President Trump has taken a hard line against "sanctuary cities" that don't aid federal officials in deporting immigrants. But a new study shows that those cities have lower crime and unemployment.
President Trump has taken a hard line against "sanctuary cities" that don't aid federal officials in deporting immigrants. But a new study shows that those cities have lower crime and unemployment.
The first warning sign that something new was brewing came in June 2015, as Donald Trump joined the crowded field vying for the Republican presidential nomination. In the extravagant lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, he announced he would build a wall to keep out Mexican criminals and "rapists."
"I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President," wrote Andrew Anglin, publisher of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, 12 days later. Anglin, a 32-year-old skinhead who wears an Aryan "Black Sun" tattoo on his chest and riffs about the inferior "biological nature" of black people, hailed Trump as "the only candidate who is even talking about anything at all that matters."
This neo-Nazi seal of approval initially seemed like an aberration. But two months later, when Trump released his immigration policy, far-right extremists saw a clear signal that Trump understood their core anger and fear about America being taken over by minorities and foreigners. Trump's plan to deport masses of undocumented immigrants and end birthright citizenship was radical and thrilling—"a revolution," in the words of influential white nationalist author Kevin MacDonald, "to restore a White America."
Trump's move was a "game changer," said MacDonald, a 70-year-old silver-haired former academic who edits the Occidental Observer, which the Anti-Defamation League calls "online anti-Semitism's new voice." Trump, he wrote, "is saying what White Americans have been actually thinking for a very long time."
"Stunning," raved Peter Brimelow, editor of the anti-immigrant site <a href="http://VDare.com" rel="nofollow">VDare.com</a>. "The thing that delighted us the most," he wrote, was Trump's plan to close "the 'Anchor Baby' loophole," denying citizenship to the American-born children of immigrants—a policy that Brimelow said he had been advocating for more than a decade.
Trump "may be the last hope for a president who would be good for white people," remarked Jared Taylor, who runs a white nationalist website called American Renaissance and once founded a think tank dedicated to "scientifically" proving white superiority. Taylor told us that Trump was the first presidential candidate from a major party ever to earn his support because Trump "is talking about policies that would slow the dispossession of whites. That is something that is very important to me and to all racially conscious white people."
Trump fever quickly spread: Other extremists new to presidential politics openly endorsed Trump, including Don Black, a former grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and founder of the neo-Nazi site Stormfront; Rocky Suhayda, chair of the American Nazi Party; and Rachel Pendergraft, a national organizer for the Knights Party, the successor to David Duke's Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Richard Spencer, an emerging leader among a new generation of white nationalists known as the "alt right," declared that Trump "loves white people."
"The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions. They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will."
But Trump did not become the object of white nationalist affection simply because his positions reflect their core concerns. Extremists made him their chosen candidate and now hail him as "Emperor Trump" because he has amplified their message on social media—and, perhaps most importantly, has gone to great lengths to avoid distancing himself from the racist right. With the exception of Duke, Trump has not disavowed a single endorsement from the dozens of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, and militia supporters who have backed him. The GOP nominee, along with his family members, staffers, and surrogates, has instead provided an unprecedented platform for the ideas and rhetoric of far-right extremists, extending their reach. And when challenged on it by the press, Trump has stalled, feigned ignorance, or deflected—but has never specifically rejected any of these other extremists or their ideas.
This stance has thrilled and emboldened hate groups far more than has been generally understood during the 2016 race for the White House. Moreover, Trump's tacit welcoming of these hate groups into mainstream American politics will have long-lasting consequences, according to these groups' own leaders, regardless of the election outcome.
"The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions," Pendergraft told us. "They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will."
A three-month investigation by Mother Jones and the Investigative Fund—including interviews with white nationalist leaders and an analysis of social-media networks, nearly 100 hours of fringe talk radio, and dozens of posts on influential hate sites—reveals that what has largely been portrayed by the media as Trump "gaffes" has instead been understood by far-right extremists as a warm embrace by Trump. Extremists' zeal for Trump only grew with his decision in August to hire a new campaign chief, Stephen Bannon, the former publisher of Breitbart News and a big booster himself of far-right rhetoric. Trump's enduring campaign tactics—from calls for black protesters to be "roughed up" to the circulation of racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic language and memes—is proof for them that white nationalism has not only arrived, but has found a champion in a major-party nominee for president of the United States.
The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple detailed requests for comment regarding this story.
