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The Great Right-Wing Con Job
Do they sincerely believe all this shit, or are they just trying to make a buck? Yes.
It’s 2023—once again I find that the 2020s feel like sci-fi dates to me and lament that we don’t have a Galactic Federation yet—and I’m so delighted to have you with me. As we set off on another annum of swords and sandwiches, please consider a paid subscription so I can keep doing this work indefinitely, and employ incredible editor and writer David Swanson! I’m offering 20% off annual subscriptions this week to start the year off right.
Let us say you are thinking about the motive forces of hatred—what drives it and who is drawn to it and why.
Somewhere along the meandering path towards understanding you encounter a Trump-themed Red Bull rip-off called Winning Energy, whose shabby aura, a quintessence of the MAGA aesthetic, offers its own set of answers.
It’s a homepage you can almost smell. The vibe is a Klan meeting with a cash bar, seedy lounge-singer covers of Wagner, gilt that comes off on your fingers, a $999 deal on a late-night infomercial with the volume cranked all the way up. The can says its ingredients are liberal tears, but the label adds glucuronalactone and pantothenic acid. Very thin women in bikinis hold up the beverage in promo photos; it’s endorsed by an evangelical rapper and a graying male YouTuber whose videos include “Basic Bitches 101.” Winning Energy will help you kick “Sleepy Joe” syndrome, and it comes in sugar-free.
Or it did once, anyway. Timothy Shea, the founder of the company, was convicted in late 2022 of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering, and now the email list offers an error message when you try to sign up.
Of prominent hate figures—like UK professional racist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon a.k.a. Tommy Robinson, or snake-oil tycoon Alex Jones—the question is often asked: do they sincerely believe all this shit, or are they just trying to make a buck?
The answer is yes.
These two motivations coexist more naturally than you’d think, and are often tough to tease apart. The desire to gull cash out of a public with shared sadistic inclinations pervades the right-wing activist sphere. To peek into MAGAworld reveals a kind of carnie quality: everything feels cheap and thinly drawn, the collective touchstones (loathing immigrants, vengefulness, a generalized miasma of racism) gestured to in perfunctory ways, the products and people on offer filmed lightly with sweat.
It’s 2023 in America and everybody has to hustle to make a living.
Inevitably, in the crucible of capitalism, the choices we make soil us. But some routes are more befouling than others. We all sell something—our time, our bodies, our creations—but it’s the choice to sell hatred and its associated products that really coats the soul in spray-tan. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon—the second iteration of the KKK was arguably a robe-sales MLM—it just has Instagram now, it’s coming to you live, and the saturation is cranked all the way up.
The contemporary right-wing hustle is all full-color cartoons rendered unwittingly grotesque, like those on Winning Energy’s bottles. As fitting as it seems that MAGAworld wants to sell you a cup of tears, the company’s taurine-infused kitsch hardly reaches the penny-ante stage of Trumpy hucksterism. But Winning Energy’s founder, Timothy Shea, was also intimately involved in another scam—a years-long con that has earned its rightful place in legend.
Presidential advisor indicted for financial crimes, then abruptly pardoned? Check. A disabled veteran trading on his status for profit? Check. A dramatic mistrial? Check. A gigantic mess to rubberneck, schadenfreude commingled with the sinking feeling that this is just the tip of a scam-economy iceberg? Double check, underlined in red. The sentencing is in just a few weeks; wire fraud and money laundering and more carry heavy penalties, though they are rarely enough prosecuted.
It all started with a GoFundMe, America’s unofficial healthcare provider and also a good place to raise a few bucks. “We Build the Wall” was a crowdfunded effort to fulfill Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise (“We’re going to do a wall; we’re going to have a big, fat beautiful door on the wall; we’re going to have people come in, but they’re going to come in legally”). Helmed by human filth-encrusted hot tub Steve Bannon and charismatic multiple amputee Brian Kolfage, it raised $25 million for a big, fat beautiful publicly-funded monument to racism.
