Bannon, the NRA, and their Victims

 by Michael C. Dorf

After NY Attorney General Letitia James announced that she was filing a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA for defrauding its donors, various wags (including the wags at NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me news quiz) joked that prosecuting the NRA for defrauding its members would be harmful to the movement for gun control. Advocates of gun control should be pleased that its leadership was using donations from members for fancy clothes and vacations rather than to promote gun rights. That was a joke, in part because the remedy of dissolving the NRA would serve the interest of gun control too.

But still, one might think that the gun control movement would be better off with the NRA leadership siphoning off funds that would go to promote gun rights if it is displaced by a more honest organization with the same ideological aims. Of course, in saying that, I do not mean to imply that the ideological aims played any role in the decision of AG James to pursue the case; it would be improper to go after the NRA on those grounds, using the corruption allegations as a pretext. I'm raising the issue as an observer.

The same issue is raised by the criminal case now being brought against Steve Bannon for his having defrauded donors to his We Build the Wall organization. Isn't it better that a large chunk of the money that Trumpy donors gave to Bannon to build a private section of Trump's border wall go to paying for the expensive lifestyle of Bannon and his partners in fraud than to actually building even a small part of the wall?

The short answer in both cases is no. Corruption should be opposed, even when it takes the form of siphoning off money from bad causes.

The fact that the victims of the NRA and Bannon were trying to spend their money to achieve what I (and likely many of my readers) regard as bad policy does not make them any less victims. Here's a way to think about it. Suppose that Bill has $100 in his pocket that he plans to donate to the Trump re-election campaign. (He plans to donate it in person because he doesn't trust the Post Office.) On his way to the local MAGA HQ, Bill is accosted by a robber who threatens Bill with a gun and steals his money. Is this a good thing? Bill has harmful views about politics, but he's still a victim of armed robbery, a clear evil.

Maybe you think the difference between Bill and the donors to the NRA and We Build the Wall is that in Bill's case the fact that the robber ended up diverting $100 from the Trump campaign is accidental, not linked in any way to politics except through the happenstance of where Bill was going and what he was doing with his money. But suppose that the robbery occurred in a very heavily Trump-supporting neighborhood, so that even ex ante we could say that it was likely to deprive the Trump campaign of revenue. Even so, we would properly regard the stickup of Bill as harmful criminal activity.

So perhaps you think the difference between my hypothetical example and the real cases is that armed robbery is a more serious offense than financial fraud. I'll grant that it is, in general, but that doesn't mean that financial fraud is not serious. Scammers and fraudsters prey on the old, the uninformed, and often those with modest means, depriving them of assets they desperately need, even if in a particular case the money they steal was discretionary spending on what I and most readers regard as a bad political cause.

Meanwhile, it would be wrong--indeed it would violate the First Amendment--for the government to prosecute fraudulent schemes that target donors to liberal causes but to forbear from prosecuting scams aimed at right-wing donors to the likes of the NRA and We Build the Wall. The Republican freakout over the  fact that the IRS used terms like "Tea Party" to identify organizations that were political and thus not eligible for treatment as tax-exempt charities was unjustified because it turned out that the IRS was also using terms that identified left-leaning groups, but if the facts had been as the right-wing-o-verse claimed, the objection would have been valid. Turning law enforcement apparatus to partisan ends (as Nixon and Trump have sought to do) is itself a very insidious form of corruption.

In a typically insightful essay in yesterday's NY Times, Michelle Goldberg also linked the Bannon and NRA cases, along with similar charges against suspended Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. Goldberg rightly notes that it's hardly surprising that Trump--whose pre-presidential career included Trump University and other scams--would surround himself with and draw support from like-minded grifters.

But it's a mistake (although, to be clear, not a mistake that Goldberg makes) to think that the grift is harmless so long as it only targets the "other side." That's not just because the First Amendment requires even-handed prosecution. It's also not just because the people on the other side are, after all, people, who deserve not to be defrauded regardless of their views. Fundamentally, the problem is that corruption feeds on itself.

After the 2016 presidential election but before Trump took office, I wrote a column warning that Trump's corrupt ways would corrode the American political system and eventually its economy. I wrote:

Corruption is contagious. When greasing the palms of the rulers is the way to get ahead, even people who are inclined to play by the rules will have reason to cheat, if only to avoid being left behind. The effect then feeds on itself, and in turn undermines the entire economy. It is thus hardly surprising that high national levels of perceived corruption correlate with poor economic performance.

I was writing in that column chiefly about Trump's plan to profit personally from the presidency, but the point applies more broadly too. And in the current context it passes for good news. You can enjoy your schadenfreude at the prosecution of Bannon because disrupting grifters is sound policy, even when the grift undercuts the effectiveness of evil projects.