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The Age of Political Grift

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In the New Yorker, Mike Spies investigates how the National Rifle Association has essentially become a money-making scam, in which funds are transferred from the non-profit into a public-relations firm called Ackerman-McQueen. In turn, Ackerman transfers money into the pockets of prominent NRA figures in a great cycle of grift.

The N.R.A. and Ackerman have become so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Top officials and staff move freely between the two organizations; Oliver North, the former Iran-Contra operative, who now serves as the N.R.A.’s president, is paid roughly a million dollars a year through Ackerman, according to two N.R.A. sources. But this relationship, which in many ways has built the contemporary N.R.A., seems also to be largely responsible for the N.R.A.’s dire financial state. According to interviews and to documents that I obtained—federal tax forms, charity records, contracts, corporate filings, and internal communications—a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements. Memos created by a senior N.R.A. employee describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed, whose leaders have encouraged disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships, and have marginalized those who object. “Management has subordinated its judgment to the vendors,” the documents allege. “Trust in the top has eroded.”

The way that Ackerman and their N.R.A. allies extract exorbitant rents from the non-profit isn’t, in basic form, all that unusual. The Trump campaign, with its high “burn rate” and diversion of money into the pockets of Trump and his allies, immediately comes to mind. But we see something similar when campaign consultants recommend spending that enriches themselves, such as on advertisements produced by their own agencies.

Since the rise of direct mail, a good deal of what happens in political fundraising is essentially affinity fraud. In an era of small donations in which many poor and middle-class contributors give for expressive reasons, all of this seems even more pernicious. From legitimate organizations that maintain excessive overhead costs, to outright “scam PACs“, to talking heads hawking “shady products“, political tribalism creates in-group trust dynamics that are ripe for exploitation.

It’s easy for Democrats to mock the way that the most obvious grift concentrates on the right. For example, Michael Avenatti got lots of media exposure and caused some liberals to swoon, but his star didn’t take long to fade. The GOP, on the other hand, is now the party of Trump. But this is a mistake. Smugness breeds vulnerability. Liberal and left-wing consultants siphon off a lot of donations into their own pockets. A number of left-wing organizations might not come out looking terribly good if subjected to close scrutiny. Political Twitter is full of people on the left who have built large followings by telling their audience exactly what they want to hear. Some of them are clearly very dubious.

In some respects, this kind of grift reflects the logic of under-regulated capitalism. The N.R.A. has been looted to the point of near financial collapse by the very people who are, in theory, supposed to be making it a successful enterprise. How different is this from the ways that vulture capitalists pilfer for-profit corporations? Or even how corporate boards maintain cozy relationships with executives, who they authorize huge compensation packages for?

Anyway, Spies’ account of how the N.R.A. became a piggybank for the unscrupulous is well worth reading. Be sure to click through.

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