In early October, when bombshell archival video revealed Trump bragging about sexual assault and plunged his campaign and the GOP into chaos, that only further energized his extremist supporters. "Girls really don't mind guys that like pussies," influential alt-right video blogger RamZPaul said. "They just hate guys who are pussies."
Others celebrated Trump's angry, defiant debate performance on the heels of the video revelation. Spencer declared victory for Trump "because, basically, Trump fought back. He didn't abandon these issues that really define him and define our connection to him."
"The people believe Trump won the debate," Anglin posted. "It's really just an objective fact. Not sure how even liberal kikes could claim otherwise."
To understand how Trump's unspoken alliance with the far right has really worked, take one instance that caused a fleeting uproar last November, when Trump retweeted a graphic falsely claiming that black people were responsible for 81 percent of white homicides. Its source was a white supremacist Twitter feed whose logo is a modified swastika. Politifact and others quickly documented how "wildly inaccurate" the racist graphic was.
After a quick round of fact-checking and rebuke, however, the media moved on. But white nationalist news sites and radio programs were transfixed. "Now, you've touched the third rail of American politics by starting a real dialogue on race," Paul Kersey, of the racist blog Stuff That Black People Don't Like, wrote on VDare.
Trump had done the politically unthinkable—and then he doubled down, declining to delete the tweet (which remains live as of this publication) and asking rhetorically on Fox News, "Am I gonna check every statistic?" Even when Bill O'Reilly urged him, "Don't put your name on stuff like this," Trump didn't back down, saying, "It came from sources that are very credible, what can I tell you."
"I don't know how much more explicit you can get," said James Edwards, host of The Political Cesspool, a radio program that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls racist and anti-Semitic. "I mean, what other candidate would do that?…We certainly can take a lot of pride in, and what we can certainly invest a lot of hope in, [is] the fact that Donald Trump is saying a lot of these things very similar to the way we present them on the radio, and he is leading the field big-time. That is something that you can absolutely take to the bank."
Trump's big social-media boost for the phony black-crime stats was further proof that Trump had "laid out the red carpet for all those who want to move beyond the last 20 years of internet isolation and anonymity," as Brad Griffin, who blogs on Occidental Dissent, wrote after Trump announced his immigration plan. "All those people, long laughed at and excluded from the 'mainstream,' who were cast out beyond the wall of 'respectability,' are now in the tank for Donald Trump."
At various turns in the campaign, Trump has faced questions from the media about his seeming dalliance with the far right, from his selection of a white nationalist party leader as a Republican National Convention delegate, to his retweet of the handle @whitegenocideTM (which was later suspended by Twitter). After the press discovered in January that white nationalists were running robocalls on Trump's behalf, Richard Spencer worried openly on his blog that Trump might be forced "to distance himself from the American Freedom Party and American Renaissance, which wouldn't be good."
But Trump didn't back down—greatly impressing the men who had voiced the calls, Jared Taylor and American Freedom Party leader William Johnson. Interviewed on Political Cesspool, Taylor said, "For days everybody was calling him up, calling up his campaign, saying, 'What do you think of these horrible people? Denounce them, denounce them.' And he didn't. He maintained a dignified silence."
Moreover, Trump openly sympathized with these white nationalist leaders. CNN's Erin Burnett eventually got Trump to "disavow" the robocalls, but he also explained why the calls didn't surprise him: "People are angry, they're angry at what's going on. They're angry at the border, they're angry at the crime."
"If he disavowed us, he did it, I thought, in the nicest possible way," beamed Taylor. Johnson called Trump's response "wonderful…I couldn't ask for a better approach." (Johnson, who stepped down as a Trump delegate this spring after Mother Jones reported on his AFP role, reemerged in early October with news that he is now bankrolling campaign ads for Trump in seven states.)
"Whereas the odd White genocide tweet could be a random occurrence," a neo-Nazi leader boasted about Trump's feed, "it isn't statistically possible that two of them back to back could be a random occurrence. It could only be deliberate."
Just a few weeks later, Trump retweeted a riff disparaging Jeb Bush that had been posted by @WhiteGenocideTM, whose user had previously tweeted out his or her admiration for Hitler. The account @TheNordicNation crowed, "You can say #WhiteGenocide now, Trump has brought it into the mainstream."
"Wow. Just wow," Spencer tweeted.
"Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full-wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters," Anglin wrote on the Daily Stormer. "Whereas the odd White genocide tweet could be a random occurrence, it isn't statistically possible that two of them back to back could be a random occurrence. It could only be deliberate."
Edwards, the Political Cesspool host, said Trump "knew the media would blast him for this retweet, which would only solidify his growing base of support even more."
