A look at the foundations of conservative power in America

Summary: On weekends the FM website runs mostly Q&A, speculative opinions, and excerpts from extraordinarily insightful articles.  This is an excerpt.  Please read it in full, as it provides powerful insights about the foundations of today’s political machinery. This excerpt provides just an outline of his analysis and evidence. It’s from The Baffler, one of the most provative periodocals of the new media.

Citizenship requires more than innocence


Today’s excerpt:
The Long Con: Mail-order conservatism

By Rick Perlstein
From The Baffler, No. 21 (#3, 2012)


Excerpt #1: Building the machine

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.

… Pundits — that is to say, the ones who aren’t stitched into their profession’s lunatic semiology, which holds that it’s unfair to call a Republican a liar unless you call a Democrat one too—have been hard at work analyzing what this all says about Mitt Romney’s character. And more power to them. But that’s not really my bag. I write long history books … But my subject is not really powerful people; biography doesn’t much interest me. In my view, powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.

The leaders are easy to study; they stand still. We can amass reams on their pasts, catalog great quantities of data on what they say in the present. Grasping the shape of a mass public, though, is a more fugitive process. Publics are amorphous, protean, fuzzy; they don’t leave behind neat documentary trails. Studying the leaders they choose helps us see them more sharply.

… All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar. What does that reveal about them?


The Prince will not save us; that’s our job.

… 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; it hardly seems possible such déclassé effronteries could get anywhere in a society with a high school completion rate of 90%. 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.

In an alternate universe where Coulter would be capable of rational self-reflection, it would be fascinating to ask her what she thinks about, say, the layout of HumanEvents.com on the day it featured an article headlined “Ideas Will Drive Conservatives’ Revival.” Two inches beneath that bold pronouncement, a box headed “Health News” included the headlines “Reverse Crippling Arthritis in 2 Days,” “Clear Clogged Arteries Safely & Easily—without drugs, without surgery, and without a radical diet,” and “High Blood Pressure Cured in 3 Minutes . . . Drop Measurement 60 Points.”

It would be interesting, that is, to ask Coulter about the reflex of lying that’s now sutured into the modern conservative movement’s DNA — and to get her candid assessment of why conservative leaders treat their constituents like suckers.

The history of that movement echoes with the sonorous names of long-dead Austrian economists, of indefatigable door-knocking cadres, of soaring perorations on a nation finally poised to realize its rendezvous with destiny. Search high and low, however, and there’s no mention of … the massive intersection between the culture of “network” or “multilevel” marketing — where ordinary folks try to get rich via pyramid schemes that leave their neighbors holding the bag—and the institutions of both evangelical Christianity and Mitt Romney’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And yet this stuff is as important to understanding the conservative ascendancy as are the internecine organizational and ideological struggles that make up its official history—if not, indeed, more so. 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.

Those tactics gelled in the seventies — though they were rooted, like all things right-wing and infrastructural, in the movement that led to Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination in 1964. In 1961 Richard Viguerie … took a job as executive director for the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The organization was itself something of a con, a front for the ideological ambitions of the grownups running National Review.

Fittingly enough, the middle-aged man who ran the operation, Marvin Liebman, was something of a P. T. Barnum figure, famous on the right for selling the claim that he had amassed no less than a million signatures on petitions opposing the People’s Republic of China’s entry into the United Nations. (He said they were in a warehouse in New Jersey. No one ever saw the warehouse.) The first thing Liebman told Viguerie was that YAF had 2,000 paid members but that in public, he should always claim there were 25,000. (Viguerie told me this personally. I found no evidence he saw anything to be ashamed of.) And the first thing that Liebman showed Viguerie was the automated “Robotype” machine he used to send out automated fundraising pitches. Viguerie’s eyes widened; he had found his life’s calling.

Following the Goldwater defeat, Viguerie went into business for himself. He famously visited the Clerk of the House of Representatives, where the identities of those who donated fifty dollars or more to a presidential campaign then by law reposed….  {eventually} Viguerie had captured some 12,500 addresses of the most ardent right-wingers in the nation. … {he} started The Viguerie Company and began raising money for conservative clients.

… The lists got bigger, the technology better …  25 million names by 1980, destination for some 100 million mail pieces a year, dispatched by some 300 employees in boiler rooms running 24 hours a day. The Viguerie Company’s marketing genius was that as it continued metastasizing, it remained, in financial terms, a hermetic positive feedback loop. It 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% 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.

Others joined the bonanza. Lee Edwards, a YAF founder who today works a nifty grift as “Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought” at the Heritage Foundation writing credulous hagiographies of conservative movement figures and institutions (including, funnily enough, the Heritage Foundation), cofounded something called “Friends of the FBI.” This operation’s chief come-on was a mass mailing of letters signed by the star of TV’s The FBI, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., purportedly to aid the families of fallen officers. The group raised $400,000 in four months—until Zimbalist abruptly withdrew his support. The TV star said he’d looked at the organization’s books and seen how much was going to the fundraisers—and claimed he’d been the victim of “fraud and misrepresentation.”

