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The Consolation of the Grift
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The Consolation of the Grift

How to exculpate a party gone mad.

Sean Hannity at Fox News Channel Studios on September 13, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

In Wednesday’s G-File, Jonah Goldberg quoted an especially bleak take on the Taylor Swift kerfuffle that had been shared in the Dispatch Slack channel. He didn’t name the colleague who posted it.

But he didn’t need to, did he? The words “especially bleak” will be on my tombstone.

The quote had to do with the universal belief among sensible conservatives that hysteria about a “psy op” involving Swift and Travis Kelce is fundamentally a grift. Radio host Erick Erickson made the point forcefully:

Whenever populist influencers are behaving in an especially freaky way, “it’s a grift” is usually the correct explanation. Their hero, Donald Trump, is a grifter of rare talent and expertise, after all. And social media has democratized opportunities for political grifting such that even the lowest of lowbrow randos can build an enormous online following by being willing to say the stupidest things right-wing activists yearn to hear.

For instance, the character seen here straightfacedly comparing Jon Voight’s influence to Taylor Swift’s is approaching 2.5 million followers on The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter.

Pandering gets you clout, clout gets you exposure, exposure gets you monetized. Eventually the line between politics and performance blurs. Ben Shapiro is rapping now, for cripes’ sake.

When in doubt, it’s a grift. Never more so than in 2024.

Yet I find myself chafing lately at accusations that influential populists are always and forever grifting when riding their latest ridiculous hobby horse.

It’s not that I disagree, exactly. It’s that I fear “it’s a grift” has become an excuse for certain partisan conservatives to avoid reckoning with what the right has become.

Populist right-wing media has always been 80 percent grift. Catch me on an especially especially bleak day and I’ll tell you the percentage is closer to 100.

It’s not that those who work in the industry aren’t sincerely right-wing. It’s that they’re forever reinventing themselves politically to follow fads that have captured the imagination of their viewers. In the past 16 years right-wing media have gone from hawkish Bush Republican to austere Tea Party conservative to cultish Trump nationalist, and their pivots have been very sharp. Last month I recalled an incident involving Ted Cruz and Fox News in which the political ground seemed to shift under the senator’s feet in real time during an interview.

The true political north star that guides populist media is affirming the opinion of the audience, whatever that opinion at the moment may be. No one exemplifies it more than Fox News’ iron man, Sean Hannity, who’s transitioned effortlessly over time through the various right-wing identities I described above. On Tuesday he remained true to form, seizing on surging Republican anxiety about a potential Taylor Swift endorsement of Biden by lobbying her on air to “think twice.” He’ll chase any ball that the Republican base tosses at him.

What else is “grifting” besides remorselessly tailoring your views to flatter the prejudices of your fans for the sake of maintaining your status and revenue, even when you privately don’t share those prejudices? That’s right-wing media distilled to a sentence.

The full extent to which it had become a grift didn’t crystallize for me until a week after Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary in 2016. On that day Rush Limbaugh took a call from a listener who believed Trump, now a solid frontrunner for the Republican nomination, was a “fraud” and “not one of us.” You’re right, Rush told her, he isn’t a conservative. He pales by comparison ideologically to Ted Cruz, the closest thing to Ronald Reagan since Ronald Reagan.


“The biggest and most destructive force in this country today is the Democrat Party. They’ve got to be beaten. They’ve got to be stopped,” he added. “I’m not going to stay home or get my nose out of joint or get twisted in a bunch of anger if my preferred person doesn’t win but there’s still somebody out there I think can snooker and smack around and beat the Democrats.” In short, if foolish Republican voters wanted to nominate Trump, they had his permission.

The most influential figure in the history of conservative media sensed which way the wind was blowing among his listeners and decided he’d rather sacrifice conservatism than his influence by resisting. He spent the next four years as a Trump apologist and did a dogged enough job of it that he ended up seated next to the president’s wife at the 2020 State of the Union address, where he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When Rush was forced to choose, he chose the grift. Of course he did: Grifting is what his industry is all about.

