grifters in droves.

Reality TV personality Phil Robertson speaks during the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 29, 2014, in New Orleans.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Republican Party has a lot of problems, and if there’s one that doesn’t get enough attention, it’s the party’s broad appeal to provocateurs, faux martyrs, and grifters. Just look at the speakers list for the Republican Leadership Conference, which began on Thursday. There’s Donald Trump, the man who made “birtherism” a national cause; Herman Cain, whose presidential run was a glorified book tour; Dinesh D’Souza, who just pleaded guilty to a felony campaign finance violation, and Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star who—like Cliven Bundy—believes black Americans were better off under racist oppression.

In fairness, I’m sure Robertson despises slavery. (Bundy, by contrast, wondered if blacks weren’t “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things.”) He just thinks it wasn’t so bad under Jim Crow. “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person,” said Robertson, discussing his childhood in Louisiana. “The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field. … They’re singing and happy.”

But whereas Bundy was condemned by every Republican under the sun— “Bundy’s comments are completely beyond the pale,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee—Robertson became a conservative hero. Of course, the main difference is that Robertson got in trouble for his views on gays. “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he said.

On the right, this language isn’t beyond the pale. Or at least, it’s seen as a matter of religious expression, not bigotry. As such, conservatives defended Robertson as a victim of political correctness and religious intolerance. At National Review, Mark Steyn compared anti-Robertson activists to Soviet totalitarians: “Everything must be gayed. There must be Five-Year Gay Plans for American bakeries, and the Christian church, and reality TV.” Louisiana Rep. Vance McAllister brought one of Robertson’s sons to the State of the Union. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Robertson was celebrated and Sarah Palin canonized him for conservative America. “His fight was our fight and we pushed back and we won. And now everyone is happy, happy, happy,” she said.

If all of this sat in equal proportion to serious policymaking, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Annoying for liberals, but not a cause for concern. Unfortunately, in our world, the energy of the conservative movement—and thus the Republican Party—is geared toward these people. If you want money and attention, you could do worse than become a conservative provocateur. Right-wing resentment—stoked by impossible promises and harnessed through donations—built a fortune for Glenn Beck, a political career for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and a burgeoning media empire for the late Andrew Breitbart.

Even if you think these lawmakers and activists are sincere—and I do—it’s hard not to see the whole operation as a perpetual swindle. Take the Affordable Care Act. With the re-election of President Obama, odds of repeal were slim-to-none. But rather than abandon the call for Obamacare repeal, conservative groups—and their allies in Congress—pushed further. Not because they thought it could happen, but because it was lucrative. As Robert Costa described for National Review at the time, “Business has boomed since the push to defund Obamacare caught on. Conservative activists are lighting up social media, donations are pouring in, and e-mail lists are growing.”

The message from groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund was simple: You can repeal Obamacare! All it takes is a few friendly donations. Indeed, on its donation page, Heritage Action for America—the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank—asked supporters to “Please donate now to ensure we have the resources to fight and win.”

Every political movement has its opportunists, and there’s no doubt the Democratic Party has its share of grifters. But MSNBC doesn’t devote its commercial programming to selling gold, and failed Democrats aren’t running for president to drive their book sales. Simply put, there’s a huge market for grift on the right, and—aside from the ethics of it all—it’s a huge problem for the GOP.

Like with Bill Clinton in 1992, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 turned a lot of conservatives into easy marks for the worst provocateurs, who made millions with wild rumors and apocalyptic predictions. In turn, there’s a generation of Republican politicians who aren’t as interested in policy as they are in building clips for a gig on Fox News. As we saw with the GOP presidential primaries, it’s impossible to keep this from the general public. Eventually, mainstream Republicans will have to affirm extreme ideas (i.e., “self-deportation”) to pass muster with the conservative base, and in the process, hurt themselves with ordinary voters.

If Republicans want to avoid this for the next election cycle, they should ignore the Cains and D’Souzas of American politics. After all, the only thing worse than listening to grifters is encouraging them.