Exclusive Excerpt From 'The Longest Con,' Joe Conason's New Book

Exclusive Excerpt From 'The Longest Con,' Joe Conason's New Book

Roy Cohn, left, and Donald Trump at the February 1983 opening of Trump Tower in Manhattan

Photo by Sonia Moskowitz

What follows is the Introduction to Joe Conason's new book,The Longest Con: How Grifters, Swindlers and Frauds Hijacked American Conservatism. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press, all rights reserved.

The most appropriate way to introduce The Longest Con is by paying homage where it is owed. The inspiration for this book’s title—and much of what you will find in its pages—was a magazine article written more than a decade ago by Rick Perlstein, the historian of modern conservatism whose skill, integrity, and commitment have been widely celebrated across our nation’s political divide.

“The Long Con” appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Baffler, a bimonthly journal of culture and politics that melds a left-leaning perspective with a surly temperament and a deft style. Published on the eve of a national election that pitted President Barack Obama against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Perlstein’s essay amusingly dissected the Republican nominee’s prevarications as an object lesson in right-wing chicanery. But then, as any serious historian is called to do, he delved far deeper.

Peering through the scrim of Romney’s falsehoods and beyond his deceptive campaign, Perlstein described a highly developed, very profitable system that marketed lies in many forms to millions of gullible American conservatives—and had mined that vein for a long time. He recalled subscribing some years earlier to several right-wing periodicals online, a decision that soon filled his email inbox to overflowing with fervent pitches for miracle “cures,” get-rich-quick “investments,” and assorted additional examples of “important information” from what an earlier generation would have called snake-oil salesmen. Their messages promised to cure heart disease, reverse arthritis, end diabetes, ensure a secure retirement, provide thousands of dollars a month for little or no effort, and more—all endorsed by the trusted celebrities and outlets whose pronouncements are conservative gospel.

Meanwhile, a kindred horde of entrepreneurs had built dozens of political action–and issue-oriented committees, raising millions of dol- lars that would supposedly result in an end to abortion, a shutdown of the United Nations, a clampdown on labor unions, and an apocalyptic rout of liberals everywhere. What they didn’t mention, at least not in any legible typeface, was that only tiny fractions of the funds donated would be deployed for any campaign, cause, or candidacy; in fact, the proceeds were almost entirely destined for “overhead” or “prospecting.” Which meant in practice that nearly all the remainder swelled the accounts of those who had solicited the money.

It was not a coincidence, in Perlstein’s view, that direct-mail and online swindlers overlapped so heavily with right-wing con artists and often were identical with them. To an expert who has devoted his professional life to exploring and exposing modern conservatism, those motley scams suddenly seemed less a comic distraction than a central feature. Partisan chroniclers who look away from such low- brow phenomena in recounting conservatism’s heroic narratives are hiding from a fundamental truth.

His verdict was unequivocal in warning that “this stuff is as import- ant to understanding the conservative ascendancy as are the interne- cine organizational and ideological struggles that make up its official history—if not, indeed, more so. The strategic alliance of snake-oil ven- dors 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.”

That harsh judgment has been confirmed repeatedly since the rise of Donald Trump and the unabashed grifting that he embodies. But the evidence, which could fill the pages of many books, was piling up and spilling over well before Trump even showed up. As the author of Before the Storm, the definitive history of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 pres- idential campaign, Perlstein detected the “infrastructural” roots of the grift in that movement. He was not wrong, as this book’s retracing and elaboration of those connections will show. (Nor was he wrong about Romney, although the retiring senator from Utah has improved his im- age considerably since that ill-fated presidential race.)

With Trump as the new paradigm, however, there is a powerful reason to trace the story back still further, to the days when Roy Cohn made his scandalous national debut as an assistant to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The brazen young attorney—who would become Trump’s mentor in mendacity—demonstrated how a conspiracy theory could be used not only to advance a far-right agenda but to glom unearned ben- efits for himself and a male companion.

longest con

The premise of Cohn’s rip-off, recalled in Chapter 1, was a bogus threat to national security from supposedly leftish books in United States Information Service libraries across postwar Europe. Vowing to stamp out this alleged literary subversion, he and his strapping pal David Schine indulged themselves in a tour of five-star hotels from London and Paris to Rome and Berlin. Compared with the multimillion-dollar depredations of Trump and his ilk, that junket now looks quaint and faintly comical, but it was a ruthless exercise in self-promotion that harmed the reputations of innocent individuals and damaged American prestige overseas.

Subsequent chapters outline the template for right-wing grift that followed in McCarthy’s wake, when various charlatans prospered by exploiting amplified anxiety over the “Red Menace” among middle- class Americans. While some overlaid the message with fundamentalist religion and others emphasized partisan political themes, all of them aimed to trigger irrational fear and popularize the myth of an impending communist takeover.

By creating such an atmosphere of utter dread—and then prom- ising that they alone could prevent America’s doom—they induced thousands of suckers to hand over large wads of cash. Their mercenary antics and vacuous lectures enraged FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had his own racket to protect. Even Hoover understood that insofar as communism posed a challenge to the West, those con men had no idea how to oppose it and could only discredit its adversaries.

