The recent arrest of Trump’s former chief strategist and campaign chair Steve Bannon makes him the seventh member of Trump’s inner circle to be indicted on criminal charges (nine, if you count Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislane Maxwell). To recap, Bannon and four other people (including Trump’s recently announced acting administrator for the DEA, Timothy Shea) were arrested for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering through a crowdfunding scam called We Build the Wall. The conspirators solicited donations from Trump supporters, promising that they would take no salaries or compensation, so that 100% of the donations would go toward building a wall along the southern border. Instead, the four men funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into their own pockets and concealed the transactions with shell companies and creative accounting practices.
For most of us paying attention, this isn’t exactly surprising. Aside from his own penchant for committing fraud, Trump has always surrounded himself with sketchy people (Paula White and Dr. “Demon Semen,” for example), and loves touting unproven miracle cures like hydroxychloroquine or, more recently, Oleandrin.
Although the Trump presidency has more con artists and quacks than any other administration in history, this phenomenon didn’t start with him.
Take a tour through the right-wing media sphere, and it’s almost awe-inspiring how much quackery it’s floating in. Besides a raft of advertising for unproven “cure-all” dietary supplements, media hosts themselves, from Mike Huckabee to Glenn Beck to Alex Jones tout these products on their shows with regularity (to be fair, Huckabee stopped pushing his diabetes “cure” after public criticism). And that’s not even going into the right’s co-dependent relationship with conspiracy theorists.
There are plenty of cons and snake-oil salesmen circulating among the more leftward parts of the internet (looking at you, Goop), but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the sheer volume found on the right.
But to understand why such a wide swath of the American population seems to be uniquely susceptible to fraudsters, we need to understand the authoritarian personality. These are people who believe in respecting traditional authorities and traditional beliefs, and who have a strong distrust for new or unconventional ideas. Many of these folks were raised, almost from birth, that to be “good” means to be obedient, and that only “troublemakers” (or more colloquially, “shit-stirrers”) question authority or the status quo. Questioning religion, the church, or the Bible is explicitly framed as Satan working on you, trying to tempt you and lead you astray.
Studies have shown that most Trump supporters rate high on the authoritarian personality scale. Most fundamentalists (of any religion) are also highly authoritarian, so it’s no accident that fundamentalist Christians are strong Trump supporters.
It’s exactly that confluence of fundamentalist Christians who support Trump — a man who couldn’t live a more non-Christian lifestyle — that has puzzled the chattering classes ever since he ran for office. As someone who has lived my entire life around (and under the rule of) authoritarian Christians, I think I have a unique insight into the answer — and it’s also the answer to why there are so many quacks and con artists in their ranks.
As I wrote earlier, being raised in an authoritarian household is not exactly a welcoming environment for critical thinking. The way they evaluate information is to evaluate where it comes from. To these folks, authorities are the only ones you can trust, and only certain people are considered to be authorities. Critical thinking and logic are not part of the process. (Shannon Ashley goes a lot deeper into this phenomenon here).
To put it in even simpler terms, they evaluate ideas not on the merits of those ideas, but on who is presenting them.
The Religious Right has always held scientists in pretty low regard — they often say things that contradict their literalist interpretation of the Bible, after all. But thanks to decades of right-wing propaganda, their trust in scientists, as well as the journalists who report what those scientists are saying, is non-existent. Anything reported on in the “lamestream media” is automatically considered “fake news.”
Thanks to their anti-science, anti-media beliefs, they don’t just live in a media bubble; they live behind a virtual Iron Curtain, where only information from approved sources — people like themselves, who share the same beliefs — is allowed in. That’s why they’ll trust an unproven “miracle cure” touted by the MyPillow guy, while simultaneously dismissing Dr. Fauci and the World Health Organization.
This kind of information isolation isn’t so different from being in a cult (which I wrote about earlier). And like most cults, the members’ blind trust in authority makes them easy marks for scam artists and snake-oil salesmen — from Jim Bakker to Creflo Dollar to Steve Bannon.
Bannon and his conspirators were able to con millions of people out of their money using the same techniques every shady televangelist and underhanded grifter uses. They used their in-group “authority” to gain people’s trust: Bannon, before he was a Trump adviser, was the publisher of Breitbart. Brian Kolfage, who founded We Build the Wall, previously ran a Facebook page called Right Wing News (which was scrubbed by Facebook in 2018 for “coordinated inauthentic behavior”). Shea, prior to being named as acting head of the DEA, sold pro-Trump energy drinks supposedly made from “liberal tears.” The fourth co-conspirator to be charged is Andrew Badolato, a frequent anti-Hillary contributor to Breitbart.
And if their bona fides weren’t enough, Donald Trump, Jr., praised We Build the Wall as “private enterprise at its finest.”
Like Trump, they played to donors’ fears of an “invasion” of immigrants coming through the southern border. Only instead of making Mexico pay for the wall, Bannon’s donors were asked to pony up their hard-earned cash.
But they didn’t build the wall. They took the donors’ money for themselves and spent it on funding their lavish lifestyles. And until the leaders in the religious and conservative movements start promoting respect for science and critical thinking, this kind of grift will just keep happening.