Broken Elephants, Part II: Ben Carson, Frank Gaffney, and The Way to Make Your Mark in Today’s GOP
Consider if you will the rise of Frank Gaffney, the man who is arguably the single most-interviewed expert on Fox News and conservative talk radio.
Gaffney’s career trajectory has been colorful, to say the least. After a stint as a congressional staffer, he spent the early to middle 1980s working in the Reagan Administration, by all accounts admirably. Indeed, by 1987 Gaffney had worked his way up to the position of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.
Immediately after that promotion, however, something in Gaffney’s White House ascent went wrong. Within days of securing the post, Gaffney was shut out of all meetings on foreign policy. His state of persona non grata continued for several months before he arrived at work one morning to find his belongings boxed up and his self quickly escorted out of the building. 1 Upon his departure, he skewered Reagan in the press for being soft on Communism.
The following year, Gaffney formed the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a kind of vanity project dedicated to uncovering how some combination of enemy stealth agents were secretly taking control of the U.S. government. He spent the proceeding years accusing first the Reagan and then the H.W. Bush administration of conspiring to sow the seeds of America’s destruction at the command of the wily Russians. As the years went by and Glasnost did not pan out to be an ingenious and subversive plot to make the U.S. a Soviet satellite country, Gaffney shifted his attention to the Muslim threat. Agents of Islam, Gaffney came to believe, were committing a secret coup of the federal government with the intention of banning Christianity and Judaism in America. He was widely dismissed as a nutjob by pretty much everyone, and he would likely have disappeared into relative obscurity forever save for two concurrent events: the election of Barack Hussein Obama, and the rise to ascendancy of Fox News and the conservative Media Machine.
In the early days of the Obama administration, Gaffney and Fox News carved out a mutually beneficial relationship. Fox provided Gaffney a national platform to float preposterous theories that the President of the United States was a Muslim Brotherhood sleeper agent bent on destroying our way of life. Gaffney, in return, delivered boffo ratings to whichever cable news or radio anchor agreed to take him seriously on air. Further, Gaffney was able to bend his conspiracy theories to provide content surrounding whatever Democrat might be in the news that day. Hence, a crowd as diverse as Hilary Clinton, Susan Rice, Richard Haas, and Dennis Ross were all, at one time or another, reported by Gaffney to be willing participants in the Muslim Brotherhood’s covert invasion of America. And on slow news days when the Media Machine found itself in need of someone to go live and make some brand new, over-the-top, outlandish accusation against Obama, Gaffney delivered time and time again. The various over-the-top conspiracy theories spouted by Gaffney between 2009 and 2015 are legion, but my particular favorite is this one.
And then, in 2011, Gaffney began to go off talking point: it wasn’t just the Democrats who were sleeper agents, Gaffney began declaring. The Muslim Brotherhood was also controlling GOP leaders and highly visible conservative champions, including some Fox regulars. Gaffney used his conservative media perch to accuse Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax champion, of being an internal perpetrator of the Muslim plot against America. 2 He then went after CPAC, the famous and influential conservative grassroots advocacy event, slinging similar accusations. Gaffney even began to suggest that key members of the Bush administration had been in on the conspiracy.
None of this should have been surprising to anyone. Gaffney, after all, was the guy both sufficiently paranoid and off his gourd to have believed that the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations were a bunch of commie stooges. But surprising or not, Gaffney’s departure from the reservation provided the conservative media with a somewhat stark choice between the competing aspirations of politics and revenue.
Gaffney had gone from a rabble-rouser that merely turned outsiders against the Republican Party to one who was now turning actual Party members away from it as well. It was as if a McDonald’s spokesman had suddenly gone on national television to talk about how s**ty Big Macs and Quarter Pounders tasted. Gaffney’s ravings were an embarrassing blow to the credibility of the GOP as well as the larger conservative movement, and it was clear that keeping him on air could do nothing but hurt the cause. On the other hand, however, Gaffney was still a big ratings draw with nothing but time on his hands. He was seemingly available for any and all TV and radio shows that were willing to both book him and refer to him as a renowned, respected, award-winning foreign policy expert. For conservative media outlets, it was an obvious choice between higher ratings and furthering ideology.
The Media Machine’s subsequent embrace of Gaffney showed yet again that its primary business has always been business.
Today, Gaffney remains one of the most frequent guests on Fox News and conservative talk radio, if not the most frequent; on many shows he has a regular weekly slot. Moreover, his increased visibility via the Media Machine has astoundingly made him into something of a kingmaker. Those candidates looking to secure the anti-GOP votes have been forced to align themselves with Gaffney. Trump, Cruz, Carson, Fiorina, and Santorum have all lent their names to Gaffney’s various PR events this year. Remarkably, at times this has meant that they have agreed to share the stage, in an election year, with white nationalists such as Ann Corcoran. 3 And when you see Donald Trump citing debunked statistics to justify banning Muslims, know that he’s getting them from Gaffney.
