Salvos The Long Con

Mail-order conservatism

Rick Perlstein

image

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.

Some Romney lies posit absences where there are obviously presences: his claim, for instance, that “President Obama doesn’t have a plan” to create jobs. Other Romney fabrications assert presences where there are absences. A clever bit of video editing can make it seem like Romney was enthusiastically received before the NAACP, when, in fact, he had been booed. There are lies, damned lies, statistics—like his assertion that his tax cut proposal won’t have any effect on the federal budget, which the Tax Policy Center called “not mathematically possible.” That frank dismissal vaulted the candidate into another category of lie, an attempt to bend time itself: Romney responded by calling that group “biased”; last year, he called them “objective.”

There are outsourced lies, like this one from deep in my files: in 2007, Ann Romney told the right-wing site Newsmax.com that her husband had “always personally been prolife,” though Mitt had said in his 1994 Senate race, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” And then Ann admitted a few sentence later, “They say he flip-flopped on abortion. Well, you know what? He did change his mind.”

And then there’s the most delicious kind of lie of them all, the kind that hoists the teller on his own petard as soon as a faintly curious auditor consults the record for occasions on which he’s said the opposite. Here the dossier of Mittdacity overfloweth. In 2012, for example, he said he took no more federal money for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games than previous games had taken; a decade earlier, however, he called the $410 million in federal money he bagged “a huge increase over anything ever done before.”

There are more examples, so many more, but as I started to log and taxonomize them, their sheer volume threatened to crash my computer. (OK, I’m lying; I just stopped cataloging them, out of sheer fatigue.) You can check in at MSNBC’s Maddowblog for Steve Benen’s series “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” for the current tally. He was at Volume XXXIX as of this writing, though I’m confident several more arrived while this magazine was at the printers. Volume XXVIII, posted early in August, listed twenty-eight separate lies. Then came the Republican convention, when his designated fibbing-mate Paul Ryan packed so many lies into his charismatic introduction to the nation that a Washington Post blogger assigned by his editor to write a piece on “the true, the false, and the misleading in Ryan’s speech” could find only one entrant for the “true” section; and his editor then had to concede that “even the definition of ‘true’ that we’re using is loose.”

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 that are published with photos of presidents and presidential aspirants on the covers. The photos are to please the marketers: presidents sell. 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. Political theorist James MacGregor Burns’s classic book Leadership explains that “leadership over human beings is exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilize, in competition or conflict with others, institutional, political, psychological, and other resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers . . . in order to realize goals mutually held by both leaders and followers.” Watching charismatic people try to seize their attention and win their allegiance becomes the intellectual whetstone. As political psychologist Harold Lasswell once put it, a successful aspirant to leadership is one whose “private motives are displaced onto public objects and rationalized in terms of public interest.” Watching those private motives at work, the public they seek to convince comes into focus.

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?

An Oilfield in the Placenta

In 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value.

Subscriber lists to ideological organs are pure gold to the third-party interests who rent them as catchments for potential customers. Who better suits a marketing strategy than a group that voluntarily organizes itself according to their most passionately shared beliefs? That’s why, for instance, the other day I (and probably you) got an advertisement by way of liberal magazine The American Prospect seeking donations to Mercy Corps, a charity that helps starving children in the Third World. But back when I was getting emails every day from Newsmax and Townhall, the come-ons were a little bit different.

Dear Reader, I’m going to tell you something, but you must promise to keep it quiet. You have to understand that the “elite” would not be at all happy with me if they knew what I was about to tell you. That’s why we have to tread carefully. You see, while most people are paying attention to the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big institutions have their money somewhere else . . . [in] what I call the hidden money mountain . . . All you have to know is the insider’s code (which I’ll tell you) and you could make an extra $6,000 every single month.

Soon after reading that, I learned of the “23-Cent Heart Miracle,” the one “Washington, the medical industry, and drug companies REFUSE to tell you about.” (Why would they? They’d just be leaving money on the table: “I was scheduled for open heart surgery when I read about your product,” read one of the testimonials. “I started taking it and now six months have passed and I haven’t had open-heart surgery.”) Then came news of the oilfield in the placenta.

image

“Dear NewsMax Reader,” this appeal began, leaving no doubt that whatever trust that publication had built with its followers was being rented out wholesale. “Please find below a special message from our sponsor, James Davidson, Editor of Outside the Box. He has some important information to share with you.”

