‘Stealing with both hands’: veteran reporter Joe Conason details the right wing’s graft

“Trump is the apotheosis of this moral degeneration of conservatism because he’s out there stealing with both hands and it’s right in your face.”

So said Joe Conason, veteran reporter and author of a lacerating new book, The Longest Con: How Grifters, Swindlers, and Frauds Hijacked American Conservatism.

He spoke on Monday, the same day the US supreme court ruled that presidents are immune from prosecution for official acts – even as Donald Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee, faces 44 federal and 10 state criminal charges to go with 34 guilty verdicts handed down in New York.

“Nixon said, ‘I am not a crook.’ Could Trump really say ‘I’m not a crook’ and have anyone believe him? Nobody would believe that, including his own followers. They know that he’s out to scam money for himself, and they don’t seem to mind.

“Take the grifting around ‘stop the steal’, post-election, 2020-21. Led by Trump’s son in law [Jared Kushner], they knew they were going to do it before the election was even over. ‘We’re going to keep our fundraising operation intact.’ And they booked a quarter of a billion dollars in a couple of months. It was amazing. One of the biggest rip-offs ever.”

On the page, Conason charts 75 years of rightwing rip-off merchants attacking liberals and making money. Beginning with the supposedly anti-communist crusade of the lawyer Roy Cohn in the mid-1950s, proceeding through the rise of the Moral Majority, the attempt to bring down Bill Clinton and the brief age of the Tea Party, he ends with Cohn’s protege, Trump, poised to retake power.

To Conason, the key to the story is not how much money such grifters raise but where that money comes from: those grifters’ own supporters.

As Conason spoke, a prominent rightwing figure was reporting to a Connecticut prison.

“The media will tell you over and over again, ‘Steve Bannon is going to jail,’ or he’s fighting to stay out of jail. And it has to do with the fact he defied a subpoena from Congress [over the January 6 Capitol attack].

“But he’s also facing state charges. And the state charges are very similar to the charges for which he was pardoned by President Trump. And what the media don’t tell you, and they should be telling you, is that three other people have gone to prison for those same charges already.

“Bannon’s three co-conspirators in the We Build the Wall scam” – keeping donations supposed to support Trump’s border policies – “two of them pleaded guilty and apologized to the court and begged the court for mercy, because they admitted they ripped off millions of dollars.

“Not from liberals. They didn’t own the liberals. They owned the conservatives. They stole this money from their own constituency. And Bannon, having promised that he would not take any money, did the same thing. [He has pleaded not guilty.] The only reason he didn’t go to prison when the other three did was because Trump pardoned him.

“It signifies the level of impunity that has developed. It’s not just that their movement is riddled with this kind of scam and cynicism. It’s that you can get away with it.”

It’s fair to say Conason’s seventh book seems well timed. With a laugh, he said: “People who haven’t called me for years from MSNBC are clamoring to have me on their shows.”

Now 70, he has been a leading liberal voice since his years at the Village Voice, long before MSNBC was born. Asked to name prominent conservatives unstained by grift and swindle, he points to the Never Trumpers, “a bunch who I was once very critical of and vice versa.

“Bill Kristol is one. Stuart Stevens’ book, It Was All A Lie, is a brilliant distillation of what went wrong with the Republican party, in certain ways a good companion to my book.

“And obviously there’s Liz Cheney, somebody who I did not agree with about pretty much anything, and there’s Adam Kinzinger, someone I admire very much.”

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Both Republicans lost their seats in Congress.

Conason said: “You know they’re good people because they’ve made really big sacrifices to take a stand against this dishonesty and this threat to constitutional order. They’ve lost friends, they’ve lost family. And they stand under threat …

“There’s plenty of time to go back and have whatever recriminations or debates or disputes you want. But right now, we need everybody. And the other thing is, I find a lot of them quite likable. Like, Conway is a funny story.”

George Conway, a lawyer turned Never Trump pundit, was until recently married to Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016 and White House aide.

Conason “exposed Conway on the front page of the [New York] Observer when he was acting as a secret lawyer for [Clinton accuser] Paula Jones in 1998. And I believe I embarrassed him because he was a lawyer at a Democratic law firm in New York but they didn’t know he was secretly working to take down Bill Clinton.

“And I put a story about that on the front page of the Observer, and it ended up becoming a story in the New York Times. And I pursued him, and finally got him to call me back, and he did so very forcefully, he was angry.

“And then, flash forward 25 years and I’ve finished The Longest Con. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, I need a foreword and the best thing would be a Never Trump conservative,’ because the book rarely quotes liberals or Democrats. Mostly, I’m trying to get conservatives to talk about what’s wrong with conservatism.

“And my wife said, ‘Well, why don’t you get George Conway? He’s so funny.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you remember? He hates me.’ So anyway, I finally got him to come and have a drink. And we got along famously, and … he’s been a great supporter of this project. It’s really been fun.”

The Longest Con is published in the US by St Martin’s Press

The Guardian

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