Do not misunderstand. Gaffney is still widely regarded as an opportunistic, paranoid, whack-job — even, I am told, by the many media producers who book him. While the broadcasting of his views makes money, it does so only with an extremely targeted demographic. On a national level, Gaffney’s conspiracy theories are politically toxic: a whopping 66% oppose the U.S. barring Muslims from entering the country, and that might well be Gaffney’s least nutty idea. Yes, there are many reasons why the GOP has already lost its 2016 White House bid, but Gaffney’s influence on the anti-GOP forerunners is by no means the least of them.
This raises something of a puzzle. It’s easy to understand why a cable television network or a radio station would choose ratings over a Republican in the Oval Office. It’s quite a bit less obvious why an actual candidate for that same office would choose such a path.
This is only puzzling, however, if you assume that the reason all of the GOP candidates are running is that they actually wish to be President.
In many ways, Ben Carson might well be the least likely candidate running for President.
By all accounts a brilliant surgeon, Carson is also an equally gifted entrepreneur. Prior to his rise as a conservative commentator, Carson had penned three books, each a standout on the Christian bestseller charts. One was an autobiography, but the other two were motivational business books — a sort of 7 Habits or Unlimited Power targeted to the faithful. Carson also marketed himself as a corporate motivational speaker. His interest in politics was scant, if it existed at all. Prior to 2014, Carson had no partisan affiliation; it remains unclear whether or not he ever bothered to vote after he left the GOP in the mid-1990s. As late as 2010, he was approached by a member of the Republican Party to run for Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, an offer he immediately dismissed without consideration, saying he had no interest in such pursuits. Carson later noted that he felt both parties were corrupt and hypocritical, and he had no interest in aligning himself with either.
Caron’s total lack of interest in politics might well have continued to this day, save for one fortuitous event: In 2013 he was asked to speak at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
For the most part, Carson’s speech was simply his signature mixture of motivational and spiritual aphorisms. However, he also threw in a line or two about the need for a freer healthcare market and a flat tax. The lines themselves were somewhat milquetoast, but as the President was sitting but a few feet away at the time, the optics were powerful. And as in the case of Donald Trump’s performance on The View, conservative media booking agents heard the sweet sound of dollar signs.
That week, the Wall Street Journal ran the headline Ben Carson for President on its editorial page. Within a few months, the Washington Times hired Carson as a regular political columnist; shortly thereafter, he was brought on as a regular political contributor to Fox News. In 2014, just prior to the midterm elections, Carson officially joined the Republican Party. That decision, he said at the time, was entirely “pragmatic;” Carson said he wanted to consider running for President, and had to “run in one party or the other.”
The buzz that has surrounded Carson on the Right since his 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech is understandable. Despite liberals’ insistence otherwise, Carson is both likable and charismatic. Further, he is likely the smartest (if not necessarily the wisest) man in whatever room in which he happens to be hanging out. Claims from liberal pundits that Carson isn’t bright enough to know how to speak in public come off as wishful thinking, considering his highly successful career over decades doing just that. 4 He stood in favor of smaller government, lower taxes, and a return to a more religious government; he stood very much against Obamacare, abortion, and political correctness. Bonus: Carson himself was African-American, which from a conservative perspective gave the Right a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card to parrot his vitriolic criticism of black equality movements.
But that still raises the question: Why does a man who seems to have never had any interest in politics suddenly decide to run for President of the United States?
The answer, I believe, is that above all else Ben Carson is an entrepreneur. And as Newt Gingrich proved in 2012, running for President in the age of the Media Machine has become a highly profitable enterprise.
In the lead-up to the 2012 election, Gingrich raised eyebrows with two of his largest PACs, American Solutions and American Legacy. Together, these two PACs are examples of either some of the most successful primary fundraisers or some of the most disastrous, depending upon your point of view.
American Solutions collected $50 million for Gingrich prior to the primary. However, as the New York Times reported in 2011, “much of that money went to pay for charter flights for Mr. Gingrich as he traveled the country, keeping his political profile high.” Shortly after Gingrich declared his candidacy, the PAC declared bankruptcy amid “revelations about [Gingrich’s] lavish personal spending.” To this day, the answer to the question of where that $50 million ended up is more than a little murky.
