The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

18 The New York Review

The Fundraising Pulpit

Jake Bernstein

In mid-March, as infection rates in his
home state grew, Devin Nunes, Repub-
lican congressman from California,
tweeted to his almost million followers
a Breitbart article titled “Democrats
Pushed Impeachment While Coro-
navirus Spread.” Nunes has exploited
President Trump’s impeachment at
every opportunity, often for his per-
sonal benefi t. In February, shortly after
Trump’s acquittal by the US Senate, he
sent an e-mail addressed to his “top sup-
porters.” It read: “GET THE EXCLU-
T- SH I RT!” When recipients clicked
the accompanying graphic of a white
T-shirt stamped “IMPEACHMENT:
00 ,” they landed on a page offering
the shirt for any amount between $
and $2,800. Since this purchase was a
federal contribution to the Nunes cam-
paign, donors were instructed to state
their employment status. A prominent
red-framed box with a checkable “I’m
retired” in bolded letters signposted
the target demographic.
With the exception of Trump, few
in public offi ce are as adept at tickling
the ids and wallets of conservative re-
tirees as the forty-six-year-old Nunes.
His contributors gush over his talents.
“Thoughtful and direct,” one woman
in Michigan who gave $585 in dribs
and drabs over the last two months of
2019 told me. “A smart man, he looks
for the truth,” said a Pennsylvania re-
tiree who donated $75 during the same
period. Since 2017, Nunes’s campaign
has raised more than $20 million,
about half from small donors. Nunes is
a master of multiplatform marketing.
Whether delivered from a committee
dais, Fox News segment, self- published
webzine, podcast, or at the front of a
press conference, his sales pitch is el-
emental in its simplicity and limitless
in its permutations: conservatives are
under attack. “We must fi ght back”
read the subject line of a recent Nunes
e-mail. Donate.
Nunes offers an inexhaustible inven-
tory of conspiracy theories. He stars in
them as the heroic congressman fer-
reting out a truth that evil Democrats
wish to bury. As soon as one conspir-
acy theory is debunked, a new one ap-
pears. The Obama administration hid
an incriminating stash of Osama bin
Laden papers, for instance. Witnesses
to the murder of a US ambassador in
Ben ghazi were intimidated. Ukraine
tried to interfere in the 2016 election
against Trump. Nunes’s tales often fea-
ture the so-called Deep State, an amor-
phous enemy that includes government
offi cials inclined to constrain Trump
with facts or legal statutes.

As the ranking Republican on the
House Intelligence Committee, Nunes
helped drive the GOP response to both
the Mueller and impeachment investi-
gations. During the hearings he and his
colleagues unleashed a slew of proce-
dural complaints, creating a narrative
of injustice that became ready fodder
for fundraising pitches. Most of their
ire focused on committee chairman
Adam Schiff, Democrat of California,
whom they accused of running an un-

fair process and of “outlandish attacks”
against Trump.
“Adam Schiff keeps blocking House
Conservatives from questioning wit-
nesses,” stated a Nunes campaign Face-
book ad that ran during the hearings,
pitched primarily at men sixty-fi ve and
over. “They can’t stop Devin’s hunt
for the truth. Stand with Devin Nunes
Conservative victimhood has been
kind to Nunes; by the end of 2019, his
campaign had more than $7 million in
the bank, after spending $11.6 million
a year earlier to win reelection. Other
members of Congress peddle mer-
chandise like T-shirts and coffee mugs,
but no one else exploits the courts as
part of their fundraising strategy like
Nunes. (Trump is now suing The New
York Times, The Washington Post, and
CNN, and other GOP lawmakers may
yet follow his lawsuit strategy.) Last
year, Nunes fi led six lawsuits against
media companies—both traditional
and social—as well as parody Twit-
ter accounts like Devin Nunes’s Cow
(@DevinCow), accusing them of defa-
mation. In December, Nunes turned his
lawsuit against CNN into a Facebook ad
campaign to collect donors. “CNN will
do anything to destroy Devin Nunes,”
one ad warned. “Stand with Devin
against the fake news media.”
Outrage at the media, with journal-
ists as unwitting (or witless) straight
men, is a surefi re GOP money-raiser.
Delegitimizing reporters also serves as
a prophylactic against future scandals
they may unearth. Fundraising e-mails
from Jim Jordan, Republican congress-
man from Ohio, highlighted the “fake
news about conservative members of

