The “Conservative Movement” Is a Giant Exercise in Plutocrat-Financed Astroturfing

The scandal of Clarence Thomas accepting enormous gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow is a reminder of just how little mass support the Right has. Take away the rich financiers and there’s not much of a conservative movement to speak of.

Clarence Thomas speaks during the Florida Chapters Conference of the Federalist Society at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on January 31, 2020. (Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In the wake of ProPublica’s reporting on Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and the decades’ worth of undisclosed gifts he has received from billionaire Harlan Crow, a cadre of conservative pundits and operatives have rushed to play defense.

Early out of the gate was the Manhattan Institute’s Ilya Shapiro, who declared just after the story was published, “Unless Harlan Crow has some business before the Court, the @propublica report about Justice Thomas is a big breathless nothingburger.” Responding to the revelation that Crow maintains a bizarre collection of Nazi memorabilia — including, among other things, two paintings by Adolf Hitler and a signed copy of Mein Kampf — conservative editor Jonah Goldberg commented: “Harlan Crow is a deeply honorable, decent, and patriotic person,” adding that the “garden of evil” on his property represents “an attempt [to] commemorate the horrors of the 20th century in the spirit of ‘never again’” (a defense that elided the absence of Nazis from said “garden”).

Sounding like a man trying to reassure himself, Goldberg later added: “My conscience is clear. Harlan Crow is a good man and the farthest thing from a Nazi.” The chorus of tortured Harlan Crow apologism was soon joined by the likes of former National Review editor David French and racist pseudoscientist Charles Murray.

As Andrew Perez reports, such defenses are not exactly incidental. Crow’s wife sits on the board of the Manhattan Institute, which just so happens to lobby the Supreme Court. Crow is an investor in Goldberg’s outlet the Dispatch, and Goldberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where Crow sits on the board of trustees. Both (like French) have a relationship with the National Review, while Murray has long been affiliated with the AEI and has dedicated several of his books to Crow.

None of these connections may be as direct as Crow’s relationship with Thomas appears to be, but anyone looking to find a quid pro quo here is missing the point. Throughout American culture and politics, billionaire cash often works in a crudely transactional way, but it much more commonly operates more subtly. This, more than anything else, is what undergirds the machinery of American conservatism: a relatively small number of rich donors fund right-wing organizations and think tanks; those organizations and think tanks cultivate voices and personalities who serve as spokespeople, Republican-aligned operatives, and public intellectuals; they, in turn, get to enjoy the favor and flattery of the wealthy people whose interests they protect and whose money fuels it all.

The end result is a vast and powerful network of organizations and individuals whose ideological bonds are constantly lubricated by injections of cash from a tiny pool of plutocratic patrons. This network exists not because it has genuine cultural buy-in — conservatism today is a minority proposition in the United States, and much of what’s called the conservative movement would fold immediately if it could no longer count on billionaire patronage — but because there has to be some pantomime of popular politics if the conservative project is going to appear serious and respectable. Its think tanks, its debate forums, its legal societies, and its magazines all serve this function.

The unfolding Clarence Thomas saga is a good case in point. Strip away the artifice provided by various institutes and high-minded phrases like “the conservative legal tradition,” and what remains is effectively an elite social club orbiting a single, unfathomably wealthy real estate heir with a bizarre fetish for swastika-embroidered linens.