If anything, the story of American Legacy is even more troubling. As Mother Jones noted in 2013, the PAC raised almost $2 million in 2012 for elections, but spent less than $30,000 on candidates, political races, and administrative expenses. The vast majority of the money collected from donors went to expenses identified as “fundraising” -- which means, in clearer terms, that the donations collected from donors went to the people collecting the donations. 5
Such a fundraising model is ethically troubling, to say the least. Traditionally when someone makes a $100 donation to a political candidate, the assumption is that most or all of that money goes toward canvasing staff and offices, political advertising, and other such campaign expenses. That over 95% of one’s donation might go to the third-party contractor collecting the donation would surely horrify any sane person writing such a check. In previous elections, such a model would likely have been seen as criminal behavior by the person actually running for office — who, one would assume, was relying on such donations to keep their doors open.
The Media Machine has changed all of that, because the purpose of conservative politics, or at least of one species of it, is no longer governing so much as it is making money. It is unlikely that Gingrich really harbored a desire (or at least a hope) to be President. Rather, he used the run up to the election to sell books and public speaking engagements — and not for chump change, either. Tax returns released by Gingrich during the election showed that he made $2.4 million dollars the previous year in speaker fees, book and video royalties, and assorted consulting fees. 6
As it turns out, both of the Gingrich PACs described above, American Solutions and American Legacy, feature rather prominently in the current Carson campaign.
Amy Pass, the finance director of American Solutions, is now Carson’s National Finance Director. Carson’s head fundraiser, Mark Murray, was the treasurer of American Legacy during the Gingrich campaign. Additionally, Carson appears to have taken the highly unusual step of hiring a business manager for his campaign; more eyebrow-raising, he has chosen his longtime friend and ally Armstrong Williams to be that manager. 7
Most tellingly, however, is the fact that the fundraising model appears to be identical. As David Graham noted in the Atlantic, almost all of the money raised by the Carson campaign is going to the fundraisers hired to collect donations; there appears to be little money going to traditional Presidential campaign expenses such as canvassers, advertising, or rent on states’ headquarters. In fact, less than 15% of the donations collected for Carson’s campaign appear to be being spent on Carson’s actual campaign. Not that it’s clear exactly how much actual campaigning Carson is doing. As TPM reported last week, Carson has been using much of his time during the campaign hiring himself out for paid speaking gigs. 8
Like Gingrich’s campaign in 2012, Carson’s seems to exist for no other reason than to be a (very lucrative) cottage industry. Knowing this explains much about Carson’s Presidential bid thus far, such as why he seems so unconcerned with taking the time to brush up on foreign policy and other important matters outside his normal wheelhouse: He’s not trying to win an election, he’s pushing a product.
It also explains why he is happy to cozy up to someone like Frank Gaffney, whose toxicity would linger come the general election. Carson’s potential customers are largely the same as the customers of the Media Machine that peddles Gaffney. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the head of CSP isn’t bad politics. It’s good branding.
Indeed, one might argue that in this scenario everyone wins. The increased revenue ensures that Carson the entrepreneur wins, as do Gaffney, the Media Machine, the PACs, and those shady third-party fundraisers with whom the Carson campaign contracts. The Media Machine’s audience wins, because this is what they seem to crave most of all: the symbolic victories over the substantial ones. Even the Democrats win, because such goings-on will do nothing but cement their chances to retain the White House. (And likely name at least the next two Supreme Court Justices.) Everyone wins!
Well, everyone except the Republican Party, anyway.
We will conclude this series of essays by taking a look at Ted Cruz and the current state of GOP public policy on a national level — public policy which is primarily concerned with feeding content to conservative media outlets, at the expense of the health of the Republican Party itself. Readers who missed Part I of the series, which focused on Donald Trump as well as how poll results show that the conservative Media Machine is finally destroying the GOP, can be seen here.
Since filing this piece for posting, there has been a development within the Carson campaign that is directly related to this post, and thus deserves mentioning: On New Year’s Eve, Carson’s Campaign Manager Barry Bennett and Communications Director Doug Watts walked out on the campaign without notice. Upon hearing the news, eighteen addition professional political staffers followed suit.
Bennett and Watts issued a joint statement to NBC News that was full of corporate-speak “Fish You’s” to Carson and his business staff. In subsequent interviews with NBC and other news outlets, Bennett pointed to Carson’s deference to Business Manager Armstrong Williams over the professional campaign staff as the primary source of the frustration. One of the more eye-raising revelations in these interviews was this: It has been WIlliams, not Bennett or Watts, who has been in charge of planning and scheduling Carson’s campaign interviews. In fact, it turned out that Bennett and Watts first heard about Carson’s much-ballyhooed day of one-on-one interviews with various top-tiered news agencies just prior to Christmas when they saw it reported by the Washington Post. Neither Carson nor Williams had apparently thought to inform either of them about it.