Here’s the information in question: “If you have shied away from profiting from the immense promise of stem cells to treat disease because of moral concern over extracting stem cells from fetal tissue, pay close attention. You can now invest with a clear conscience. An Israeli entrepreneur, Zami Aberman, has discovered ‘an oilfield in the placenta.’ His little company, Pluristem Life Systems (OTCBB: PLRS) has made a discovery which is potentially more valuable than Prudhoe Bay.”

Davidson concluded by proposing the lucky investor purchase a position of 83,000 shares of PLRS for the low, low price of twelve cents each. If you act now, Davidson explained, your $10,000 outlay “could bring you a profit of more than a quarter of a million dollars.”

Not long after I let the magic of the placenta-based oilfield sink in, I got another pitch, this one courtesy of the webmasters handling the Human Events mailing list and headed “The Trouble with Get-Rich-Quick Schemes.” Perhaps I’m a little gullible myself; for a couple of seconds, I believed the esteemed Reagan-era policy handbook might be sending out a useful consumer advisory to its readers, an investigative guide to the phony get-rich-quick schemes caroming around the right-leaning opinion-sphere. But that hasty assumption proved sadly mistaken, presuming as it did that the proprietors of outfits like Human Events respect their readers. Instead, this was a come-on for something called “INSTANT INTERNET INCOME”—the chance at last to “put an end to your financial worries . . . permanently erase your debts . . . pay cash for the things you want . . . create a secure, enjoyable retirement for yourself . . . give your family the abundant lifestyle they so richly deserve.”

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 percent. 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 oilfields in the placenta. Nor anything about, say, 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.

Back in our great-grandparents’ day, the peddlers of such miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes were known as snake-oil salesmen.

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, a kid from Houston whose heroes, he once told me, were “the two Macs”—Joe McCarthy and General Douglas MacArthur—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. And 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 two thousand paid members but that in public, he should always claim there were twenty-five thousand. (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. First alone, and then with a small army of “Kelly Girls” (as he put it to me in 1996), he started copying down the names and addresses in longhand until some nervous bureaucrat told him to cease and desist.

By then, though, it was too late: Viguerie had captured some 12,500 addresses of the most ardent right-wingers in the nation. “And that list,” he wrote in his 2004 book, America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Over America, “was my treasure trove, as good as the gold bricks deposited at Fort Knox, as I started The Viguerie Company and began raising money for conservative clients.”

Fort Knox: an interesting image. Isn’t that what proverbial con men are always claiming to sell?

The lists got bigger, the technology better (“Where are my names?” he nervously asked, studying the surface of the first computer tape containing his trove): twenty-five million names by 1980, destination for some one hundred million mail pieces a year, dispatched by some three hundred employees in boiler rooms running twenty-four 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 percent 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.”

In 1977, Democratic Congressman Charles H. Wilson of California proposed timid regulations to inform donors exactly how much of their money was going to the cause they thought they were supporting. The Heritage Foundation raced forth with an “issues bulletin” announcing that any such rule changes would subject “church leaders” to “vicious” attacks, and would “increase the paperwork on every Christian organization . . . inevitably lessening the funds each charity can use for its stated purpose.” (Christianity itself being the obvious target of this Democratic subterfuge of “reform.”) And just to give the cause the imprimatur of elected office, a favorite congressman of the Christian Right, John Conlan of Arizona (“He’s never been honest,” Barry Goldwater once said about him), was drafted to explain that the high overhead of direct-mail campaigns was a boon to the charity-customers: it represented start-up—“prospecting”—costs that would permit organizations to raise yet more money down the line. (“Defends charities against Big Government,” read the caption beneath a picture of Conlan in Conservative Digest—the magazine Richard Viguerie published.)

Here’s the thing, though: as is the case with most garden-variety pyramid schemes, the supposed start-up costs never seemed to stop. And conservative groups that finally decoupled their causes from Viguerie’s firm found their fundraising costs falling to less than fifty cents on the dollar. Viguerie would point out his clients didn’t feel ripped off. At that, maybe some were in on the con, too—for instance, his client Citizens for Decent Literature, an anti-smut group, took in an estimated $2.3 million over a two-year period, with more than 80 percent going to Viguerie’s company; the group’s principal was future S&L fraudster Charles Keating.

It all became too much for Marvin Liebman, the Dr. Frankenstein who had placed the business model in Viguerie’s palpitating hands. Liebman told conservative apostate Alan Crawford, author of the valuable 1980 exposé Thunder on the Right, that Viguerie and company “rape the public.” Another source familiar with the conservative direct-mail industry wondered to Crawford, “How anyone of any sensitivity can bear to read those letters scrawled by little old women on Social Security who are giving up a dollar they cannot afford to part with . . . without feeling bad is unbelievable.”