Out of that environment of delusion and paranoia emerged the Goldwater movement and its leaders—and with them came direct- mail dynamo Richard Viguerie (who had served as an early fundraiser for Billy James Hargis and his Christian Crusade). The commercial and political success of Viguerie’s enterprises stimulated scores of imitators as the grift metastasized continuously into different forms—the New Right, the Moral Majority, the Tea Party movement, the prosperity gos- pel church, and today Trump’s MAGA movement, which encompasses a whole series of subsidiary swindles and scams, though none as potent as those overseen by Trump and his family.

What remained consistent in each succeeding variation was the reliance on exaggeration, deception, and fabrication, frequently per- meated with racial apprehension and hostility, as well as a remorseless drive to squeeze every penny from the dupes. None of this appeared suddenly in 2015, and its impresarios have profited exorbitantly for a very long time.

Indeed, literature tells us that grifting was an abiding feature of human society for centuries before the advent of modern politics. The history of cons, scams, and rackets in America dates back to the dawn of the Republic and no doubt earlier; frauds of every flavor have proliferated over the past century or more, growing in scope, complexity, and damage. More than once, those cons have inflicted terrible consequences, whether in the financial crash of 2008 or in the anti-vaccine uproar that left so many un- necessary dead from the COVID pandemic.

There may or may not be something inherent in right-wing ideology that encourages dishonesty. Conservative philosophy demands civic virtue and moral rigor—and yet Americans who call themselves conservative are undeniably more susceptible to the multiplying varieties of politically tinged fakery, from phony charities and direct-mail boondoggles to cancer and COVID “cures,” watered penny stocks, overpriced gold, and useless dietary supplements.

While such con artists have come to play a dominant role among the Right—where rejection of government and science leave the gullible unprotected—it is only fair to acknowledge there are and always were crooks identified with the Left. The most notorious example in recent years was the national leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose sincere donors were dismayed to learn of the gross mismanage- ment of nearly $100 million since 2020, with vast sums squandered on luxury real estate, big payouts to the relatives of its officials, first-class travel, and other insider abuses.

A more complicated case is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the most prominent voice of the anti-vax movement, with all its attendant sleaze and profiteering from human misery. Kennedy has always represented himself as a man of the Left, trading on his family’s illustrious liberal- ism, despite his now extensive and evidently warm connections with the extreme Right both in the United States and Europe. His rhetoric and name also drew in a cohort of disgruntled liberals and may well continue to attract them—along with many millions of dollars. Charla- tans can work both sides of the aisle.

Still there are fundamental distinctions in outlook between Left and Right that make one side more vulnerable than the other. It doesn’t seem accidental that the principal Democratic campaign fundraising website, ActBlue, is a nonprofit organization that only takes money for credit card fees and operating costs, while WinRed, the main Republican fundraising site, is run for private profit—and announced in 2023 that it will be raising prices during the next presidential cycle. There have been a few scammy political action committees on the Democratic side, but there have been dozens that fleeced Republicans. If your ideology dictates that profit is the highest aspiration, you will probably try to wring surplus value from everything and everyone—and your moral character may well deteriorate in that process.

I will confess that my own political orientation has led me to grimace (and sometimes laugh) while writing this book. But it isn’t only liberals like Perlstein and me who have noticed rampant swindling on the right. Prominent conservatives have issued the most damning indictments, a budding genre of essays that bemoan grifting as a spreading stain on their movement. In National Review, Jim Geraghty has written scathing, heavily documented columns about the abusive practices of right-wing “scam PACS” and kindred outfits. His colleague Kevin Williamson has denounced the “steady stream of surprisingly lucrative grifts of diverse and sundry kinds” in those pages. The same complaint has been voiced by Jonah Goldberg, Rod Dreher, Matt Lewis, and Erick Erickson, among many others.

The tone of those condemnations is often anguished and even bitter, particularly among those who have observed the sharp uptick of polit- icized larceny under Trump. When Geraghty first broached the subject in 2019, he wrote, “I’m just sick and tired of so many of our brethren averting their eyes from the big, glaring, worsening problem that rips off so many decent, hard-working folks.”

Erickson, a gun-loving religious rightist and hard-liner who rejected Trump in 2016, has often called out what he sees as grifting on both sides. He publicly quit the corrupt NRA and repeatedly trashed his movement for betraying its donors. In September 2023, he returned to the troubling topic that has preoccupied him for years—and nothing had changed for the better.

“I’ve seen senior members of the [conservative] movement decide it was time to cash in and grift out,” Erickson told his podcast listeners. “I’ve seen young hucksters wrap the label of conservatism around themselves and prey on retirees for cash, showing fabricated results in return. I’m so old, I remember when CPAC was a gathering of actual conservatives and not a grift operation with a gay cruising scene on the side,” referring acidly to a sexual harassment scandal that embroiled Matt Schlapp, the Conservative Political Action Conference chairman.

Does Erickson sound angry? For honest conservatives, that sense of disappointment and cynicism, tinged by fury, is now a routine state of being with no prospect of relief. In the pages that follow, we exam- ine how American conservatism sank to such a degraded condition— and why that should matter to all of us.

Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}