Also interesting is one of Carson’s two choices to fill the void left by Bennett and Watts. While the promotion of Ed Brookover, a career operative who had been serving as Carson’s Senior Strategist, was certainly a somewhat traditional move, bringing in Robert F. Dees was decidedly not.
Dees is a retired Army General and devout Christian, which are likely pluses for fans of Carson. However, Dees has no real political background or experience. After his retirement, he was commissioned by Liberty University to develop a course on resiliency for veterans and current members of the armed forces, especially those who have had been wounded or suffered from stress-related ailments such as PTSD. As the course is clearly designed for evangelicals, its use has been somewhat limited. However, by all accounts it has been an extremely useful tool for the right target market.
Since then, Dees has taken the core ideas of that resiliency course and turned them into a mass-market self-help and corporate management motivational series. His book, Resilient Leaders, is similar to Carson’s own business books. In addition, Dees has developed the Resilient Life Cycle© self-help and corporate leadership training program. Though again targeted to evangelicals, Resilient Life Cycle© is pretty standard biz-pop fare, promising to deliver its customers the ability to “help people, teams, and entire organizations ride out the storms of life with values intact, restore function and enter into growth, and rebound to greater heights.”
All of this is pretty significant, and quite telling. First, it shows that Carson’s business and marketing arm hasn’t been tagging along for the ride with Carson’s campaign; rather, it has been the reverse. It also means that one of Carson’s top two “political” executive campaign staffers is someone whose current career is selling motivational self-help books and corporate speaking and training gigs. Remarkably, either despite all of this or because of it, Carson continues to be the top fundraiser in the GOP primaries.
In many ways, I believe this should worry the current GOP leadership far more than Trump.
[Images: Ben Carson via Wikipedia. Screenshot of the Hannity Show video via YouTube. Frank Gaffney via Wikipedia. Screenshot of “Ground Zero” Mosque story on Fox News, via Wikipedia. Grover Torquiest, via Wikipedia. Ben Carson book cover via Amazon. Newt Gingrich via Wikipedia. Screenshot of Armstrong WIlliams on CNN, via Youtube.]
- As with any employee termination, there is some disagreement as to why Gaffney was shunned. Gaffney has stated it was simply a civil disagreement over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the USSR. Columnist William Safire, however, claimed that Gaffney had sent an inappropriately scathing memo to the Department of Defense decrying his superiors as “meek” and unwittingly treasonous.
- Gaffney went full Gaffney on Norquist in an interview with Glenn Beck.
- Interestingly, the more mainstream acceptance he gets from the GOP POTUS candidates, the more Gaffney seems to want to push the envelope. In September, Gaffney interviewed white nationalist Jared Taylor for CSP’s podcast, Secure Freedom Radio. In that interview he praised Taylor’s magazine, American Renaissance, as being “wonderful,” and told Taylor he “[appreciated] tremendously the work you are doing at American Renaissance. Keep it up.” Which was kind of astounding.
For those lucky enough not to be in the know, American Renaissance and its editors have argued over the years that African-Americans are inferior to whites, and that public policy should reflect this. Taylor himself wrote that “when blacks are left to their own devices, Western civilization — any kind civilization — disappears.” In 2013, American Renaissance held a conference dedicated in part to creating a white homeland. Featured speakers at the conference called for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” and reasoned that by allowing non-whites into the country the federal government was committing “a genocide of our people.” One keynoter suggested that abortion, traditionally verboten amongst conservatives, was all-in-all a social good when undertaken by the black population, a practice he referred to as “Crime Stoppers.”
To be fair, there is an entire degree of separation to get from Gaffney to Taylor. Still, for all but one of the leading GOP candidates to so publicly cozy up to a man who calls such a magazine “wonderful” says quite a bit about just how truly bizarre the 2016 election has become.
- In a way, it’s eerily similar to claims from the Right that Barack Obama lacks the intelligence to speak without a teleprompter. And it likely says something ugly about Americans that the obvious rejoinder to any learned or scholarly black man one disagrees with is the automatic assumption that, despite his accomplishments, said black man must be unintelligent.
- A business model which continued in 2014.
- Gingrich never released exactly who paid him those fees and royalties.
- Williams, you may remember, was the conservative columnist and radio host who was caught taking almost a quarter of a million dollars from the Bush administration’s Department of Education in a stealth campaign to promote No Child Left Behind.
- FWIW, Carson appears to have netted $4.3 million in speaking fees since he joined the GOP and began floating the idea of a Presidential run two years ago.