Such qualms clearly did not carry the day—and now the practice is apparently too true to the heart of conservatism to die. In 2007, the Washington Post reported on the lucrative fundraising sideline worked up by syndicated columnist Linda Chavez. George W. Bush had nominated Chavez to be his first secretary of labor, but then backpedaled after reports that she had lied about an undocumented worker living in her house. Among the prime red-meat entries on her résumé is a book called Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics. And while Chavez probably wouldn’t have brought much reliable wisdom to the task of regulating organized labor, it’s quite clear from the Post report that she had mastered the art of the shakedown. In her direct-mail career, she had “used phone banks and direct-mail solicitations to raise tens of millions of dollars, founding several political action committees with bankable names: the Republican Issues Committee, the Latino Alliance, Stop Union Political Abuse and the Pro-Life Campaign Committee. Their solicitations promise direct action in the ‘fight to save unborn lives,’ a vigorous struggle against ‘big labor bosses’ and a crippling of ‘liberal politics in the country.’” But true to the Viguerie model, less than 1 percent of the money that Chavez’s groups raised went to actual political activity. The rest went either back into further fundraising pitches or into salaries and perks for Chavez and her relatives. “I guess you could call it the family business,” Chavez told the Post. I guess you could.

Waging Culture War for Fun and Profit

But the New Right’s business model was dishonest in more than its revenue structure. Its very message—the alarmist vision of White Protestant Civilization Besieged that propelled fundraising pitch after fundraising pitch—was confabulatory too. The typical ploy ran a little something like this, from Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Research and Education Foundation:

Dear Friend: Do you believe that children should have the right to sue their parents for being “forced” to attend church? Should children be eligible for minimum wage if they are being asked to do household chores? Do you believe that children should have the right to choose their own family? As incredible as they might sound, these are just a few of the new “children’s rights laws” that could become a reality under a new United Nations program if fully implemented by the Carter administration. If radical anti-family forces have their way, this UN sponsored program is likely to become an all-out assault on our traditional family structure.

Following the standard scare-mongering playbook of the fundraising Right, Weyrich launched his appeal with some horrifying eventuality that sounded both entirely specific and hair-raisingly imminent (“all-out assault on our traditional family structure”—or, in the case of a 1976 pitch signed by Senator Jesse Helms, taxpayer-supported “grade school courses that teach our children that cannibalism, wife swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior”; or, to take one from not too long ago, the white-slavery style claim that “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood”). Closer inspection reveals the looming horror to be built on a non-falsifiable foundation (“could become”; “is likely to become”). This conditional prospect, which might prove discouraging to a skeptically minded mark, is all the more useful to reach those inclined to divide the moral universe in two—between the realm of the wicked, populated by secretive, conspiratorial elites, and the realm of the normal, orderly, safe, and sane.

Weyrich’s letter concludes by proposing an entirely specific, real-world remedy: slaying the wicked can easily be hastened for the low, low price of a $5, $10, or $25 contribution from you, the humble citizen-warrior.

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.

Scaling Up

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.

In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin—where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches—the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.

Dear Fellow Conservative, Do you know which special interest has given more money to the Obama and Clinton campaigns than any other? If you guessed “trial lawyers”—well, okay, that’s too easy. But can you guess which special interest came in second? Labor unions? Nope. The Green Lobby? Nope. AARP? Wrong, again. NEA? Nyet. Give up? Okay, here’s the answer: Wall Street. That’s right. According to CNNMoney.com, Wall Street securities and investment firms have given over $35 million to Democratic candidates this election cycle. . . . If you’ve been wondering why the financial industry has been in meltdown—and taking your 401(k) or investment portfolio down with it—now you know. Let’s face it: The former frat boys who populate Wall Street today understand economics about as well as the pinko professors whose courses they snored through. . . . Trusting them with your money is like trusting Bill Clinton to babysit your underage niece. But I know someone you can trust to manage your investments. . . . His name is Dr. Mark Skousen—that’s “Dr.” as in “Ph.D. in Economics and Monetary History,” something you don’t get by playing Beer Pong with your frat buddies. For the past 28 years, subscribers to his investment newsletter, Forecasts & Strategies, have profited enormously from his uncanny ability to predict major market trends before they happen. . . . For instance: In the early ’80s, Dr. Skousen predicted that “Reaganomics will work” and said “a long decade of profits is coming.” . . . The “bottom line,” as they say? Don’t let the Democrats run the country. And don’t let Wall Street frat boys manage your investments. Do it yourself, with the genuinely expert guidance of freedom-loving economist Mark Skousen in Forecasts & Strategies. Click here to learn more.

