The conservative group called We Build the Wall presented donors with a relatively straightforward idea: it would collect private donations and use the money to build barriers along the U.S./Mexico border. On the surface, the pitch was effective: the outfit raised $25 million for the venture, and donors were assured that every penny would go toward wall construction.
Below the surface, according to federal prosecutors, the operation was a scam. As part of a broad criminal indictment, which included charges against former White House strategist Steve Bannon, prosecutors alleged money was used to pay for "home renovations, payments towards a boat, a luxury S.U.V., a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt."
As jarring as these accusations are, there's also a degree of familiarity to the circumstances. As the New York Times' Michelle Goldberg noted in her new column:
Bannon's arrest comes just two weeks after New York's attorney general sought to dissolve the National Rifle Association, claiming that its leadership "looted" it. On Thursday, Politico reported that Jerry Falwell Jr., recently suspended as president of Liberty University, has "repeatedly used a 164-foot yacht owned by NASCAR mogul Rick Hendrick for family vacations after the university committed to a lucrative sponsorship deal with Hendrick Motorsports."
The trifecta is neatly tied together with a common thread: the NRA, Jerry Falwell, and We Build The Wall each stand accused of, among other things, swindling unsuspecting conservatives who put their trust in powerful political voices on the right.
But if the allegations prove true, the perpetrators are hardly the first to try to fleece their own base. It was seven years ago when MSNBC's Chris Hayes wrote, "Much of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks."
The observation was true at the time, but it's even more important now.
As regular readers know, many prominent Republican voices -- Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, et al. -- have created lucrative mailing lists used for highly dubious purposes. Similarly, the rise of the Tea Party in the Obama era led to the creation of "scam PACs" that targeted conservative donors, but existed "mostly to pad the pockets" of the consultants who ran them.
Donald Trump, not surprisingly, was similarly eager to separate those he perceived as fools from their money, running a fraudulent charitable foundation and creating a fraudulent "university," which was designed to do little more than rip off its "students."
If the latest criminal indictments are accurate, groups like the NRA and We Build The Wall also saw conservatives as suckers.
The Washington Post's Paul Waldman added yesterday, "Conservative operatives such as Bannon have always viewed the right's rank-and-file with utter contempt, as little more than a collection of fools to be taken advantage of."
Similarly, Amanda Carpenter, a conservative who's worked with GOP leaders such as Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz, delivered an important message to the right yesterday: "Conservatives should be very angry. You got used."