Trump's embrace of the far right soon moved beyond the internet. In late February, the Trump campaign granted Edwards media credentials to broadcast from a Trump campaign rally in Tennessee; and days later, Edwards interviewed Donald Trump Jr. on a white nationalist radio show, the Liberty RoundTable. Despite controversy over the interview, Edwards then received credentials for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he interviewed members of Congress and a Trump surrogate for his show. (How Edwards got into the RNC remains a mystery: The Radio-Television Correspondents' Gallery of the US House of Representatives, which handles the bulk of media credentials for the conventions, said it did not provide them to Edwards. The Trump campaign also denied involvement, and the Republican National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.)
This courtship burst more fully into view in February, when David Duke told his radio audience that voting against Trump was "really treason to your heritage. "When asked about it by CNN's Jake Tapper, Trump tap-danced around the question, saying he didn't know enough about Duke or the Klan to disavow them. The alt-right viewed Trump's subsequent remarks on MSNBC's Morning Joe—"David Duke is a bad person who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years"—not as a sign of retreat, but as one of strength. Griffin described it on Occidental Dissent as a "disavowal," in scare quotes, and applauded Trump's "refusal to cuck and condemn 'white supremacists'" more broadly.
The pattern continued throughout the presidential race, from Trump's disparagement of a Mexican American judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University to Trump's retweet of an anti-Semitic image featuring a Star of David and a pile of cash that white nationalists used to smear Hillary Clinton. During the fallout from the latter, Trump went right along with the far right's pushback that the star was simply a sheriff's badge. Trump also refused to condemn the barrage of anti-Semitic attacks on journalist Julia Ioffe after she wrote an unflattering portrait of his wife, Melania Trump.
Donald Trump Jr. has also participated in this dynamic, including with his recent tweet of a meme comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of poisonous Skittles, which delighted extremists. (He eventually deleted the meme.)
Just days before the first presidential debate, Richard Spencer and an alt-right blogger on his radio show mused about whether Trump would ever decisively distance himself from the movement:
Charles Lyons: Donald Trump has not made a concerted effort to denounce us.
Lyons: So we need that.
Spencer: Yeah, absolutely, and I don't think he will at this point.
Lyons: He won't.
An in-depth analysis we conducted of Twitter activity during a week in September shed further light on social-media connections between far-right extremists and the Trump campaign. In consultation with the Southern Poverty Law Center, we compiled a list of hashtags and catchphrases stemming from extremist movements, terms steeped in Holocaust denial, anti-Muslim invective, and other expressions of bigotry and racism. We used Little Bird software to define networks of users deploying each term, and then to identify thousands of "influencers"—the Twitter accounts most followed within each network. We found that the vast majority of these influencers followed Trump in comparison with other leading presidential candidates, including his closest GOP rival, Ted Cruz. (In general, negligible percentages followed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.) For example, among the influencers using the hashtag #BanIslam, 84 percent followed Trump and 23 percent followed Cruz. Among those using #WhiteGenocide, 65 percent followed Trump and 10 percent followed Cruz. And among those using the neo-Nazi term "holohoax," 44 percent followed Trump and 4 percent followed Cruz.
Trump only follows 41 accounts on Twitter, none among the extremist influencers. But it's a different story with people involved in his campaign: Our analysis of the accounts of more than 200 Trump campaign staffers and surrogates revealed that more than two dozen of them were following five or more of the top extremist influencers.
Following an account on Twitter indicates nothing per se; some users automatically follow anyone back who begins following them. But these Trump staffers and surrogates have been on the receiving end of a stream of inflammatory and hate-filled messages from the influencers they've followed, and in some cases retweeted.
Nancy Mace, Trump's coalitions director for South Carolina, followed 67 extremist influencers in September, including @Rebel_Bill, who regularly posts virulently anti-Semitic riffs and tweeted an image of a transgender woman using a women's bathroom with the words: "Prosecute or lynch." Mace told us by email that who she follows is not an indicator of her awareness level, nor any endorsement. "Folks regularly get followed back for the sheer fact they followed me," she said, pointing out that she followed more than 12,000 people. "I don't pay much attention to it as it's time consuming and a lot of it today is automated." She said she'd never seen the @Rebel_Bill tweets. After we interviewed Mace, the number of people she followed on her Twitter account dropped to just 37. She told us by email in early October that she was no longer Trump's coalitions director in South Carolina, though she did not respond to further questions about when and why she left that position.