Sensible conservatives who’ve spent decades voting Republican and are at once unsettled by what the party’s become yet desperate for excuses not to shed their tribal affiliation must find it a consolation to believe that modern populist media is similarly one big grift. It would be extremely alarming, after all, to think that influencers with huge followings like Jack Posobiec—a onetime Pizzagate truther—really do believe that Taylor Swift’s latest romance is a “psy op” to swing the 2024 election to Joe Biden. A political movement that’s lost its mind is a movement that can’t be supported in good conscience.

But if Posobiec and the rest are just grifters then the right hasn’t changed that much. Sensible conservatives are comfortable with grifting; they’ve been listening to talk radio for ages. Grifting is cynical, not crazy, and politics is a cynical business. We all understand the lure of profit even if we’re personally unwilling to be lured so far that we’ll lie shamelessly to an audience for the sake of chasing it.

A party of grifters is still basically a normal party and sensible conservatives can support a normal party in good conscience. And, perhaps, the man who leads it.

NBC News reported Thursday that Trump’s top campaign adviser, Susie Wiles, met this week with a group of Republican mega-donors in Florida. Some were anxious about the “divisive” (read: fascist) outbursts that routinely emanate from her client on the trail and at Truth Social. Wiles’ advice to them: Just ignore him. You know how he is.

The G-word might not have been used explicitly but what she meant was that Trump’s loose-cannon public persona is itself a sort of grift. He says inflammatory things not because he means them but because he knows his fans love it: That’s the essence of grifting.

In 2016, conservatives who should have known better talked themselves into supporting him in the belief that his most hair-raising pronouncements should be taken neither seriously nor literally. In 2024, with the broader American right having since immiserated itself in spite and crankery, those who still haven’t learned better will extend that logic to the entire populist “establishment.” Don’t take them seriously or literally. It’s just a grift.

The “grift” excuse irks me because it follows other excuses made by traditional conservatives in the last few years to try to rationalize the right’s descent into madness, typically by arguing that Democrats are to blame for it. Each of those excuses has a grain of truth to it, but each has also been blown so far out of proportion that it looks like an attempt to exculpate Republican voters for their own repulsive choices.

An obvious example came in 2022 when Democrats ran ads in GOP primaries promoting kooky MAGA candidates over traditional Republicans, including a House Republican who’d had the courage to vote to impeach Trump in 2021. Conservatives were right to be upset about it. A party that derides Trumpy populists as threats to democracy while quietly bankrolling them is practicing political cynicism to a degree that would make Machiavelli retch.

But those ads didn’t try to normalize abnormal politicians by making them seem more moderate and sensible than they were. The opposite: The most famous example, which ran in Pennsylvania on behalf of Republican Doug Mastriano, emphasized that Mastriano “wants to end vote by mail. He led the fight to audit the 2020 election. If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” That was par for the course with other Democratic-funded spots in GOP primaries. They weren’t misleading. All they did was stress, accurately, how closely the candidate in question identified with Trump. 

Those ads worked because cultishly identifying with Trump is all there is to politics anymore for a meaningful share of the Republican base. Democrats recognized it and exploited it. If you’re angry about it, and you should be, let me suggest that it’s not Joe Biden’s party with whom you should be primarily angry.

Another round of excuse-making came after Trump romped in the Iowa caucuses and knocked Ron DeSantis out of the race. That was a bitter pill to swallow for sensible conservatives who were counting on a victory by the governor to restore their faith in the GOP. Seeing him get clobbered and chased out of the primary after one state must have felt like a political existential crisis to those who haven’t given up on the party already.

Some coped by blaming Democrats. If it hadn’t been for scheming left-wing prosecutors indicting Trump as the campaign was heating up, they argued, he wouldn’t have gained the momentum he needed to defeat DeSantis. Again, there’s truth to that: Many times in this newsletter I’ve pointed out how Trump’s national polling surged after he was charged in the Stormy Daniels matter in New York at the end of March. Absent the indictments, it’s possible (if unlikely) that DeSantis would have overtaken him.