the judiciary”; Representative Matt
Gaetz, a Republican from Florida,
warned supporters in Facebook ads
that “Socialist Democrats and the fake
news media will do anything to stop
President Trump.” Soon after Arizona
Republican senator Martha McSally’s
unprovoked “liberal hack” attack, on
a CNN reporter, the senator offered
T-shirts commemorating the event for
sale and starred in a joint Nunes fund-
raising e-mail. “My friend, Senator
Martha McSally has also been base-
lessly attacked by the radical left and
fake news media,” it read.
Nunes has spent about half a million
dollars on Facebook advertising since
2018, according to the Facebook Ad Li-
brary. It’s paying off. Just in December,
as he was making headlines battling
CNN in the courts, the Nunes campaign
raked in nearly $300,000 in contribu-
tions from retirees, almost half of what
he raised that month.
For those not clued into conserva-
tive grievance culture, the behavior of
Nunes and his Republican colleagues
during the impeachment hearings in
the House struck an odd chord. They
weren’t working to convince undecided
Americans, much less Democratic law-
makers, of Trump’s innocence; the ev-
idence—and the White House’s efforts
to limit witnesses and documents—in-
dicated that the president’s guilt was
obvious and overwhelming. Instead of
grappling with the facts or, as a matter
of congressional oversight, demanding
transparency from the White House,
Republicans repeated a steady stream
of talking points, often at high vol-
ume. The outdoor voice signaled de-
termination. Like the attacks on the

journalists, it smacked of performative
Performative fundraising is a prism
through which to understand not only
the GOP activity during the impeach-
ment hearings but also the Repub-
licans’ Benghazi hearings and the
endless posturing around repealing
Obamacare. It’s not about achieving
policy goals as much as energizing the
base and separating them from their
cash. Performative fundraising favors
simplistic narratives, melodramatic
rhetoric, an implacable enemy, and rote
phrases to crowd out reasoned debate.
Snippets of the act become fundraising
pitches. Facebook microtargeting and
e-mail lists ensure that pitches reach
conservative retirees, especially in sun-
belt states like Florida, California, and
Tex a s.
Where the money winds up is in-
creasingly suspect, thanks to a delib-
erately hobbled regulatory system.
Today, it’s perfectly legal for offi ce-
holders to spend contributor money on
an opulent lifestyle as long as it’s called
fundraising. It’s also legal for unaffi li-
ated campaign consultants to raise con-
tributions in the name of a candidate or
cause and then pocket the money for

Nunes is a fundraising innovator,
but he’s no pioneer. That distinc-
tion belongs to Richard Viguerie, the
“funding father of the conservative
movement.” As a conservative activ-
ist in 1965, Viguerie discovered that
the House clerk’s offi ce possessed the
names and addresses of campaign do-
nors who gave more than $50 to federal
candidates. He recognized the value
of those names and quickly cobbled
together 12,500 conservative donors
from Barry Goldwater’s failed presi-
dential bid. Within a year, his list had
grown to 125,000 names. Eventually
it would exceed fi ve million. If only a
small percentage of recipients sent $10,
a single mailer could raise upwards of
$10 million.
In his heyday, Viguerie mobilized
his army of voters to lobby Congress
and elect conservative politicians. But
when it came to fundraising, he told
Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “people are
motivated by anger and fear much more
so than positive emotions.” Viguerie
stoked conservative anger into cash
with hyperbolic mailers like “babies
are being harvested and sold on the
black market by Planned Parenthood.”
The political world took notice. Then
Roger Ailes, the founder and CEO of
Fox News, amped the grievance on
television and made billions of dollars
for Rupert Murdoch.
In this kind of fundraising the fram-
ing is inevitably negative and recursive,
explained Rick Wilson, a longtime
GOP consultant and now prominent
anti-Trumper. “Your misery is legit-
imate, your fear is legitimate; it’s the
culture of grievance,” he told me. “We
are under attack because we are under
In the 1970s the New York attorney
general forced Viguerie’s company to
reduce the fee it charged charities from
as much as 75 percent of every dollar

Devin Nunes
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