The Toxic Swamp Gas Polluting the American Right

It’s about time we had a conversation about the racket in D.C., though it’s probably not the one that springs first to mind. I’m talking about Conservatism Inc.—that ecosystem of mostly worthless and ineffective think tanks and conservative organizations that are part and parcel of the swamp. They came riding into town, some decades ago, all gung-ho about breaking up the administrative state and restoring constitutional government and now, lo and behold, discovered that the swamp could start to feel like a warm, soothing hot tub.

By any metric with which you could measure effectiveness (simply existing doesn’t count) can anyone really tell you why Conservatism, Inc. even exists? A back of the napkin estimate shows that every year, hundreds and hundreds of millions fund these entities, but to what end?

Certainly not to be effective. Over the last 30-40 years, in the supposed heyday of the conservative movement, the size of government has exploded; our national debt has risen from roughly $1 trillion to nearly $23 trillion.

These conservative organizations likewise have grown from relatively grassroots-type groups with budgets of a few million dollars to massive entities, like the Heritage Foundation, with annual budgets approaching $100 million a year. They build swanky office buildings with marble lined bathrooms, employ French chefs, give themselves expense budgets, including even personal drivers, and generally live very comfortable lives, and then sell BS lines to their donors about how they’re changing the world, saving America, and blah blah blah.

They are living in an alternate reality: the supposed wise men of the movement aren’t saving anything except their sinecures; they’ve presided over a rapid decay in this country. But damn if they haven’t had the best seats on the Titanic.

I remember a few years ago sitting on a panel with one Jonah Goldberg. We were asked whether we as a conservative movement were winning or losing. I said by every real metric, we’re losing. Goldberg argued we were winning because, by golly, we had radio and we even had some TV channels. Of course, that’s an absurd argument. It’s like saying you’re winning because your basketball team got really cool uniforms and hot cheerleaders while in reality the scoreboard shows you getting hammered by 30 points in the fourth.

An increase in size, or having more think tanks or radio channels, doesn’t correlate with any effectiveness. Instead, these organizations have become fun-house mirror reflections of the bureaucracy they said they were coming to destroy. The supposed leaders and champions of the conservative movement in D.C.? Well, let’s just say they’ve become conservative welfare queens, giving themselves healthy six-figure, even seven-figure salaries—culled from charitable donations, mind you—while hardly moving the needle.

You could even make the argument that they act like kept women: they apparently will do anything for their donors as long as they are kept in comfort and living according to the lifestyle they expect.

A prime example is the case Tucker Carlson discussed on his Fox News program recently, in which the American Enterprise Institute helped push OxyContin with the help of the drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. The over-prescribing of the powerful painkiller has been the basis for the opioid crisis that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.

Instead of being even slightly effective, Conservatism, Inc.—to satisfy big corporate donors—has been detrimental to the movement and the entire country with it.

Or consider RomneyCare—the Massachusetts healthcare plan that was the brainchild of Stuart Butler, the longtime director of the Center for Policy Innovation at the Heritage Foundation. (Butler is now a senior fellow in economic studies at the center-left Brookings Institution). Butler’s efforts in Massachusetts laid the groundwork for what eventually became ObamaCare. But we are for freedom and limited government and all that. Right.

More than a few within Conservatism, Inc. have even become tech collaborators, accepting direct contributions from the Googles and Facebooks of the world to then turn around and mouth pretty little platitudes about “free market forces” and capitalism and private companies. Never mind that these monopolies undermine the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, free speech, and fair elections or that these people claim to be the defenders of precisely these things. But do tell me more about freedom and all that.

And we can’t leave out the Kochs in this discussion: can anyone tell me how the heck corporate libertarians who favor open-border policies and trade policies detrimental to the American worker are conservatives? Spare me. No self-respecting conservative should be seen at their seminars, much less give them money.

It’s bordered on the bizarre to watch people who consider themselves to be conservatives trot on over to the Koch Network seminars, ponying up hundreds of thousands, even millions, every year because “By golly, those presentations were fantastic, Ned. I mean really well-produced, inspiring stuff.”

It really is fascinating to watch otherwise successful people get played like a fiddle by the Kochs and Kevin Gentry and Tim Phillips because what really happens to the money and how it’s actually spent is another story. But most seem not to care because, golly gee willikers, we got to hang out with Charles Koch.

Nor can we forget Paul Singer. While the hedge-fund billionaire pays Fusion GPS $50,000 a month to do his dirty work domestically and overseas, something he did for nearly two years between 2015 and 2017, Singer spreads his wealth around, buying up influence while no one seems to strongly question if the man is a conservative on any level (I’ll grant him one issue, Israel, but that’s it).

Why do we allow people like the Kochs and the Singers of the world to be identified with conservatism or the GOP? Their bastardized version of capitalism and the free market could very well be the undoing of the party and the movement.

How have we come to this point? Greed is one explanation, with people willing to pimp themselves out and give a veneer of “conservative respectability” to causes and ideas that have almost nothing to do with conservatism.

There are many reasons for how we got here, but the great irony of it all is this: the best hope we’ve had in a generation to give ourselves a chance, Donald J. Trump, didn’t come out of the ecosystem of Conservatism, Inc. So beyond the worthless, corrupt behavior of it, will someone please explain to me why it still exists? Because if it merely exists to pimp out the ideas of Big Tech and pharma and vulture capitalists, the entire thing should be burned to the ground.

About Ned Ryun

Ned Ryun is a former presidential writer for George W. Bush and the founder and CEO of American Majority. You can find him on Twitter @nedryun.

Photo: Getty Images

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