That letter is signed by Ann Coulter—and, truth be told, it reads like she wrote it. It is a perfect portrait of the nether region of the right-wing con, figure (politics) trading places with ground (commerce) a dizzying dozen times over in the space of just these several paragraphs. There is the bizarre linguistic operation that turns “liberal” (or, in Coulterese, “pinko”) into a merely opportunistic synonym for “stuff you don’t like.” There’s the sloganeering alchemy that conflates political and economic magical thinking (“freedom”!). There’s shorthand invocation of Reagan hagiography. And then, presto: The suggestible readers on the receiving end of Coulter’s come-on are meant to realize that they are holding the abracadabra solution to every human dilemma (vote out the Democrats—oh, and also, subscribe to Mark Skousen’s newsletter for investors, while you’re at it).

There’s a kind of mystic wingnut great-circle-of-life aura to this stuff. Mark Skousen, a Mormon, is the nephew of W. Cleon Skousen, author of the legendarily bizarre Birchite tract The Naked Communist, which claimed to have exposed the secret forty-five-point plan by which the Soviet Union hoped to take over the United States government. (Among the sinister aims laid out in the document: gain control of all student newspapers; “eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.”) Upon its publication in 1958 (it was republished in 2007 as an ebook), the president of the Church of Latter-day Saints, David O. McKay, recommended that all members read it. Mark Skousen is also author of a book called Investing in One Lesson, which cribs its title from the libertarian tract Economics in One Lesson, distributed free by conservative organizations in the millions in the fifties, sixties, and seventies (Reagan was a fan). He founded an annual Las Vegas convention called “FreedomFest”—2012 keynoters: Steve Forbes, Grover Norquist, Charles Murray, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey—which advertises itself as “the world’s largest gathering of right-wing minds.” This event points to another signal facet of the conservative movement’s long con: convincing its acolytes that they are the true intellectuals, that anyone to their left is the merest cognitive pretender. (“Will this 3 Minute Video Change Your Life?” you can read on FreedomFest’s website. Because three-minute videos are how intellectuals roll. Click here to learn more.)

The oilfield in the placenta is another perfect mélange of right-wing ideology and a right-wing money con. It begins with a signal ideological lie: that stem-cell research represents an outrage against the right to life (but the cultivation of embryos for in vitro fertilization does not). It then pulls the mark along with the right-wing fantasy that energy independence is only one miraculous technological breakthrough away (but the development of already existing alternative energy sources doesn’t count as one of those breakthroughs). It all makes its own sort of internally coherent sense when you consider the salesman: James Dale Davidson is a founder of the National Taxpayers Union, a Richard Mellon Scaife–funded enterprise that gave Grover Norquist his start as a professional conservative. Davidson himself is a producer of Unanswered: The Death of Vincent Foster. “There is overwhelming evidence that Foster was murdered,” he told the Washington Post. “They obviously have reasons they don’t want this to come out . . . obviously there’s something big they’re trying to protect.”

image

Of course, the childlike appeals won’t work their full magic without the invocation of the conservative movement’s childlike heroes. The Gipper appears in another splendid specimen received by Human Events readers—which is appropriate, because Human Events is where Reagan himself got a lot of the made-up stuff he spouted across his entire political career. “When President Ronald Reagan got cancer during his presidency,” this one begins, “the great German doctor Hans Nieper, M.D., treated him. It would have been frontpage news if it hadn’t been hushed up at the time.” (“German doctors ‘cook’ cancer out of your body while you nap!”) “Many American cancer patients lose their hair and their vitality. But Reagan kept his famous pompadour hairstyle. He also kept his warm smile and vigorous style.” (“CLICK HERE to request German Cancer Breathrough: A Guide to Top German Alternative Clinics.”) “Reagan lived for another 19 years. He died at age 93, and not from cancer.” (“Fortunately, as a journalist I’m protected by the First Amendment. I can tell you the truth without having to risk persecution from the authorities.”)

Miracle cures, get-rich-quick schemes, murderous liberals, the mystic magic mirage of a world without taxes, those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had hidden somewhere in the Syrian desert—only connect.

Untruth and Consequences

And what of Willard M. Romney’s part in the game? There’s a lot going on with Romney’s lying, not all of it related to his conservative identity; he was making things up as a habit, after all, back when he was a Massachusetts moderate. To a certain extent, Romney’s lies are explicable in just the way a lot of pundits are explaining them. When you’ve been all over the map ideologically, and you’re selling yourself to a party now built on extremist ideological purity, it takes a lot of tale-telling to cover your back. But that doesn’t explain one overlooked proviso: these lies are as transparent to his Republican colleagues as they are to any other sentient being. Nor does it account for a still more curious fact—for all the objections that conservatives have aired over Romney’s suspect purity in these last months, not one prominent conservative has made Romney’s dishonesty part of the brief against him.