But ultimately that’s just a fancy way of admitting that the twisted Republican voter of 2024 regards pending felony charges as a reason to support rather than oppose a candidate, at least if that candidate’s name is “Trump.” (It also implies that Trump should have been spared from criminal accountability for electoral reasons, whether he’s guilty or not.) If the right is so broken that it can be “manipulated” into rallying around an accused criminal simply by making him an accused criminal, then again, conservatives’ quarrel is properly with the right, not with the left.

Even some who didn’t blame Democrats directly for DeSantis’ failure complained after he dropped out that the left desperately wanted to face Trump in November, and thus foolish Republicans in Iowa had unwittingly done their bidding. A year ago, when the governor looked strong in early primary polling, I’d concede that there might be something to that but the evidence has evaporated over time. Non-Republicans who turned out to vote in New Hampshire’s GOP primary broke heavily for Nikki Haley, not Trump. And Trump’s head-to-head polling against Joe Biden has been at least as strong as, and usually stronger than, Ron DeSantis’ throughout the campaign.

“Democrats want to run against a proto-fascist who nearly ended democracy” is plausible only insofar as Trump looks wildly, irredeemably, cannot-possibly-win uncompetitive in polling. That hasn’t been true for a year, if not longer.

All of this excuse-making strikes me as a way to absolve the right of its civic sins so that reluctant partisans can once again wearily do their duty this fall.

For instance, if the core problem with Republican voters is that they’re easily “manipulated” by nefarious Democrats then logically the problem should be solved by punishing Democrats at the polls, not Republicans. That’s a convenient rationalization for a conservative to keep pulling the lever for the GOP no matter how disgusted he might be by its romance with illiberalism.

Likewise, if populist “grifters” are endlessly feeding slop to Republican voters on matters like whether Taylor Swift is a Pentagon asset, that too sounds like a problem with the manipulative influencer class more so than with the Republican base itself. They’re ideological drug dealers, and so you’re free—even encouraged—to feel scorn for Jack Posobiec and his ilk just as you’d feel scorn for anyone getting rich peddling mind-altering substances to addicts.

But the addicts themselves? They’re victims. They’ve been “grifted” by scammers. And addicts and victims deserve our sympathy, not scorn. 

This, of course, mistakes cause and effect in how right-wing media works. Rush Limbaugh didn’t convince his audience to warm up to Donald Trump in 2016; rather the opposite, as I’ve explained. The reason there are so many suppliers of conspiratorial insanity on the right is because the demand for conspiratorial insanity seems insatiable. Even if we could cut off one supplier, another would quickly replace him to cater to that demand. That’s why Fox News opted to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in defamation damages rather than let Newsmax out-compete it in telling lies about the election.

Focusing on the supply of “grifters” rather than the demand for their content is another convenient rationalization to keep voting GOP. Why should anyone let a lousy class of amoral propagandists bent on exploiting right-wing voters lead them to support the other party this fall? The Republican Party’s Jack Posobiec problem is just that, a Jack Posobiec problem. It’s not a Republican Party problem.

Because if it were a Republican Party problem, one might need to consider not supporting the Republican Party.

To those exasperated this week by the fact that antagonizing a mega-celebrity with her own massive cult following is not the height of good electoral politics, let me suggest once again that right-wing populism isn’t fundamentally a political movement. It’s a cultural movement. Its interest in winning elections reliably wanes whenever its hero and leader isn’t on the ballot. Some would even say that populists quietly crave defeat in elections, the better to nourish their sense of persecution and disenfranchisement.

The “grifters” seem to understand that more profoundly than sensible conservatives do. They’re preachers of a sort, or self-help gurus if you prefer. They offer followers a way to understand the world that fulfills them. To a certain not uncommon mindset, believing that Trump can fail in November only if a plot involving the world’s most popular entertainer, the NFL, and Pfizer is hatched against him is more soothing than knowing that Americans hate him so much they’d rather give a senescent 82-year-old another four years. There’s consolation in the grift—for both wings of the party.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.