Blast from the past


Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the news again. I had hoped we’d never hear his name again. (Perhaps the only bright spot of the 2016 election was Arpaio’s loss to Paul Penzone.) But, as always, bad news makes for great blog material, and Sheriff Joe’s recent pardon gives me the opportunity to share one of my favorite articles about Arizona politics with you. It’s called “How Arizona Became Ground Zero for Birthers”

The article follows Brian Reilly, a resident of Surprise, Arizona and thus a “Surprise Tea Partier”. (Oh, the difference between a “surprise tea party” and the “Surprise Tea Party”!)

If you recall, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in 2011 shortly after Donald Trump began questioning his place of birth. Birtherism had been bubbling up among the hard-right ever since Obama’s election, after originating from the swamps of PUMAs and other disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters. (For those who claim that Bernie Bros were unusually toxic and divisive, please read your history.) Unsurprisingly, the official document didn’t quell the most ardent supporters of birtherism, who instead began to question the veracity of the certificate itself. It also drew in amateur sleuths like Reilly:

The more Brian Reilly looked at the copy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate on the White House website, the more questions he had. There appeared to be a misspelling in a stamp. There was what looked like a happy face in the signature. And when he magnified the certificate past 1,000 percent on his computer, turning the digits of the serial number into individual pixels, the “1”s appeared starkly different.

“I looked at that and thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Reilly said.

The Surprise Tea Party group that Reilly later joined was quite influential in the Arizona birther movement. One member, Jeff Lichter, proposed a bill that required candidates for office to prove their citizenship to be granted ballot access. Eager to push both the bill and the birther movement into the mainstream political conversation, Lichter and others contacted Donald Trump.

Kelly Townsend, then the head of the Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots, wanted to ask Donald Trump to visit Arizona and rally for the bill. Trump, at the time known mainly for his reality TV series “The Apprentice,” had given interviews questioning Obama’s birthplace. In an interview with NBC in early April 2011, he said he had sent investigators to Hawaii “and they cannot believe what they’re finding.”

Townsend, who would win a seat in the state House the next year, conferred with then-Rep. Carl Seel, R-Phoenix, a proponent of the bill. Seel wrote to Trump and got an invitation to Trump Tower in New York. Seel, Townsend and Lichter packed their bags.

[He] made no public statement endorsing Arizona’s efforts. He didn’t need to.

“When we came back, all the legislators wanted to know what happened in Trump Tower,” Lichter said. “All of a sudden, the votes start coming in.”

The bill passed, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer, who called it a step too far.

But the Tea Party group had pushed the legislation to the governor’s desk. No other state had done that.

When Reilly started attending meetings of the Surprise Tea Party Patriots that year, he said Lichter professed pride in his accomplishment. Reilly said Lichter carried the photo of himself with Trump in his wallet, ready to show on demand.

The political dynamics (to me, at least) are fascinating. There are ordinary citizens, like Lichter and Reilly and Townsend; “professional” politicians, like Carl Seel, and inveterate publicity-seekers, like Donald Trump. But the boundaries are incredibly blurry, if they even exist at all. Townsend was a Tea Party activist who became a politician. Arguably, so was Donald Trump. Seel was a supporter of Chris Simcox – leader of the “Minutemen” group that was essentially a vigilante militia patrolling the border, and later a convicted child molestor – as well as being a former Minuteman himself. He was also known for the “bizarre bills” he sponsored as member of the Arizona House:

[They] include a proposal to require loyalty oaths of high school seniors, and an attempt to have Arizona avoid implementing Agenda 21, a voluntary plan for environmental sustainability developed by the United Nations that some on the far right consider a harbinger of the dreaded “New World Order.”

Both parties have crazies in their bases. But what sets the Republican Party apart is the ease with which craziness infects the professional ranks. Politicians become activists (like Jim Demint); activists become politicians (like Kelly Townsend or Carl Seel); the constant influx of money attracts grifters, and the conspiratorial mindset of the rabid and outspoken base draws in publicity hounds. The Venn Diagram of politician and activist and grifter and conspiracy theorist and publicity hound is always in danger of collapsing into a single circle. Contrast this with the Democratic Party, where anyone who gives off even the slight whiff of lunacy is kept far away from the levers of power (see, for instance, Mike Gravel or Dennis Kucinich, or even Bernie Sanders, if you want to be tendentious).

This was the story of Joe Arpaio: he was a politician and an activist, a grifter and an attention whore and a lunatic-whisperer. He was the holy trinity unto himself, the apotheosis of Republicanism (at least until Donald Trump came along).

Let’s pick up where we left off in Brian Reilly’s story:

Reilly had a thought: Maybe the case should be investigated by someone with authority. He thought of Arpaio.

Reilly had lived in Washington before retiring to Arizona in 2006 and knew Arpaio’s reputation as the “Toughest Sheriff in America.” 

He wanted to hand Arpaio a petition signed by a long list of supporters. He figured he could draw those supporters at an event related to the birth certificate.

And he knew just the name that might draw people in: Jerome Corsi.

Corsi, who wrote for the website World Net Daily, had just released a book entitled “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” Some fans credited the book with prodding the president to release the document.

Reilly emailed Corsi outlining an agenda: a speech at a tea party meeting, a morning meeting with Arpaio.

Corsi agreed. Reilly and his wife would foot the bill for the August trip.