Excerpt #2: About the message

These are bedtime stories, meant for childlike minds. Or, more to the point, they are in the business of producing childlike minds. Conjuring up the most garishly insatiable monsters precisely in order to banish them from underneath the bed, they aim to put the target to sleep.

Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.

This method highlights the fundamental workings of all grassroots conservative political appeals, be they spurious claims of Barack Obama’s Islamic devotion, the supposed explosion of taxpayer-supported welfare fraud, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And, in an intersection that is utterly crucial, this same theology of fear is how a certain sort of commercial appeal—a snake-oil-selling one—works as well. This is where the retail political lying practiced by Romney links up with the universe in which 23-cent miracle cures exist (absent the hero’s intervention) just out of reach, thanks to the conspiracy of some powerful cabal—a cabal that, wouldn’t you know it in these late-model hustles, perfectly resembles the ur-villain of the conservative mind: liberals.

About Eric S. “Rick” Perlstein

From Wikipedia

He is an American historian and journalist. He has written for many magazines, including The Village Voice, The New Republic, Mother Jones, The Nation, and Rolling Stone.

Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history[6], and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)

About The Baffler

The Baffler is a journal of art and criticism appearing every March, June, and October. It’s edited by John Summers with Thomas Frank and Chris Lehmann, published in print and digital formats by MIT Press, delivered to subscribers in all fifty U.S. States, Canada, and Europe, and distributed to fine book stores everywhere.

For More information about conseratives in America

  1. Republicans have found a sure-fire path to victory in the November elections, 5 February 2010
  2. The evolution of the Republican Party has shaped America during the past fifty years, 8 May 2010
  3. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
  4. Mitt Romney and the Empire of Hubris.  Setting America on a path to decline., 10 October 2011
  5. Ron Paul’s exotic past tells us much about him, the GOP, libertarians – and about us, 27 December 2011
  6. The key to modern American politics:  the Right-Wing Id Unzipped, 15 February 2012
  7. Why Republicans Need Remedial Math: Their Budget Plans Explode the Deficit, 16 March 2012
  8. What every American must know about the Republican Party, 16 October 2012


12 thoughts on “A look at the foundations of conservative power in America”

  1. This is all so true. I find it embarrassing when someone reveals himself as a true believer in all the boogie monsters of the right. I find this occurrence much more often than on the left. And usually by my elders, which makes it so much more embarrassing. I now frequently try to at least get them to check out the sources of the claim or if it is really bogus, to check out snopes.com first.

  2. Good article Fabius, thanks for pointing it out. This industry of political fear is something I have long suspected and the reason I left the grand old party. Rove and his ilk are making millions. Is there any hope that the party will smarten up and return to their roots – small farmers and craftsmen???

    You also have good taste in the aesthetics of truth, life, and everything else. I am going through such a phase myself. My middle age daughters think it scandalous, laughably so. Boyhood fantasies they call it. Maybe so, Miss Perry has an amazing likeness to two older cousins that I had a pre-teen crush on, that BTW are still foxy in their 80s. My granddaughters are not so Freudian, they think it great and cheer me on.

    1. FM,

      Thanks for the interlude. The only thing missing is:

      “plasticine porters with looking glass ties”


      1. For those of you, like me, knowing too-little about music — that was from the lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Beatles, 1967).

        I had too look it up, despite having heard this so many times in my youth. So long ago …

  3. Regarding our suseptibilty to fearmongering, we may have reached an highwater mark if the results of a Pew Reasearch Trust are to be believed. In a survvey of over 3,000 people, the entire political spectrum feels in a 74 to 26% ratio that the government has gone too far in domestic security arrangements. (Page 96 of report) There has also, since the financial crisis, been a swing from global security concerns to financial security concerns in all groups including extreme conservatives.


  4. The connection between right-wing demagoguery and multilevel marketing is new to me, but it makes sense.

    Two of my dad’s siblings, both of them conservative evangelicals, are involved with Amway. One of them is reasonably financially stable, so she and her husband are able to afford the dues, and they seem to enjoy getting away for the weekend to go to the sales conferences. The other sibling, the one I call Alien Uncle, is flat broke, his credit ruined by a recent foreclosure and stratospheric credit card balances. As far as I know he almost never sells anything for Amway, yet he insists on maintaining his membership, apparently because it makes him feel like a dashing “entrepreneur.” In 1998, he and his brother-in-law, neither one a genuine entrepreneur, brought separate copies of a wretched self-help book called “Entrepreneurship” to a family reunion, and when my parents challenged Alien Uncle about Amway’s structure, he rattled off from memory the case law declaring it not to be a pyramid scheme. Normally, he’s beyond laconic, so this was memorable.

    As far as I know, none of my relatives is invested in the really wacko sort of “conservatism” prevalent these days. This gives me some comfort, since it’s dispiriting to even consider the really batshit stuff. Still, the general shallowness and the crude social control mechanisms that their churches feature are bad enough.

    1. This con artistry also jibes neatly with televangelists like Joel Osteen, who is a total shyster. Thankfully there’s a quiet evangelical movement to discredit Osteen and his ilk, but it speaks volumes that their presentation of God as a Tammany Hall ward boss ever resonated with so many people. It takes a stupid nation to fall for a whopper like that.

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