Only the GOP does this: How wingnut grifters hijacked the Republican Party & wrecked the political discourse

Want to know why politics seems more and more frivolous? Look to the self-interested hucksters running for POTUS

Published October 30, 2015 6:25PM (EDT)

  (AP/Patrick Semansky/Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Patrick Semansky/Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

I’ve used the term “political entrepreneur” to describe Republicans who use the platform of politics for self-promotion and personal enrichment. I can’t say that political entrepreneurship is exclusive to the Republican Party, but it often seems that way. It’s really only in the GOP that candidates like Herman Cain or Ben Carson or Donald Trump are possible.

Cain and Carson and Trump, all of whom have led the polls at some point in a Republican presidential race, are not serious candidates. They’re businessmen looking to capitalize on a broken process and a credulous constituency. None of them have the experience or the credentials to be president, and yet they run for office in order to enhance their celebrity. When they lose elections, they return to the warm bosom of the conservative lecture circuit, where they can sell books and collect speaking fees ad infinitum.

And it’s not just “outsider” or non-political candidates who do this; it’s also legitimate politicians like Mike Huckabee, who at one point governed Arkansas. Indeed, Huckabee is arguably the most egregious offender on this front. I doubt anyone has parlayed their political clout into private profit as shamelessly as Huckabee has.

After his initial failed run at the White House, Huckabee immediately scored his own show at Fox News. During his Fox tenure, Huckabee became an accomplished snake oil salesman, pitching a slew of sham products. He endorsed Goldline, a precious metal retailer that targets conservatives and survivalists on right-wing radio with fear-based advertising (Goldine was later forced to pay $4.5 million for defrauding its customers). He also promoted a “dubious diabetes treatment,” an especially sordid thing to do for money. Huckabee even used his show on Fox to grow his email list, which he promptly rented to corporate hucksters.

So Huckabee ran for president, become a national political celebrity, and then used that celebrity to profit in the private sector. Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard Huckabee on MSNBC on Thursday complaining about the puerility of the political process:

I think there’s got to be an attempt to have substantive questions that really focus not just on what do you think about an issue…What we’re missing in these debates is getting at the heart, character and soul of the candidates…And I think sometimes we’ve turned this into a game show. You know, jump in and get your answer in and, Joe [Scarborough), for God’s sake, this is an important business [emphasis mine]. And those of us who are running, we’re doing it with a very serious intent. And I just feel like the whole process has gotten out of control and it has become a TV show.

If you don’t see the irony in this, I can’t help you.

Ben Carson is another example of this sort of chicanery. Carson is an accomplished neurosurgeon, but he knows almost nothing about politics, and his continued ignorance suggests he’s not particularly interested. Since becoming a political figure, however, Carson has cashed in on his celebrity. As the conservative Daily Caller pointed out months ago, “Since 2012, at least eight potential 2016 presidential contenders have released books, with Carson – the former neurosurgeon turned conservative superstar – by far the best-selling author among them.”

Although he lied about it at the debate, Carson also has deep ties to Mannatech, a fraudulent medical supplement company (which is currently being sued by the state of Texas for false advertising). As noted by Jim Geraghty of the National Review (another conservative publication),  Carson was paid by Mannatech to give four separate speeches, and he “talked about the company’s ‘glyconutrient’ products in a PBS special as recently as year.” Carson was also featured on the company’s homepage, which included a specific tag for Carson-related articles.

There are other examples of Republican grifterism, but the point is obvious enough: These are the last people who should be whining about the frivolity of our political discourse. You don’t see Democrats exploiting the process at nearly the rate Republicans do. And the Democratic debates, however flawed they are, aren’t strewn with superficiality the way the Republican debates are.

And that’s because the Democratic stage isn’t littered with self-interested hucksters like Huckabee and Carson.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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2016 Elections Ben Carson Donald Trump Grifters Herman Cain Mike Huckabee Republican Party