Reilly picked up Corsi at the airport and drove him to Sun City West, checking him in to a nearby Hampton Inn after a dinner of Mexican food.

The next evening, Corsi spoke to the Surprise Tea Party Patriots. He talked about anomalies in the birth certificate, essentially the same ones Reilly spotted and had been pointed out by others online.

At the end of Corsi’s lecture, Reilly and Corsi announced the plan to ask Arpaio to investigate. They asked people to sign the letter and left with 242 signatures.

The next morning, the Reillys, Corsi and a few other members of the Surprise Tea Party went to downtown Phoenix to meet with Arpaio. Reilly got to the point, telling the sheriff, “We’re from the Surprise Tea Party and we’re here to talk to you about the president’s birth certificate.”

Reilly presented Arpaio with the petition. He gave Arpaio a copy of Corsi’s book, one he purchased at retail price because Corsi did not want to give one away.

The sheriff leaned back in his chair and pondered the request. “Do I throw (the request) into the wastebasket which everybody in the world, if they were smart, would do?” Arpaio recalled, during a speech to the Surprise Tea Party group in September 2016.

Instead, Arpaio said, he took the “stupid” route. “They want me to look into it,” he said. “I’m going to look into it.”

The one detail in this passage that always makes me laugh is that Reilly was forced to buy Corsi’s book at full price because, well, what’s more important: ideology or making money? (Or, to put it another way, the ideology is making money.)

And, Arpaio’s protestations to the contrary, he wasn’t being “stupid” either. He handed the investigation off to his “Cold Case Posse”, a ludicrously named group of volunteer investigators whom Trump later praised (“Congratulations to @RealSheriffJoe on his successful Cold Case Posse investigation which claims @BarackObama‘s ‘birth certificate’ is fake”) The Posse is a “non-profit” that, like many political non-profits, seems to exist for the sole purpose of making money. All you need to know is summed up by these two paragraphs:

The IRS made the posse exempt from filing financial information based on the Cold Case Posse’s assertion to the agency that it would not solicit donations and would be closely affiliated with Maricopa County. Those assertions were made in 2007 when the posse applied for tax-exempt status.

The Cold Case Posse has since actively solicited funds through its own website. Other websites, like the conservative World Net Daily, have linked to that donation page in articles reporting on the birth-certificate investigation.

As part of their “investigation” into the birth certificate, Posse commander Mike Zullo and Corsi also co-wrote a book for sale online. And the money from right-wing rubes wasn’t just funneled into the Cold Case Posse; Arpaio himself was the beneficiary of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. (Even now that he has been pardoned, Arpaio is still begging for contributions to his personal legal fund. Better than spending Maricopa County taxpayer dollars to settle his legal suits, I suppose.)

Perhaps my favorite part of the story, though, is that even Orly Taitz recognizes Arpaio as a grifter.

Zullo told the website WND in July 2015 that the “universe-shattering” information was still forthcoming. But there were “legal hurdles” to overcome.

Such delays caused some in the so-called “birther” movement to lose faith in Arpaio’s investigation.

Orly Taitz, a California woman who has filed lawsuits regarding the veracity of Obama’s birth certificate, has written articles urging people to stop donating to Arpaio and the Cold Case Posse.

Taitz said in a phone interview that she received so many solicitations for funds she eventually blocked the email address.

“It’s very sad that after making all those speeches from 2011 … and raising all this money, he never did what he was supposed to do as a sheriff,” Taitz said.

Taitz, for those who don’t know, was a hipster birther – one who was into it before it became cool. Perhaps her real gripe with Arpaio and Zullo is that they were Johnny-come-latelies who were trying to horn in on her grift.

All of this reminds me of that great article by Rick Perlstein in The Baffler, one that I’ve quoted at length in this blog before. It captures perfectly the way that conspiracy and venality intersect in the modern right-wing, the impossibility of disentangling Republican ideology from their own self-interest.

But tenders of a 23-Cent Heart Miracle seem to work just fine on the readers of the magazine where Ann Coulter began her journalistic ascent in the late nineties by pimping the notion that liberals are all gullible rubes. In an alternate universe where Coulter would be capable of rational self-reflection, it would be fascinating to ask her what she thinks about, say, the layout of on the day it featured an article headlined “Ideas Will Drive Conservatives’ Revival.” Two inches beneath that bold pronouncement, a box headed “Health News” included the headlines “Reverse Crippling Arthritis in 2 Days,” “Clear Clogged Arteries Safely & Easily—without drugs, without surgery, and without a radical diet,” and “High Blood Pressure Cured in 3 Minutes . . . Drop Measurement 60 Points.” It would be interesting, that is, to ask Coulter about the reflex of lying that’s now sutured into the modern conservative movement’s DNA—and to get her candid assessment of why conservative leaders treat their constituents like suckers.

The history of that movement echoes with the sonorous names of long-dead Austrian economists, of indefatigable door-knocking cadres, of soaring perorations on a nation finally poised to realize its rendezvous with destiny. Search high and low, however, and there’s no mention of oilfields in the placenta. Nor anything about, say, the massive intersection between the culture of “network” or “multilevel” marketing—where ordinary folks try to get rich via pyramid schemes that leave their neighbors holding the bag—and the institutions of both evangelical Christianity and Mitt Romney’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And yet this stuff is as important to understanding the conservative ascendancy as are the internecine organizational and ideological struggles that make up its official history—if not, indeed, more so. The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.





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