Ted Cruz loses his wingnut welfare: How the New York Times smacked down a decades-old conservative racket

For years, Republicans have been artificially manufacturing best-selling books — but Cruz took it one step too far

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 13, 2015 9:59PM (EDT)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

There has been a controversy for many, many years over the conservative movement's manipulation of the New York Times' bestseller list to create the impression of massive popularity of their wingnutty ideas among the public. This is not to say that right-wingers don't ever legitimately sell books. They do, of course. But all you have to do is look at the sheer number of these books that are published to see that something else is going on. It is called "wingnut welfare."

Paul Krugman gave the best definition for this phenomenon:

[T]he lavishly-funded ecosystem of billionaire-financed think tanks, media outlets, and so on provides a comfortable cushion for politicians and pundits who tell [right wing] people what they want to hear. Lose an election, make economic forecasts that turn out laughably wrong, whatever — no matter, there’s always a fallback job available.

Obviously this reality has important incentive effects. It encourages conservatives to espouse ever-cruder positions, because they don’t need to be taken seriously outside their closed universe. But it also, I’ve been noticing, makes them remarkably lazy.

How this has worked in book publishing is quite interesting in that it has played a major role in the conservative movement's message operation for many decades. It started innocuously enough back in the 1960s when the movement first gained traction in the wreckage of the Goldwater campaign.

Goldwater had written a major bestselling book four years earlier called "The Conscience of a Conservative," which had electrified the right and went on to become a massive success, particularly among young conservatives who considered it their political bible. There had been a serious hunger among these folks for a book that set out what they saw as conservative principles, written in an accessible way, and this book was it.

"Conscience" was actually ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell II, William F. Buckley's brother-in-law and a senior editor at National Review, who had been one of Goldwater's speech writers. According to movement lore, Goldwater perfunctorily thumbed through the book once it was finished and said to run with it. It was the beginning of a very lucrative conservative racket, even if, in this case, the book was a genuine runaway hit. It showed the way for a whole genre of political books aimed specifically at conservative readers.

In 1964 came one of the first big bestsellers in this new genre, "A Choice Not an Echo," by an ambitious activist by the name of Phyllis Schlafly who helped organize Republican women into clubs, an organizing tactic later adopted by the conservative movement as a whole. Historian Rick Perlstein amusingly illustrated the phenomenon of the engaged suburban movement conservative of the time with this quote:

“I just don’t have time for anything,” a housewife told a news magazine. “I’m fighting Communism three nights a week.”

These clubs and political organizations bought books in bulk and the idea later morphed into a system by which various conservative business and political entities from think-tanks to publishers to public relations firms to television networks to the Republican party itself promoted, bought, sold and otherwise churned them among themselves, each taking a nice little piece of the profit. Making the public believe they were actually popular with large numbers of people was just frosting on the cake. (Here's a vivid example of how it works.)

At some point the New York Times figured this out and began to list such alleged best-sellers with a "dagger" next to them denoting bulk sales, which sort of takes the fun, if not the profit out of it. And it wasn't long ago that some authors got wind of another layer of the scam at their own expense. They sued their publisher, the right-wing Regnery Publishing for selling what would otherwise be boring, remainder bin books to various affiliated organizations at a steeply reduced price and even for free as promotional items. The authors did not receive royalties for such sales and they weren't happy about it, one of them even complaining, “they’ve structured their business essentially as a scam and are defrauding their writers.” Imagine that.

Apparently it was one thing to manipulate the sales for the glory of being on the New York Times bestsellers list and quite another to also cheat the authors themselves. Regnery retorted, "these disgruntled authors object to marketing strategies used by all major book publishers that have proved successful time and again as witnessed by dozens of Regnery bestsellers.” Regnery won that case.

And the con went on as if nothing had happened. Just ask Mitt Romney:

Mitt Romney boosted sales of his book this spring by asking institutions to buy thousands of copies in exchange for his speeches, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.

Romney's book tour ran from early March to late May of this year, and took him to bookstores, universities, conferences and private groups around the country. Their giant purchases helped his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, debut on top of the New York Times best-seller list, though with an asterisk indicating bulk purchases.

The hosts ranged from Claremont McKenna College to the Restaurant Leadership Conference, many of whom are accustomed to paying for high-profile speakers like Romney. Asking that hosts buy books is also a standard feature of book tours. But Romney's total price — $50,000 — was on the high end, and his publisher, according to the document from the book tour — provided on the condition it not be described in detail — asked institutions to pay at least $25,000, and up to the full $50,000 price, in bulk purchases of the book. With a discount of roughly 40 percent, that meant institutions could wind up with more than 3,000 copies of the book — and a person associated with one of his hosts said they still have quite a pile left over.

Or Sarah Palin, who just did it through her own PAC:

Sarah Palin has been using her political action committee to buy up thousands of copies of her book, "Going Rogue," in order to mail copies of the memoir to her donors, newly filed campaign records show.

The former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate had her political organization spend more than $63,000 on what her reports describe as "books for fundraising donor fulfillment." The payments went to Harper Collins, her publisher, and in some instances to HSP Direct, a Virginia-based direct mail fundraising firm that serves a number of well-known conservative politicians and pundits.

Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz is a wily politician who was trying to be a little bit more clever with his manipulation. But he got caught and the New York Times is finally pulling the plug. As Salon's Scott Eric Kaufman pointed out:

In essence, The Times accused Cruz’s publisher of trying to buy its way onto the bestseller list by having a firm like Result Source hire thousands of people across America to individually purchase a copy of “A Time For Truth,” in the hope that some of those retailers are on the secret list of booksellers who report their sales to the Times, or that the aggregate purchasers will simply be too high for the Times to ignore.

The Times is standing by its decision to take Cruz off the list despite all the conservative caterwauling Kaufman catalogs in his piece. It appears they feel sure of their facts. Perhaps the bigger question is why Ted Cruz didn't go with the standard operating procedure. Couldn't he find anyone to bulk buy his dull campaign book?

There are, of course, many forms of wingnut welfare. Book publishing scams are just one of the oldest. The more lucrative forms are the ones that give Republican politicians a big money payout on Fox or a sinecure at one of the think-tanks to keep their "brand" alive for future political ambitions or advisory posts to someone in power. And needless to say, certain industries like say military contractors (cough, Halliburton,cough) are happy to hire those who might be useful to them. Indeed,  the entire lobbying industry could be defined as a bipartisan form of welfare.

What sets wingnut welfare apart from the normal everyday corruption and profit motive that characterizes our political system is its commitment to the ideology set forth in that original Goldwater book so long ago. They have never changed course or re-evaluated their beliefs in light of any evidence. The movement and the edifice that's been built around it is impervious to doubt or evolution. It is, in their minds, infallible.

In fact, it's more useful to think of it as a religion or a cult.When they said "The Conscience of a Conservative" was their bible, they weren't kidding. They're not lazy, they're just faith-based.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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2016 Elections Barry Goldwater Mitt Romney Ted Cruz The New York Times The Republican Party