This is not a column about Donald Trump.
It’s not about the fraudulent scheme that was Trump University. It’s not about his history of failing to pay contractors, leading to hundreds of legal actions. It’s not about how he personally profited while running his casinos into the ground. It’s not even concerned with persistent questions about whether he is nearly as rich as he claims to be, and whether he’s ever done more than live off capital gains on his inheritance.
No, my question, as Democrats gleefully tear into the Trump business record, is why rival Republicans never did the same. How did someone who looks so much like a cheap con man bulldoze right through the GOP nomination process?
I mean, it’s not as if any of this dirt was deeply hidden. The Trump U story was out there long before it became the big deal it is today. It took some real reporting to flesh out the details of Trump’s other business practices, but we’re talking about ordinary if skillful journalistic legwork, not revelations from Deep Throat.
So why didn’t any of Trump’s primary opponents manage to make an issue of his sleazy business career? Were they just incompetent, or is there something structural about the modern Republican Party that makes it unable to confront grifters?
The answer, I’d argue, is the latter.
Rick Perlstein, who has documented the rise of modern conservatism in a series of eye-opening books, points out that there has always been a close association between the movement and the operations of snake-oil salesmen – people who use lists of campaign contributors, right-wing websites and so on to sell get-rich-quick schemes and miracle health cures.
Sometimes the political link is direct: dire warnings about the coming depression/hyperinflation, from which you can only protect yourself by buying Ron Paul’s DVDs (the “Ron Paul curriculum”) or gold shares hawked by Glenn Beck. Sometimes it just seems to reflect a judgment on the part of the grifters that people who can be convinced that President Barack Obama is Muslim can also be convinced that there are easy moneymaking opportunities the establishment doesn’t want you to know about.
There’s also a notable pattern of conservative political stars engaging in what is supposed to be activism, but looks a lot like personal enrichment. For example, Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC gives only a few percent of what it raises on candidates, while spending heavily on consultants and Palin’s travels.
Then there’s the issue of ideology. If your fundamental premise is that the profit motive is always good and government is the root of all evil, if you treat any suggestion that, say, some bankers misbehaved in the run-up to the financial crisis as proof that the speaker is anti-business if not a full-blown socialist, how can you condemn anyone’s business practices?
Consider this: Even as the newspapers are filled with stories of defrauded students and stiffed contractors, Republicans in Congress are going all-out in efforts to repeal the “fiduciary rule” for retirement advisers, a new rule requiring that they serve the interests of their clients, and not receive kickbacks for steering them into bad investments. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has even made repealing that rule part of his “anti-poverty plan.” So the GOP is in effect defending the right of the financial industry to mislead its customers, which makes it hard to attack the likes of Donald Trump.
Finally, the con job that lies at the heart of so much Republican politics makes it hard to go after other, more commercial cons. It’s interesting to note that Marco Rubio actually did try to make Trump University an issue, but he did it too late, after he had already made himself a laughingstock with his broken-record routine. And here’s the thing: The groove Rubio got stuck in – innuendo that the president is deliberately weakening America – was a typical example of the political snake-oil the right sells along with free money and three-minute cures for high blood pressure.
The point is that Rubio was just as much a con artist as Trump – just not as good at it, which is why, under pressure, he kept repeating the same memorized words. So he, like all the GOP contenders, didn’t have what it would have taken to make Trump’s grifting an issue. But at least so far it appears that Hillary Clinton and her allies won’t have the same problem.
In the months ahead Republicans will claim that there are equivalent scandals on the Democratic side, but nothing they’ve managed to come up with rises remotely to the level of even one of the many Trump scams in the news. They’ll also claim that Trump doesn’t reflect their party’s values. But the truth is that in a very deep sense he does. And that’s why they couldn’t stop him.