Trump's South Carolina field director Gerri McDaniel and New Hampshire operative Cynthia Howard each followed @Suthen_boy, who goes by the name Gen. Robert E. Lee and has tweeted about "Black Savages" and declared that "Germans better get over Holocaust guilt or they'll wind up like the Jews only at the hands of muslim vermin." Howard has retweeted this account at least once, according to our research—a tweet about the "vile lying Clintons." Tana Goertz, a Trump senior adviser and his former Iowa co-chair, has on multiple occasions retweeted @Kotcha301, who calls Islam a "child rapist religion." Both Mace and Seth Weathers, Trump's former Georgia state director, have each frequently retweeted @cernovich, an avid peddler of conspiracy theories, including with regard to "horny" immigrants and "Sharia rape culture."
Geoff Diehl, Trump's Massachusetts field director, followed @LiberalMediaSux, who has tweeted that Islam "condones beastiality and pedophilia" and refers to Muslims as "goat humpers." Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson followed accounts that have declared that "multiculturalism" promotes a program of "genocide against Whites" and that Clinton is "looking to turn your suburb into an ATM for minorities and a Section 8 cesspool." And Trump surrogate Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, follows accounts that rant about the "Jew media" and call Islam a "rapist religion."
Apart from Mace, none of the other seven Trump staffers and surrogates we contacted above responded to requests for comment about their social-media accounts and activity.
After we began reaching out to Trump campaign officials for comment in late September, Trump's call to end birthright citizenship was deleted from the version of his immigration plan posted on his campaign website. Meanwhile, @Ricky_Vaughn99, a vocal Trump supporter—and the top influencer, according to our analysis, among users of the #whitegenocide hashtag—was suspended by Twitter. But before his suspension, he was followed by three Trump staffers and surrogates, including CNN regular Jeffrey Lord. "I had no idea who he was," Lord responded by email. "I follow all kinds of people from the far left to the far right and people in the middle."
Yet, Trump surrogates have continued to court the extreme right. In early October, Trump's son Eric and longtime adviser Roger Stone both appeared on the far-right radio program Liberty RoundTable, the one that aired white nationalist James Edwards' interview with Donald Trump Jr. in March. And on October 12, senior Trump adviser A.J. Delgado retweeted a comment from the notoriously anti-Semitic site The Right Stuff, which gave rise to the triple-parentheses "echo" symbol deployed by the alt-right on social media to target Jewish writers.
The alt-right's memes and other cultural markers—from the echo (now also used by Jews and others pushing back on the meme) to the use of "Shitlord" as an honorific to describe alt-right true believers—can be inscrutable to outsiders, and have served as a kind of secret handshake for alt-right cognoscenti. It all stems from one core issue. "Race is at the foundation of everything to the alt-righters," says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "They have this idea that white people and white civilization are under assault by the forces of political correctness."
Some of the memes hijack popular culture, using Taylor Swift's image to promote "Aryan" beauty or attacking Star Wars for including a central black character. Others are expressions of a fixation on masculinity, such as "cuck" or "cuckservative," used to suggest that mainstream conservatives are spineless cuckolds. Others tap into deep veins of American racism, such as the term "dindu nuffin" (caricatured dialect for "I didn't do nothing," used to describe African Americans, especially Black Lives Matters protesters). Spencer says these memes have "power" and are "a way of communicating immediately."
One of the alt-right's most notable pop-culture appropriations is Pepe the Frog—a cartoon character that has been adopted as the movement's mascot. In October, Trump retweeted an image of himself as Pepe, and campaign adviser Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr. posted, via Twitter and Instagram, images of themselves alongside a Trump Pepe in a meme satirizing Clinton's recent remarks about the "deplorables" among Trump's followers. (Days later, Pepe was designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.)
Some alt-right activists and political provocateurs who frequent popular forums such as Reddit and 4chan describe the conversion to their point of view as getting "red pilled," after the red pill in The Matrix that enables Keanu Reeves to see reality. Alt-righters see it as a metaphor for what they consider to be the revelatory power of their ideology, which cuts through the lies of "social justice warriors," "Cultural Marxists" and the mainstream media they insist are actively suppressing their views. After Trump Jr. retweeted white nationalist MacDonald, the Occidental Observer editor, Anglin wrote on the Daily Stormer, "Trump Junior: Total Shitlord. News like this really makes you wonder… Is the Trump family far more red-pilled than they're letting on?"
For Spencer, Trump is not the logical outcome of a radicalized Republican Party, but an entirely new phenomenon born of the alt-right's growing prominence—and mainstream conservatism's collapse. Trump's "gusto" in expressing "nationalism and togetherness," Spencer told us, represents a "complete change" in American politics.
