Friday, August 21, 2020

Steve Bannon and "We Build the Wall"

Steve Bannon always seemed like a cynical man on the make – "thrice divorced disciple of Mammon," as one Catholic journalist put it – and as Michelle Goldberg says he could be remarkably nasty to his own political supporters:

So it’s fitting that when Bannon on Thursday became the most recent member of Trump’s 2016 campaign staff to be arrested, it was on charges of defrauding gullible Trump supporters. According to a federal indictment, Bannon, along with his associates Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, ran a crowdfunding campaign, We Build the Wall, ostensibly to help fund Trump’s promised southern border barrier. The project became, said prosecutors, a source of illicit personal enrichment.

We Build the Wall was run as a nonprofit, and assured donors that “100 percent of funds raised” would go toward wall construction. Some donors, said the indictment, wrote to Kolfage that “they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical of online fund-raising campaigns,” but they were “giving what they could” because they trusted his promises.

According to the indictment, Bannon used a separate nonprofit to siphon off over $1 million, some of which was used to pay Kolfage, who also received money through a shell company set up by Shea.

Among other things, the indictment says, Kolfage used the funds 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.” (He seems to have used the boat, called the Warfighter, to sail in one of Trump’s beloved boat parades.)

On Thursday, Trump tried to distance himself from Bannon and We Build the Wall, first saying he knew nothing about the group, then contradicting himself and saying he disliked it. But lots of Trumpworld figures have been involved with We Build the Wall. . . .

I don't want to make this too much of a partisan attack; one of the most striking things about American politics over the past thirty years has been the prominence of powerful consultants for whom elections are a business. (James Carville, Karl Rove, David Axelrod). The Washington Post ran a long story about what happened to the millions that Sheldon Adelson spent in 2008 and 2012 on his favorite Republicans, and most of it ended up in the pockets of campaign consultants, advertising firms (often owned by the same consultants), polling operations (ditto), and so on. So far as the Post could tell, all that money had zero political impact. 

These guys have built many of the big mansions that have gone up by the hundreds in the DC suburbs. They prey on the importance of politics to Americans and their desire to have some influence on it. Now, if they are actually decisive in winning a big election for their side, most of the donors will feel that they got their money's worth. But how would anyone know which consultants were important and which were not? Maybe George W. Bush won in 2000 because Karl Rove was a genius, but then again maybe it was just a combination of Clinton fatigue and weird ballot design.

The difficulty with telling who is actually having any impact on politics creates openings into which  whole schools of sharks have swum with delight, snapping up all the money they can.

But that being said, the particular bunch of Republican sharks that trails after Trump seems remarkably sleazy.


David said...

Come on--there's a difference between selling a product (eg, campaign consulting, polling) that may or may not have value, but which in any case the seller does try to deliver, and outright deception and fraud. James Carville doesn't lie when he promises to give political advice, because he doesn't just take the money and run. He gives advice. It may or may not be worth what the buyer paid for it, but that's not criminal fraud.

One may or may not like the fact that somebody like James Carville has monetized his (real or pretended) political expertise, and built a mansion off of it. But there's a world of difference between that and an actual criminal enterprise.

Likewise, one may or may not like the spectacle of retired politicians getting rich off of speaking fees, memoirs, service on boards of directors, and so forth. But there's, once again, a world of difference between that and Trump attempting, for example, to use his presidential candidacy to wangle a promise of prime Moscow real estate from the Russians (which, according to the Republican-led Senate's recent report, he did).

And no, I don't think criminality is somehow more "honest" than legally selling dubious advice at a high price. The fact that many Americans seem to feel that way is, I think, a grave problem.

With due respect, I think here you've let your desire to be evenhanded and irenic get away with you.

G. Verloren said...

"And no, I don't think criminality is somehow more "honest" than legally selling dubious advice at a high price. The fact that many Americans seem to feel that way is, I think, a grave problem."

1) Criminality is arbitrary - two things can be approximately as immoral and harmful as each other, but one can be legal and the other not, based purely on what laws have or have not been passed.

2) Certain types of criminality are objectively more honest than others, even if not any less harmful.

A burglar who steals $10,000 from a sweet old lady's house is very much more honest than a con artist who tricks the same old lady into giving them the same $10,000 through lies. The burglar makes no pretense about the harm they intend to cause, but the con artist absolutely does.

There is no lying or deception involved in picking a lock or sneaking around in the shadows - if discovered, it's completely obvious to the viewer what is happening, and they would never fail to act if they detect you.

But fooling someone into willingly giving you money they would never hand over if they actually knew what was going on is inherently deceptive on a fundamental level. Hence why it's dishonest - it depends entirely on falsehoods.

David said...


And now, with me having challenged you on your evenhandedness, the NYT reveals how Kansas Democrats are stuck with a candidate for the state legislature who is clearly the Dem equivalent of Trump in character and personality. In high school, he made a practice of texting young women who had sent him compromising pictures of themselves to send him more, or he would publish the ones he had (and he did). He's urging mask-wearing, like a good Democrat, but he also says he would "giggle" if a Kansas Republican died of Covid.

To the Kansas Dems' credit, they are collectively denouncing him and trying to push his primary opponent as a write-in candidate. He won the primary by 14 votes.

But maybe we've got, not a Republican problem, but an American problem: our national inability to beat the assholery out of certain types of our young men.