The fear-inducing tone of Tiffany Smiley’s ceaseless stream of e-mails, begging money for the Republican’s U.S. Senate campaign, makes me wonder whether to respond with a contribution or call for a crisis intervention.
“Last ditch effort,” headlines one, while another doom-driven missive warns: “To make matters worse, I just can’t keep up.” Then, interspersed in up to eight email blasts a day, such dubious claims as: “I need a miracle to keep my campaign alive,” and “There are only HOURS to turn this campaign around.”
Fear and guilt, instead of inspiration, are the base tactics of politician email appeals. Even a campaign that’s omnipresent on TV, as is Smiley’s, claims to be on its last legs. If you don’t give, it means turning the country over to evil actors bent on wrecking the country. Mitch McConnell is the Democrats’ bogeyman, Nancy Pelosi is in her third decade as the evil Democrat.
The omnipresent theme: Our side is being outgunned. I received an email blast this week from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, warning: “My opponent raised $1.5 million in the 72 hours following the debate. It is critical that our campaign has the resources to fight back against the attacks that the Legacy media and my opponent will wage against me.”
Fight back? Huh? Johnson has for weeks blitzed his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, with soft-on-crime TV attack ads. Wisconsin billionaires are fueling “independent” spending on his behalf. A pro-Johnson outfit, the Wisconsin Truth PAC, has spent nearly $10 million. Koch Industries has given $6.5 million to another outfit, Americans for Prosperity PAC, which has poured in $2.8 million to reelect Johnson.
“Fight back” is a staple bipartisan phrase of email fundraising. It has been used by both candidates in this year’s Senate race. Sen. Patty Murray has been a nonstop user, guided by Democrats’ omnipresent fundraiser Tracey Newman. Sen. Murray voices outrage at nefarious Republican deeds, then gives donors the chance to “Fight back!” Long before GOP challengers have come forward, she warns that the Republicans have pots of campaign cash to come after her. “Fight back” even when there’s no one yet to fight.
Why did such an extravagantly funded politician as Sen. Ron Johnson send me an email? It’s an exercise in Astroturf grass roots. The senator can lay down a smoke screen when the Federal Election Commission reports campaign fundraising. A press release highlights X-thousand small donors giving an average of $21.07. The reality is a network of big givers, and PACs, through which flow millions of dollars.
It was not supposed to be like this. The Internet was touted, and initially used, as a vehicle for ordinary citizens to participate and to counteract the impact of deep-pocket donors. Facing a George W. Bush campaign flush with corporate cash, Sen. John McCain in 2000 ceaselessly gave out his campaign’s email address. Small donations kept him in the race.
Four years later, Democratic insurgent Howard Dean used the Internet for followers to connect up and to deliver a wellspring of cash that made other campaigns salivate. Campaign manager Joe Trippi laid it out in his book, The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything.
Online fundraising was initially upbeat, fueling the 2008 Obama campaign so much that it turned down federal financing. Remember the “Hope” poster? Quite rapidly it was taken over by calculating agents of division and fear. “Beginning as a cause, turning into a business and becoming a racket,” as writer Tim Miller put it in a New York Times piece.
Donald Trump is master manipulator of the Internet. He manufactures outrage, demands money, hawks stuff and sells memberships on a myriad of “advisory” boards. He gets on you if you don’t give, witness this email blast: “Don’t you care? Our records show your Trump Advisory Board membership status is STILL PENDING ACTIVATION?” Or this implicit warning: “I want to know who stood with me when it mattered most. So, I’ve asked my team to send me a list of EVERY AMERICAN PATRIOT who donates to this email.”
All those “Stop the Steal” blasts have left the ex-President hoarding a war chest in excess of $100 million, from which only a relative pittance is donated to Republican candidates. The endless demands of No. 45 have sucked away money from his party and those running for office. He sucks moneys out of the party to pay his legal bills. Trump-backed candidates such as Joe Kent, running for Congress in Washington’s 3rd District, pay to use Mar-a-Lago for their fundraisers.
Calculated guilt tripping is a big email gambit, witness this Trump appeal: “We’re not mad. We’re just asking. Why haven’t you pledged to follow President Trump on Truth Social?” Tiffany Smiley has relentlessly deployed this gambit in Washington’s Senate race. “I wrote this for you,” said an email this morning. “Did you miss our previous messages?” asked another, followed by a plaintive “Are you with me, friend?”
Always, there is a deadline not met, or sudden pressing need. This morning, the campaign had run out of money for yard signs: “Friend, we need just $735 more to meet our printing goal and flood Washington state with signs.” It was followed by two hours from the candidate: “To keep me in this fight, I’m calling on my top supporters, which includes YOU friend, to chip in whatever they can afford.”
Email fundraising is an appeal our darker angels. Brazen, often extreme, people milk the system for money. Trump spreads lies, demonizes the FBI, and increasingly parrots QAnon-style conspiracy theories. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, was pictured on 01/06/2021 raising a clinched fist to insurrectionists about to storm the U.S. Capitol. He has taken in millions using the picture, even hawking a picture of the salute.
Smiley, and her handlers, have turned to warning against corporate demons. She has targeted Starbucks, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Seattle Times, depicting them as agents of Murray’s reelection and part of “woke” culture. Smiley is very much a MAGA Republican in her email appeals.
I could, probably will, unsubscribe to the mailing list that sends me this stuff. It has, however, provoked a morbid fascination with the polarizing, demeaning, dishonest impact on a society in which the people govern. Public service is – should be – an honorable calling. The email blasts reduce it to a boring litany: “They’re evil, we’re good, send money.”