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Grift American style

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elmer gantry

Salon has an interview with Rick Perlstein, in which Perlstein explains how Mike Huckabee’s hawking of some magic beans that purportedly cure diabetes is all of a piece with the intersection of New Right politics and good old fashioned American hucksterism:

[O]nline publications like Human Events and Newsmax— which is files and files of their horrible con games— would rent out their good name and their lists. You’d see something in your email like, Dear Human Events reader… and something about a 99-cent cancer cure. You never could tell where the grift begins and the politics end because there would always be rhetoric about how there’s a liberal conspiracy to hide this knowledge from the public; that this particular cancer cure was used by Ronald Reagan, et cetera, et cetera. . .

I believe that in the 1990s, The New Republic did an exposé of how Pat Buchanan had turned running for President into a business, so it didn’t start with Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee.

One of the many things I admire about Perlstein’s work is that he’s not contemptuous toward the people who are getting conned by this sort of thing, but rather understands the worldly success of the likes of Pat Robertson and Glenn Beck as a product of structural social and cultural factors, rather than evidence of individual stupidity and/or culpable naivete on the part of their marks:

A lot of this stuff comes from Evangelical culture, which is a culture of witness, so the hawking of miracles is absolutely baked into the cake. Someone like Pat Robertson was followed by a figure like Pat Buchanan or any number of candidates in the last two or three Republican primary seasons, who make a lot of noise by doing decently well in early polls but then fade out once the seasoned pros take over and the money becomes preeminent.

If this historical pattern holds, Mike Huckabee, if he does well early, will flame out before the second or third inning but I see no impediment whatsoever for him to be disqualified by the conservative rank-and-file, simply because this stuff has been going on without much complaint since the 1970s. This is part of the hustle, right? If Huckabee can claim to have been victimized because of his activities, he can always claim it’s the conspiracy of the liberal elites… and then it’s off to the races. . . .

Glenn Beck is a Mormon and this stuff is baked into Mormon culture even more than Evangelical culture. There’s the whole culture of multilevel marketing— or pyramid schemes, as they’re more derisively known— which is basically a system where you buy a franchise for some kind of product but you really only make money by selling a chunk of the franchise to your neighbor. The further down the line you are, the less likely you are to realize any profits, and most people lose lots of money on this stuff. MLM, some people joke in Utah, stands for “Mormons losing money” and so these guys are masters of the stuff. There’s also a culture of Evangelical or Mormon witnessing; being able to cry on cue when telling the story of your victimization is very important. This goes back to Elmer Gantry as portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film of the same name.

There is or was a right-wing talk radio station in Denver, and awhile back I listened in rapt fascination to the Michael Savage show while stuck in a traffic jam. I was particularly struck by how between all the frothing at the mouth, Savage would pitch every kind of snake oil imaginable — miracle medical cures of course, but also financial miracles via no money down real estate pyramid schemes, gold bug propaganda, survivalist kits, you name it.

Anyway, all this makes me think of (what else?) law schools, but really you can apply a grifter-style frame to a huge number of social institutions, from the most disreputable to the most respectable. (For instance climate change denialism lends itself very well to this typology.)

I propose the following typology, using the current crisis in legal education as an exemplar. Any successful sustained grift (the term of art is a “long con”) will feature three sorts of promotional characters. These character types have fuzzy boundaries, and indeed a single person may at any one time exhibit traits of two or all three of them, as well as moving between types over time.

The Wise Guy

This guy (or gal) is on the grift and knows it. He therefore has a certain purity to him. Example: The people running Sterling Partners, the Chicago private equity firm that figured out how to gorge itself on federal loans by opening up for-profit open-enrollment law schools. Sterling Partners knows exactly what it’s about, which is profit-maximization courtesy the American taxpayer.

The Bullshitter

These are the classic sales types. Asking them if they believe their own pitches is like asking an actor if he really is the character he’s playing. In other words the question itself involves a category mistake. Examples: Basically every law school dean when he’s playing the role of a law school dean.

The Zealot

This person really believes. It’s of course extremely tempting to believe things that one wants to believe are true, and plenty of people give in to that temptation, even if doing so requires performing certain unnatural intellectual acts (Flaubert: “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”).

I could add plenty of illustrative links but reading Perlstein makes me feel a certain sympathy for the devils, so readers can come up with their own favorites.

I do wonder where Erwin Chemerinsky fits into this maze however.

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