Oh, That

Why Are Conservative Donors Funding James O’Keefe in the First Place?

That’s the real question here. And the sad answer is, because they’re mostly stupid and impatient and more like the base than we’d like to admit.


Chip Somodevilla/Getty

By now, you’ve seen reports about the botched sting operation that James O’Keefe’s “Project Veritas” attempted. The goal was ostensibly to make The Washington Post look bad by tricking it into reporting the story of a woman who was falsely claiming to have been impregnated by U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. This would presumably also help Moore by creating the impression that the previous reporting might also be phony.

Give O’Keefe credit for accidentally demonstrating that the notion we should reflexively believe every woman is a bad idea. The Post comes out looking shrewd because, as Bari Weiss observed on Twitter, its reporters followed Ronald Reagan’s advice to “trust, but verify.”

O’Keefe suggests the Post published this story as a sort of preemptive strike to undermine some bombshell story he is about to release. I’m skeptical, but who knows? Unless or until that happens, we are left with a situation where the Post comes out smelling like roses, and conservative journalism (at least the guerrilla alternative kind that O’Keefe practices) looks sloppy and untrustworthy.

“James O'Keefe is damaging to conservative journalism,” tweeted Daily Caller Associate Editor Peter J. Hasson after the news broke.

This also raises larger questions about how the conservative movement allocates its scarce resources. A while back, I noted that the Mercers were spending millions of dollars helping Steve Bannon attack fellow Republicans and trying to elect nationalists like Roy Moore.

Like Bannon, O’Keefe’s instinct isn’t toward Burkean reform, but instead, revolutionary change. He doesn’t want to infiltrate the media, reform the media, or balance the media; he wants to destroy the very institution that serves as a check on the powerful.

And just as conservative donors are giving millions to help Steve Bannon tear down the Republican establishment, O’Keefe’s Project Veritas nonprofit raised $4.8 million in 2016 to tear down the media establishment. (O’Keefe himself pulls in about $240,000 a year—which isn’t bad for a guy in his early thirties).

There’s a misconception about conservative donors. We tend to attribute qualities to them that are not accurate. For example, we assume that ridiculously rich people are generally serious businessmen who are sophisticated and strategic. We believe they attend those fabled Georgetown cocktail parties. In reality, they are much closer to being like the conservative base than the GOP establishment. Generally speaking, they are susceptible to eccentricities and conspiracy theories. They also tend to be suckers for the idea that some fresh-faced young person is going to upend the tables of the money-changers.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. “Programs” aren’t driving the conservative media’s agenda; the donors are. This is, ironically, a “demand-side” industry. Conservative entrepreneurs are good capitalists who are simply responding to demand and filling a market niche. Rather than coming up with a good idea and then persuading rich people to fill it, it’s much more efficient and effective to simply do what rich people want.

The trouble is that many of these rich donors are out of touch with reality (if I had a billion dollars and nobody ever told me “no,” I would probably be out of touch, too). Rather than investing in the tedious and time-consuming work of incremental gain, they demand instant gratification. Rather than supporting young conservatives who have a steady working-class temperament, they fawn over eccentric young dreamers with delusions of grandeur.

Meanwhile, lots of deserving conservative causes and individuals wither on the vine.

Consider the case of Brandon Finnigan, a conservative blogger who left his job as a truck dispatcher to focus on his Decision Desk HQ site, a sort of alternative to the Associated Press’s election results. While linking to O’Keefe’s salary, Finnigan tweeted: “‘There’s no money for election data or a startup results system on the right Brandon because kerfufflenutter.’ Fuck you. Fuck every last ‘penny pinching’ one of you I went begging for funding from over the last few years. Die of clown spider cancer.” Conservative Erick Erickson responded, adding: “It so frustrates me to see what conservative donors will and won’t spend money on.”

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As Lachlan Markay observed, the juxtaposition between O’Keefe and Finnigan “is a nice microcosm of the trends in the conservative movement that gave us Trump.”

He’s right. But Donald Trump didn’t cause this problem. This is a structural problem and many of the key figures making news today (including James O’Keefe, Steve Bannon, and Roy Moore) were around long before Trump descended that escalator. We can’t expect this all to just go away—even if he does.