The rise of Donald Trump has bewildered and dismayed pundits, especially conservative pundits. Many of them are treating it as a freakish fluke, a black-swan event that nobody could have predicted. But the clues were always there, for anyone who knew how to spot them.
In his last, doomed line of attack, Marco Rubio accused Trump of being a “con artist” who peddles hazy fantasies and handwaves as a solution to our most pressing problems. He wasn’t wrong about that, but Trump is hardly the first to do it. On the contrary, he’s following a trail that’s been blazed by many respectable, conventional Republican politicians before him.
As Rick Perlstein has argued, the American conservative movement has long been plagued by snake-oil salesmen that exist in a symbiotic relationship with their politicians and media figures. Prominent conservatives solicit the faithful to sign up for e-mail updates or subscribe to lists, ostensibly to help mobilize against liberals. In reality, they amass these mailing lists just so they can sell them to fly-by-night companies hawking all kinds of dubious or implausible products: health quackery, get-rich-quick schemes, survivalist paranoia, and in one memorable case, “an oilfield in the placenta”.
One high-profile example is Mike Huckabee, the failed presidential candidate who’s stamped his endorsement on all kinds of quack products. Most infamously, Huckabee agreed to be a spokesman for a company that claimed it could cure diabetes with cinnamon and dietary supplements:
In his diabetes video, Mr. Huckabee promotes the “Diabetes Solution Kit,” a $19.95 booklet with advice on eating, exercise and dietary supplements. “Just sit tight,” he says in the two-minute, 40-second pitch, “because in a moment, a free presentation is coming up.” He promises it will reveal “all the natural secrets that are backed by real science that really work.”
…One ad arriving in January in the inboxes of Huckabee supporters, who signed up for his political commentaries at MikeHuckabee.com, claims there is a miracle cure for cancer hidden in the Bible. The ad links to a lengthy Internet video, which offers a booklet about the so-called Matthew 4 Protocol. It is “free” with a $72 subscription to a health newsletter.
You might think that associating with such bottom-feeders would tarnish the public image of a wannabe presidential candidate, but this gets the causation backwards. It seems clear that, for many of them, making money is the whole point. Victory for their ideals is, at best, a secondary consideration. Their political career exists to burnish their marketing muscle, not vice versa. That’s likely why Sarah Palin quit midway through her first term as governor. More recently, the same appears true of Ben Carson, whose alleged presidential campaign more closely resembled a book tour and brand-building exercise. (Like Huckabee, Carson has a close relationship with another shady supplement company, Mannatech.)
As you’d expect, many of these products have a strong tinge of the apocalyptic or the conspiratorial, the better to boost their synergy with the intended audience. Glenn Beck, who traffics in warnings of the coming collapse of America, is a natural fit for precious-metal scam Goldline.An even better example is Food4Patriots, which hawks freeze-dried food to preppers and doomsday believers, and advertises on conservative sites that run the gamut, from Fox News and the National Review to RedState to WorldNetDaily. Survivalist websites have complained that their “one-year package” contains only 820 calories per day, not enough to live on. Undeterred, the company has also launched offshoots like Power4Patriots, which claims it can teach you to build your own solar panels with parts ordered off eBay, and SurvivalSeeds4Patriots, which sells a “seed bank” to help apocalypse survivors reboot agriculture.
For the handful of people on top of the pyramid, this can be an extremely lucrative business. In part, this is because conservative audiences are a marketer’s ideal demographic:
As David Bernstein explained in the Boston Phoenix, “Such lists of proven conservative contributors — who skew heavily toward white, suburban retirees with disposable income — are attractive not only to other conservative groups, but to companies selling financial services, health products, and other wares.”
But the larger reason why this right-wing scam economy thrives, and why liberal and progressive groups don’t have anything comparable, is the anti-intellectual attitude that pervades the American right. From creationism to birtherism, from climate-change denial to tax-cut voodoo, Republican politicians and voters have wholly given themselves over to ideas that are at odds with observed reality. Scam products and scam politics both flow naturally from this uncritical mindset.
In his blithe assertions that he can solve any problem just by the sheer might and glory of his presence, Donald Trump is no aberration. He’s the logical culmination of this trend. Really, how is curing diabetes with cinnamon, or building your own solar panels in your garage, any different from building a big, beautiful border wall and making Mexico pay for it? They may differ in scale, but all these ideas trade off the fantasy that there are easy, one-size-fits-all solutions to big, complex problems.
The Republican establishment has worked hard for a generation to foster this way of thinking, teaching their voters to scorn complexity and distrust expertise. Whether it’s ending teen pregnancy and STDs by just telling kids not to have sex, or ending crime and violence by bringing back prayer in schools, or curing poverty by pushing poor people into marriage, or unleashing massive economic growth simply by cutting taxes on the super-rich – all these ideas are conventionally respectable, but they partake of the same mode of magical, unicausal thinking. In exploiting this mindset, Trump is merely walking through a door that generations of GOP leaders have left wide open.
To be clear, there’s no inherent reason why conservatism has to be opposed to reason and science. Whatever my political views, I’d welcome the return of a sober, sensible conservative party in America. If Trump becomes the nominee, it’s likely that he’ll flame out and bring the GOP down with him. At this point, that may be the only outcome that would force the party to subject itself to a painful but necessary reckoning.