The advisory board was stuffed with people who will, if any theology bears true fruit, spend their eternal afterlives tormented by bird-headed demons: Erik Prince, the rich kid mercenary king of Blackwater; militant anti-immigrant Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, whose entrails will hopefully be pulled out with a spoon and eaten by harpies for a millennium or more; former Milwaukee sheriff famed for prison torture David Clarke; and more detritus from shoals of misery.
They built three miles of wall so rickety that “large gashes” appeared in the structure and, according to ProPublica, the “stretch of bollards” that constituted the only physical manifestation of We Build The Wall was in danger of toppling into the Rio Grande.
Where did the money go? How much wall can $25 million really build?
The answer to that is still unclear, although bizarre side endeavors—like spreading rumors that a butterfly sanctuary was being used for human trafficking, after said sanctuary objected to the wall—probably didn’t help their cause.
Also not helpful? The millions of dollars siphoned into the pockets of just a few guys, the subjects of the criminal case.
Brian Kolfage, whose prior endeavors included harvesting emails via inflammatory fake-news articles and calling Barack Obama a “halfbreed” on Facebook, initially said he’d been indicted for being a “major threat to the globalist agenda to have mass migration into the U.S.” He pled guilty in April to stealing $350,000 from the poor innocents who just wanted to be part of something big and racist.
Andrew Badolato, a ham-faced Florida finance guy who once ratted a mafia loan shark out to the FBI, likewise pled guilty and faces up to four years in prison.
Steve Bannon, whose arrest dramatically took place on a Chinese billionaire’s luxury yacht off the coast of Connecticut, was pardoned by Donald Trump in the last few hours of his presidency. Presidential pardons only cover the federal judiciary, however: Bannon still faces New York state charges over We Build the Wall—and will be tried for allegedly defrauding donors of $15 million in November 2023.
Finally, our hapless energy-drink purveyor, Timothy Shea, initially benefited from a hung jury—a lone juror apparently denounced the proceedings as a “government witch hunt.” He was retried and found guilty in August 2022, and faces his sentence this month.
Far be it from me to ever issue a laudatory statement on American jurisprudence—indeed the reason this case feels so novel is because of the elite impunity running rampant across the country’s upper economic echelons. The felons and felons-to-be in question weren’t extraordinary except in terms of the publicity they generated. This sort of scam along smaller lines is practically omnipresent in a bullish culture of bootstraps and self-salesmanship, and tribalism based around fear and loathing offers an excellent jumpstart to any con.
Are Kolfage and Bannon and Shea true believers? Do they really spend their lives dreaming about infrastructure-based ways to terrorize migrants, or is it all just for a buck? Did they betray their principles by their theft, and does it matter if those principles were worth betraying? Does the fact that the thousands of donors didn’t see this coming from a mile away indicate a much broader culture of right-wing grift?
In this, as in all things, matters of the innermost heart are both private and irrelevant; the means of a scam are just as important as its ends; and the viability of a $25 million campaign to keep Mexicans at bay is dependent on the broader well of hatred submersed in the public id. Siphoning from that basin of vitriol is an art suited to every kind of scammer—prophets and purveyors of potions and supplements and weight-loss gizmos, the born-again and the beatified and the beautiful, conspiracists of every stripe, the base and the wretched and all those drawn to casuistry.
As I type this, somewhere in America someone is clicking a cash-for-gold link buried in a listserv email they got because they once donated to Mike Huckabee; and that person may be a senior or impoverished or a ruddy-faced boat-owner of the American gentry, or they may be in on the scheme. There is nothing in this country not driven by money in some form or fashion, and hate is the same. There’s a great gaudy armature of mammon built around it, rickety enough to topple into the Rio Grande, slick as liberals’ tears.
Sometimes enough willing, fervid people can change the world. Sometimes the reason for stirring up genocidal sentiment lies at the bottom of deep and hungry pockets. Both can be true at the same time. Either way, the bollards stand lonely on the border, the hate laws keep rolling out of legislatures, the boot presses at the throat, the brutes cash out. Sure as the turning of the year and the dawning of a new one, a sucker’s born every day; meat loves salt, and grift loves hate.