The Trump campaign has had an invigorating effect on an older generation of white nationalists like David Duke (above). AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
The mainstreaming of alt-right ideology by the Trump campaign has also had an invigorating effect on an older generation of white nationalists. This includes Duke, whose political career was essentially in deep freeze after his 2002 conviction for wire fraud, but who this year is running for US Senate; Taylor, whose career as a "racial academic" dates back to the early 1990s; Brimelow, who became a deeply committed white nationalist in the mid-'90s and now reigns over VDare, a central address of the alt-right; and the Knights Party, the surviving remnant of Duke's old organization, now being revived by his daughter, Pendergraft, who specializes in white supremacist appeals to women.
Pendergraft, who endorsed Trump last December, said her organization has seen an increase in membership due to Trump. "White people are realizing they are becoming strangers in their own country and they do not have a major political voice speaking for them," she told us. "Trump is one example of the alternative-right candidate Knights Party members and supporters have been looking for. And we feel that through continued grassroots mobilization, more candidates will arise who will speak out for white Christian America."
"Don't underestimate the power of the presidency to legitimize marginalized people and deviant movements. If Barack Obama can legitimize gay marriage and transsexuals, Donald Trump can legitimize the Alt-Right."
Many white nationalists and their fellow travelers have been saying they are poised to build on Trump's presidential campaign. Pendergraft and Taylor each told us that win or lose, Trump's run has brought into view a tremendous dissatisfaction among white Americans. "Those feelings will not go away," Taylor said. He envisions alt-right candidates for school board, city council, and mayor. "I feel my job will be done when at the PTA meeting a woman gets up and says, 'Well of course there aren't as many blacks in the AP courses, because they just do not have the same average IQ,' and nobody objects."
Help us continue exposing the rise of the white nationalist movement with a tax-deductible gift to MoJo today.
Anglin predicted that if Trump loses, "it is by fraud, and all of these people who are currently supporting him are going to be radicalized." Those radicals, he said, will finally realize "there is a Jewish media conspiracy" and "a war on the White man." Picking up on Trump's own assertion that a Clinton victory would mean the election is "rigged," Anglin said Trump would "order a putsch."
In late August, Occidental Dissent's Brad Griffin mused about the possibility of a Trump win: "Can you imagine a world in which White Nationalists have come out of the closet, the charge of 'racism' elicits only a 'meh' and shrugged shoulders, and we have begun to openly organize? Don't underestimate the power of the presidency to legitimize marginalized people and deviant movements. If Barack Obama can legitimize gay marriage and transsexuals, Donald Trump can legitimize the Alt-Right."
In the wake of the explosive Trump video, Spencer acknowledged that "it's going to be difficult for him to win in November." But as he told us recently, "There have always been people in American history who have had a racialist idea. I just think now it's like our time has come."
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Additional reporting by Jaime Longoria, Kalen Goodluck, and Evan Malmgren.
Editor's note: Though this isn't usual Ars Technica fare, we're publishing a non-tech story because we had a reporter with deep personal experience relevant to a topic of national interest.
In 2005, both of us became fixated on a late-night infomercial that promised access to "hundreds of billions of dollars" in "free government money." As journalism grad students at the time, our evenings often ended with a couple beers as we decompressed by watching whatever was on our tiny 13" TV. And what was on at the time—repeatedly—was a half-hour advertisement for an outfit called "National Grants Conferences" (NGC).
Why did the NGC infomercial captivate us? It wasn’t the charisma of the commercial’s star, ex-football player and former Congressman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who was busy making a mockery of whatever credibility he once had. And it wasn’t the enthusiastic couple who founded NGC, Mike and Irene Milin, proclaiming that numerous government grants were there for the taking.
No, we couldn't stop watching because NGC just felt so sleazy. Even in comparison with other get-rich-quick schemes competing for time in the twilight TV hours—the obnoxious guy with the question marks all over his suit, the insufferable smile factories bragging about their real estate conquests from tropical locales—this one seemed suspect.
Though neither of us were rich, we were both confident about one thing: real secrets to the easy life weren't generally shared through free seminars given at local hotels. So how could a business like NGC persist, even thrive?
Mike Milin appearing in one of NGC's infomercials.
To find out, one Saturday afternoon we biked to a nondescript hotel near the Oakland airport for an NGC presentation. We sat among hundreds of other people packed into the ballroom as a speaker confirmed what the infomercial had promised: serious sums of government money could be ours. At the end of the session, dozens of attendees lined up to buy $999 NGC "memberships," receiving two thick books full of government programs and the promise of ongoing coaching and support.
