It seems like just about every day there is at least one headline in the news about some member of congress saying something stupid and insane. While the news cycle may no longer be dominated by former president Donald Trump’s crazy tweets, the media certainly has no shortage of outrageous statements and social media generated controversies to cover.
One-off gaffes and careless statements once had to potential to sink a politician’s career, or at least leave them politically damaged. However, in today’s social media age, some politicians have figured out a way to turn controversy into a lucrative business model.
This method of intentionally generating media controversy and then fundraising off it, has been perfected by agitators in both parties- something I have termed, “The Grift Model.”
The Grift Model essentially has five simple steps that any populist demagogue can execute, whether they are an intellectually vapid wingnut like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) or a more sophisticated provocateur such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC).
The Grift Model
Step 1: Say something shocking and intentionally provocative.
Step 2: Go viral on social media.
Step 3: Get on TV.
Step 4: Solicit small-dollar campaign contributions online.
Step 5: Lather, rinse, repeat.
As distasteful as the whole process is, the truth, unfortunately, is that it works. Almost all of the top 15 Republican fundraisers in the U.S. House for the 2022 election cycle are shameless practitioners of the Grift Model.
The most successful grifter by fundraising numbers is Greene, the QAnon conspiracy theorist congresswoman from Georgia. Greene raised $4,775,069, the 6th most in campaign contributions among the entire House, Republicans and Democrats. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was not far behind, with $3,277,058 (12th). Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Cawthorn are both among the House’s most prolific fundraisers as well.
But the Grift Model is not exclusively a Republican phenomenon. Socialist demagogue Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) was the third biggest Democrat fundraiser. Congressional Progressive Caucus Deputy Chair Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders acolyte and activist Nina Turner, who is running for an Ohio house seat, both made the list of top ten fundraisers in the House.
The Grift Model is incentivized and allowed to flourish by the current political system and media culture. The House is paralyzed by partisan gridlock, and power is narrowly concentrated in the House Speaker and party leadership, who tightly restrict bills and amendments from being brought up for a vote. Committee hearings have become merely exercises in political theatre.
If you are a freshman member of Congress, and not a member of the leadership team, you probably have nothing better to do with your time than perform during committee hearings and appear on television. After all, you’re not going to be busy legislating.
Also, if you are not the political establishment’s chosen candidate, you are cut off from the network of big donors and special interests. You have no choice but to turn to small-dollar donations, and in order to get a lot of them you have to raise your profile by going viral and/or getting on TV. Saying stupid stuff is a good way to do that.
Reformers have long chronicled the influence lobbyists and special interests have had on the political system. However, perhaps small dollar donations are creating incentives that are just as corrosive.
I don’t know what the answer is- I just know we have a problem. We need fewer attention seeking grifters, conmen, and charlatans, and more serious-minded adults who champion principle, policy, and ideas.
So next time you hear Green compare America to Nazi Germany, Cawthorn say that efforts to promote the vaccine are precursors to door-to-door Bible and gun confiscation, Boebert talk about the “Fauci Ouchie”, or whatever stupid thing AOC has said lately; it’s not necessarily that they’re crazy (and they very well could be). They are executing a very lucrative business model.