It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.

A Romney lie is a pure Ronald Reagan imitation.

In part the New York Times had it right, for as much as it’s worth: Romney’s prevarications are evidence of simple political hucksterism—“short, utterly false sound bites,” repeated “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” But the Times misses the bigger picture. Each constituent lie is an instance pointing to a larger, elaborately constructed “truth,” the one central to the right-wing appeal for generations: that liberalism is a species of madness—an esoteric cult of out-of-touch, Europe-besotted ivory tower elites—and conservatism is the creed of regular Americans and vouchsafes the eternal prosperity, security, and moral excellence of God’s chosen nation, which was doing just fine before Bolsheviks started gumming up the works.

A Romney lie in this vein is a pure Ronald Reagan imitation—as in this utterance from 2007: “In France,” Romney announced on the campaign trail, “I’m told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.” And just as Reagan was found to be reciting film dialogue and jump-cutting anecdotes from his on-screen career into his pseudobiographical reminiscences on the stump, so it turns out that Romney picked up the marriage canard from the Homecoming Saga, a science fiction series written by Mormon author Orson Scott Card. (Another reason for students of Romney’s intellectual development to queasily recall that he told interviewers during that same 2008 presidential run that his favorite work of fiction was Battlefield Earth, the sci-fi opus by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, a consummate shakedown artist in his own right.)

Either deliberately or through some Reaganesque slip of the unconscious, Romney’s stump confabulations worked the same way that those legendary Viguerie direct-mail appeals did: since reality is never Manichean enough, fables have to do the requisite ideological heavy lifting—to frighten the target audience to do the fabulists’ will. That’s the logic of the pitch for the quivering conservative masses.

Once, I gave a speech to a marquee assemblage of true members of the conservative elite, from William Bennett to Midge Decter to Alf Regnery, at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a conservative think tank that rich donors convinced Princeton University to house under its auspices. (Karl Rove made a cameo appearance, during which he bragged about making a Republican congressman cry.) In my remarks, I laid out what I took to be a disturbing moral pattern, what I naively thought would stir these folks into something like shame. Why was it, I asked, that whenever Richard Nixon needed someone to brazen out some patently immoral, illegal, or dishonest act, he frequently and explicitly sought out a veteran of the conservative movement—the same conservatives whose ideology in policy contexts he usually derided? Because, I said, “Nixon knew that if you had a dirty job to get done, you got people who answered the description he made of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy: ‘good, healthy, right-wing exuberants.’”

I gave half a dozen examples of latter-day conservative exuberance, in my own admitted exuberance to rain down the shame: the phony “middle of the road caucus” formed to secretly take over a National Student Association meeting from the right; the fliers the RNC put out during the 2004 election announcing that a President John Kerry would institute a plan to ban the Bible; the time Jerry Falwell lied that he’d never argued for the elimination of the public school system—“lying for the Lord,” as Mormons call it. Then, as the question-and-answer period approached, I trembled, anticipating the conservative elite’s chastened response. Yes, reader: I was once just that naive.

M. Stanton Evans, a legendary movement godfather, stood up. He said my invocation of Richard Nixon was inappropriate because Richard Nixon had never been a conservative. He proceeded, though, to make a striking admission: “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate”—at which point, apparently, Nixon finally convinced conservatives he could be one of them.

And that, at last, may be the explanation for Mitt Romney’s apparently bottomless penchant for lying in public. If the 2012 GOP nominee lied louder than most—and even more astoundingly than he has during his prior campaigns—it’s just because he felt like he had more to prove to his core following. Lying is an initiation into the conservative elite. In this respect, as in so many others, it’s like multilayer marketing: the ones at the top reap the reward—and then they preen, pleased with themselves for mastering the game. Closing the sale, after all, is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing that you have the skill and the stones to just brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher. Sneering at, or ignoring, your earnest high-minded mandarin gatekeepers—“we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” as one Romney aide put it—is another part of closing the deal. For years now, the story in the mainstream political press has been Romney’s difficulty in convincing conservatives, finally, that he is truly one of them. For these elites, his lying—so dismaying to the opinion-makers at the New York Times, who act like this is something new—is how he has pulled it off once and for all. And at the grassroots, his fluidity with their preferred fables helps them forget why they never trusted the guy in the first place.

Close Subscribe Continue to TheBaffler.com