Intrigued, we spent the better part of a year researching NGC, its claims, and its founders’ pasts. We ultimately found that NGC—with several seminar teams circling the country and clearing tens of millions of dollars each year in sales—and its memberships produced no money for any of the customers we interviewed.
Arriving at that conclusion was no great surprise. Nor was it surprising that the NGC money train would continue running well after we wrote a piece about it, which was published on the front page of The Sacramento Bee on July 5, 2006. What was remarkable—and what still feels surreal more than a decade later—is what happened near the end of our reporting.
Donald Trump waltzed into our story.
The booming industry of real estate investment seminar gurus—who by the early 2000s numbered in the dozens—made it clear that you could make big money selling a roomful of people at a time on the dream of easy riches. But seminar work itself was complex, ranging from managing teams of traveling crew members to keeping sales pitches just murky enough that law enforcement wouldn't butt in.
Trump wanted a piece of the action, so he struck a licensing deal with the Milins in 2006. The couple created the “Trump Institute,” using much of the same pitch material and some of the same pitchmen.
Getty Images / Mario Tama
The launch of Trump Institute, in turn, paved the way for the later creation of the Trump University live seminar business, which continues to be one of the biggest scandals dogging Trump’s presidential campaign. The New York Attorney General sued Trump, the Trump University, and its president, Michael Sexton, in 2013, alleging that they had ripped off thousands of customers, some of whom paid tens of thousands of dollars for “mentorship” programs.
As the Republican primary heated up earlier this year, it was the Trump University scandal that led to some of the harshest accusations against Trump. Former candidate Marco Rubio, after speaking to some Trump University customers, called Trump a “con man” in stump speeches and in one of the debates. The New York lawsuit and a related class-action against the university are still pending, and it’s not inconceivable that Trump and his closest associates may end up being called to testify on a witness stand even as Trump runs for president.
To understand the story, and to see how Trump University evolved, it helps to take a close look at exactly how NGC worked. By the time Trump got involved with the Milins, NGC was already a well-oiled money-making machine.
NGC plied particular markets with mailers, newspaper ads, and its late-night infomercial, filled with customer testimonials. "I got $80,000 in grant money, and I don’t have to pay it back!" said a supposed NGC customer named LaDawn Morris, who had gotten the money for “property rehab.” Another supposed customer, Dave Morgan, testified about winning a "grant for up to $1.3 million." Claims like these were lent credence by the assurances of former Congressman Watts and later by former Congressman J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.).
The NGC ads urged people to attend one of several free seminars offered locally during an upcoming weekend. These seminars were part motivational speech, part religious revival; at the end, they became a hard sales pitch. The seminar salesmen—"front-end speakers" in industry lingo—assured the audience that they were big success stories who had learned the secrets of great wealth. The hardest work they did now was walking to the mailbox to pick up their checks.
NGC had been started to "let everyone in this room play the game" typically reserved for the wealthy, frontman Rick Wiseman promised the crowd at one of the dozen conferences we attended in the course of our reporting.
Wiseman’s pitch hit every note of a classic rags-to-riches tale. He was dyslexic. He was called “dummy.” But, of course, no one was calling him that now.
To seal the deal, Wiseman transitioned from his difficult upbringing to boasting about his current wealth. That’s where a story about his Utah home, replete with photographs, came in. It had been remodeled and upgraded, he said, with the help of $107,000 in state government grants.
The frontmen, after establishing their authority, made sure to hammer home the importance of ignoring the dreaded "dream stealers" and "gunslingers" that surrounded each audience member. These people were typically family or close friends who might discourage customers from spending $999—and sometimes much more—on an infomercial product.
An NGC membership was an "investment in yourself," Wiseman told one crowd. Poor people don’t know what an investment is, he explained—but successful people do.
"I cannot teach people how to get $107,000 when they think $1,000 is a lot of money," he said with a knowing smile.
But when we checked out Wiseman's story, Utah officials told us the state grants didn't exist. (Researching his home, we found that Wiseman did apply for a few tax credits, which were approved.) What really made Wiseman wealthy, according to sources who knew the business intimately, was getting a cut of every NGC membership he sold. This appeared to be enough, based on our observations of his sizable crowds, to clear five figures in a good week.
Who was paying all that money? We interviewed nearly 50 customers who purchased NGC memberships and found that all had some source of income, but most were on the periphery of the middle class. Almost everyone appeared to pay by credit card. None of the people we interviewed had received any grants. Their experiences were telling, and some were eerily similar to allegations later leveled against Trump University.
