As any political fundraiser will tell you, nothing opens a wallet faster than a compelling story. The convert’s zeal is an especially captivating thing, particularly when their conversion is to your side. And, right now, the anti-Trump conversion tale is a story in abundance. Democratic donors are awash in obsequious flattery from one-time Republicans. These formerly committed GOP operatives are penitent, pitiable and desperate for absolution — not to mention book deals, speaker fees, on-air contributor gigs and donor cash.
Democrats who have spent the last four years imagining that they are members of “The Resistance” have set a cognitive trap for themselves. By February 2017, The Nation identified no fewer than 75 organizations that were self-styled Resistance groups, many of which were just as hostile toward conventional Democratic politicians as they were to the GOP. As Indivisible founder Ezra Levin told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in 2017, congressional Democrats had lost touch with their own voters. While Trump backers “were talking positively about the Japanese internment camps,” Levin incredulously observed, “Democrats were saying they were going to work with Trump on infrastructure.”
The Resistance’s truest believers were not just overly committing to a metaphor. As one St. Louis activist told The Guardian, the “Resistance is our only shot” to forestall America’s “total slide into fascism.” This distorted view of the political landscape produced a lot of disoriented voters ripe for exploitation.
No Resistance fantasy is complete without the redemptive arcs of a few conscience-addled collaborators. And, in 2018, they got one. Then, The New York Times’ opinion editors made the rare decision to grant anonymity to an author who alleged that he, along with other “senior officials” within the Trump administration, were “working diligently from within to frustrate” the president’s agenda. The op-ed soon distended into an entire book — “A Warning,” by Anonymous — which debuted at the No. 1 spot on the Times’ nonfiction bestsellers list.
Not only was the book a success, its publication knocked Donald Trump Jr. out of the top spot — a “poetic justice,” observed Trump associate-turned-critic Tony Schwartz. But aside from making the author’s publisher and his agents gobs of money (Anonymous promised to "substantially" donate royalties to nonprofits and refused an advance) and giving Don Jr. a mild headache, Anonymous seems not to have frustrated anything at all.
On Wednesday, Anonymous outed himself as Miles Taylor, a security expert, Google employee and paid CNN contributor who served in the Department of Homeland Security at the time that he wrote the famous op-ed. Specifically, Taylor was deputy chief of staff to then-Secretary Kristjen Nielsen — a role that does not amount to a “senior” anything. The Times’ decision to grant him their imprimatur lent gravity to Taylor’s account of events inside the administration, but that was an investment in a narrative that hadn’t yet materialized. And unfortunately for the fans of Anonymous, it never did.
From February 2017 to June 2019, when Taylor served in DHS, the agency implemented a “zero tolerance” policy in which children were separated from their families not just in an effort to comply with complex legal guidelines that govern the detention of undocumented migrants but as a “deterrent” to future migrants. Also in 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began conducting arrest operations at courthouses, hospitals, and schools as well as their places of illicit employment — events that led even mainstream Democrats to attack the agency’s “deeply immoral actions” while more radical voices on the left called for its total dissolution. And, according to the agency’s inspector general’s office, Customs and Border Protection was found to have violated court orders amid the zealous enforcement of Trump’s executive order preventing nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
Taylor wasn’t in a position to “thwart” much of anything, so the fact that Democrats loathed his department during his tenure should not come as a surprise. But nor should it have been particularly shocking that some administration officials disagreed with the president’s instincts. Those disagreements regularly spilled out of the White House and into some very public forums (as anyone who has followed this administration’s pandemic response efforts can attest).
This is in large part why the “unmasking” of Taylor was so anticlimactic. Even the liberals who weren’t enamored with the Anonymous news cycle — and his book was widely criticized on the left — were nevertheless drawn in by the big reveal. And where there is interest, there is commercial opportunity.
To be fair, you can’t exactly blame Taylor or, for that matter, the many institutions that catered to and disseminated his narrative. The media ecosystem was briefly consumed by the Anonymous news cycle. It was either an act of profound bravery or “a crock,” depending on your level of pique. It was a disclosure that dovetailed with "Bob Woodward’s 'Fear,’ which offered examples of staffers sabotaging the president in myriad ways,” according to The Washington Post. Most rewardingly (from the perspective of a certain type of activist), it drove Donald Trump and the figures in his orbit mad.
Complimenting the sensibilities of Trump’s most vociferous opponents is a proven business model. It worked for Michael Cohen.
When Donald Trump’s long-time legal fixer, bag man and most ardent cable news apologist turned on his heel and thew himself upon the mercy of the left, he found that he was welcomed with open arms. “This is a story of redemption,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., after Cohen accused the president of suborning perjury during an early 2019 House Oversight Committee hearing. But Cohen wasn’t looking for redemption; he was seeking indemnification.
To avoid a more excessive sentence than the one he received on charges related to his personal misconduct, Cohen shared with federal prosecutors all he knew about the president. But that’s not all he did. Cohen made himself over into both a Trump critic and an indefatigable flatterer of Democratic predilections. He showered Michelle Obama’s book with praise — “words,” he said, that could “bring back unity to our country.” He re-registered as a Democrat, urged voters to cast their ballots for Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterms, and hired Clinton associate Lanny Davis to represent him.
It all must have worked because, by the summer of 2018, he had raised tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to his legal defense fund from earnest anti-Trump donors. After all, Cohen had nowhere else to turn. He had reportedly become “frustrated” by Trump’s refusal to underwrite his mounting legal fees, even despite several weeks in which he and his associates allegedly threatened to betray the president unless he paid up. Trump never did, but the members of the Resistance had Cohen’s back, and all for the low, low price of telling them exactly what they wanted to hear.
As a narrative, the Republican who has seen the light must have a powerful psychological hold over the liberal donor’s imagination. Several organizations have emerged to satisfy that need. And in the process, being a Republican against Republicans has become a lucrative identity.
“Former Republican” has become a sought-after label in 2020. One such group, the Lincoln Project, raised $39 million in the third quarter of this year alone. Small- and high-dollar liberal donors and deep-pocketed “dark money” groups alike funneled cash into the group’s coffers, and that organization has become one of the biggest spending outside groups of this election year.
But what are they spending on? One Open Secrets investigation into the group in May found that the organization disbursed most of its funds to the vendors it employs to produce ads, many of which are owned by the Lincoln Group’s own members. The group is good for savvy public relations campaigns — purchasing ads on Fox News set to run for an audience of one or putting $1 million into Texas for the benefit of Democrats who are forever on the cusp of turning the Lone Star State blue. But as frustrated progressives have observed, the organization’s spending on ad buys doesn’t appear to keep pace with more conventional Democratic PACs — not, at least, given what it takes in
Meanwhile, with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund earning a whopping $92 million in September alone, Senate Democratic fundraisers have sounded alarms. “Without our grassroots supporters we won’t be able to flip Republican-held seats,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's executive director, Scott Fairchild, said. But maybe those grassroots supporters haven’t gone anywhere — maybe they’re just distracted.
There is nothing so satisfying to the ego as a display of contrition from a defeated enemy, and there are plenty of erstwhile Republicans willing to genuflect before the altar of Democratic primacy. For those willing to play it, this can be a profitable game. And with all this infrastructure in place, it is one that will be played long after 2020 is just a memory.