Some buyers were upset at NGC, feeling like they’d been had. This was especially true of the go-getters who diligently pursued help from the company but who told us they were stonewalled or sent on wild goose chases.
“The counselor would say, ‘I don’t know how to help you if you don’t know what you want,’” one NGC customer, a Maryland resident named Michele Guarino, told us. “I said, ‘I know what I want! I want to buy a house, and find out what grants are available to help me. If I knew the particular program, I wouldn’t have needed you!’”
“Even my sister was like, ‘I can’t believe how many times you asked her the same goddamn question,’” added Guarino, who eventually gave up on NGC.
Dallas resident Toni Pallett, who was suffering from breast cancer and on a fixed income when she attended an NGC seminar, said she was sold on promises of grants for people with disabilities and illnesses. But her estimated 20 calls to NGC produced nothing.
“They’re nurturing sharks, is what they are,” she said. “They’re just a glorified Nigerian scam.”
Some customers we spoke to, after figuring out that NGC was of no use to them, had promptly demanded refunds. As long as they didn’t wait too long, they tended to get their money back—a smart strategy by NGC unburdening it of a relatively small number of potential headaches.
Others hadn’t even cracked the books open, evidently intimidated by the hundreds of pages of legalese consisting largely of reprinted descriptions of government programs.
“They could sell ice to a penguin,” a San Francisco customer, who worked in sheet metal, told us. When asked if he regretted his two $1,000 purchases, the customer demurred. “You get what you put into it,” he said. “I haven’t been able to put in the time that I would like to put in.”
That was the thing about NGC; its program had the effect of encouraging those who’d bought it to blame themselves for failure.
To gain more insight into the business, we called up that annoying question-mark-suit guy, Matthew Lesko. For a man who peddled “free money programs” in blaring TV spots, the skinny, bespectacled Lesko’s answers were remarkably frank. He seemed genuinely taken aback by the actions of NGC.
The free-seminar business, he said, appealed to "people's ignorance.”
“I do, too," he added.
But one difference between Lesko and NGC was that he charged only $40 for his wisdom, providing a book that was essentially a description of US government programs. Though initially an innovator in the business, Lesko was soon overtaken by more aggressive pitchmen.
"My commercials started getting big, and then all these other people started coming up," Lesko said. "I guess I envy them, in a way. I know they're doing a hell of a lot more revenue than I am. They charge outrageous fees—like $1,000! I don't have the balls to charge that."
all the spocks may come and go
but there’s one thing we’ll always know
no matter where or when you may be
spock is there
for you and me
live long and prosper
Nothing more needs be said. :)
On Sunday's Meet the Press, moderator Chuck Todd pressed Donald Trump on falling for (yet another) internet hoax.
In this case, the hoax was that an Ohio protestor who rushed Trump's stage over the weekend was tied to ISIS. Trump wasn't just making this up — he was sent video of the protestor, Thomas DiMassimo, standing in front of the ISIS flag while Arabic music plays in the background.
But the video, which Trump retweeted, was doctored footage. This was pointed out immediately after Trump promoted the clip, but he didn't seem to have noticed the corrections, or perhaps he didn't care to notice them. But as his attempts to defend his tweet failed to persuade Todd, Trump finally cut to the epistemological core of his candidacy.
"All I know is what's on the internet," Trump said.
The comment launched much mockery (and raised the existential question: If Donald Trump reads someone calling him an idiot on the internet, does he believe it?). But it's actually worse than it seems. There's plenty of good information on the internet. Trump has a repeated habit of choosing bad information, both on and offline.
His tendency to solicit, repeat, and retweet self-serving falsehoods served up by sycophants and hangers-on should be taken seriously. Among the most important tasks the president has is knowing what to believe, whom to listen to, which facts to trust, and which theories to explore. Trump's terrible judgment in this regard is one of the many reasons he's not qualified for the office.
Trump's record here also undermines the strongest argument for his candidacy: that his showman's persona is just a front, and at heart he's a calm, thoughtful, coolheaded businessman who will surround himself with the best people and govern in a pragmatic, results-oriented fashion.
If you want to see just how obviously false that argument for Trump is, start by looking at his doctor's note.
It's tradition for presidential candidates to release a note from their physician testifying to their fitness to fulfill the duties of the presidency. On December 14, Donald Trump submitted his entry to this quadrennial custom. It is, I think, one of the most revealing documents of the campaign.
The letter, supposedly written by Dr. Harold Bornstein of Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, is four paragraphs long and almost defies parody.
"If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency," Bornstein writes. "His blood pressure, 110/65, and laboratory test results were astonishingly excellent. ... His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary."
This is ... not how most doctor notes read. "Reached for comment regarding this, a spokesperson at the American Medical Association just giggled," reported the Daily Beast.
The letter sounds as if it were written by Trump himself, and perhaps it was. No matter who wrote the final draft, though, the underlying message is clear: Trump has entrusted his health to a sycophant who will say whatever Trump tells him to say however Trump tells him to say it.
There are many positions where one might accept a pliable crony. But "personal physician" should not be one of them. The fact that Trump would entrust his health to a doctor who would sign off on a note like this should terrify his family and friends. But more than that, it should disqualify him from the presidency.
One of the dangers of the presidency is that it's easy for anyone who controls nuclear weapons to insulate himself from hard truths and unpleasant critiques. But good decisions require difficult conversations. Presidents often have to hear things they don't want to hear — that an idea isn't good, that a strategy has become unworkable, that a policy doesn't add up, that a trusted subordinate is underperforming, that a particular strategy won't survive public or judicial scrutiny.
A good president needs to surround himself with people willing to stand up to him, people who aren't cowed by the trappings of the office. But Trump didn't even choose a personal physician unintimidated by the trappings of his wealth. A good president needs people around him who will say things that might make him angry. But Trump has managed to surround himself with people who will say the exact things he wants said, in the exact way he would say them.
Of course, as is often the case with Trump, it gets worse.
VIDEO: Here's an example of how a political leader uses braggadocious claims to support their power:
On January 22, Donald Trump retweeted a dumb Jeb Bush joke from an account called WhiteGenocideTM.
As you might expect, WhiteGenocideTM's racial politics are not the sort of thing that major presidential candidates typically associate themselves with. The account had, among other trenchant observations, tweeted that "Hitler SAVED Europe."
The resulting furor led Marshall Kirkpatrick to analyze the Twitter accounts Trump had retweeted that week. He found that 62 percent of the accounts Trump boosted that week followed multiple white supremacist Twitter accounts.
Trump's rather nonjudgmental attitude toward retweeting sycophants has led to more than a few missteps.
Sometimes those mistakes are farcical: Gawker created a Twitter bot under the name "Il Duce" that tweeted Benito Mussolini quotes at Donald Trump; sure enough, Trump retweeted it.
Sometimes those missteps are more dangerous. Trump promoted, for instance, a graphic showing that 81 percent of white people who are murdered are murdered by black people; the real number, according to the FBI, is 14 percent. Furthermore, the graphic cited the "Crime Statistics Bureau," an organization that doesn't even exist.
"I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert," Trump said when confronted by Bill O'Reilly. "Am I gonna check every statistic?"
Well, yeah, when you're a major presidential candidate with almost 7 million Twitter followers, you are supposed to check every statistic.
When you ask Donald Trump how he'll achieve any of the absurd things he's promised, his answer is always the same: He'll get the best minds in business — they're good friends of his, you know, great people, really great people — and they'll help him do what these dim-bulb politicians can't.
For instance, when Scott Pelley asked Trump on 60 Minutes how he would make good on his trade policies, Trump said, "I have the smartest people on Wall Street lined up already," as if that served as an answer.
But Trump doesn't have those people lined up. His campaign is not thick with endorsements from the smartest minds of the business world, much less the political or policy worlds.
Nor does Trump's business background suggest he would be able to line those people up. Trump is better at being a celebrity than he is at being a businessman. A number of his enterprises have gone bankrupt, and he would be richer today if he had simply invested his inheritance in the stock market rather than in his various business efforts.
What we've learned about Trump throughout this campaign, though, goes further than that: He has a lousy bullshit detector, he doesn't gravitate toward the smartest people on any given topic, and he doesn't much care about finding the best information. Worse, verifying the information he receives just isn't a great passion for Trump — he believes the information he wants to believe, and he's not particularly interested in learning that he was wrong. His knowledge of policy has remained thin, and, despite being burned again and again, his credulousness toward online sycophants has persisted.
These are bad traits in a candidate, but they would be disastrous traits in a president. America can't entrust its future to someone who thinks "All I know is what's on the internet" is a sufficient response to repeating falsehoods for the umpteenth time. America can't hand over its nuclear arsenal to someone who will believe any conspiracy theory he's presented with as long as its confirms his priors.
We need to do better.