News & Politics

Why the Right's 'Astroturfing' Propaganda Is Textbook Psychopathic

Faux grassroots firms are exhibiting all the tell-tale signs.

Here's a quick test, a sort of free-association game: What do egocentrism, deceitfulness and aggressive criminality have in common?

If you guessed that they are characteristics of disturbed behavior, you're half right. They are in fact features of the Psychopathy Checklist Revised, a template for diagnosing psychopaths, designed by Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare.

But what's more interesting about this triumvirate is the fact that it's being employed in the recent slew of corporate-backed, faux grassroots outbursts (also known as "astroturfing" campaigns) across the country.

Organizations behind these events, like Bonner & Associates and FreedomWorks, are promoting a mind-set that's textbook psychopathy. And like many psychopaths, they've been getting away with it for years.

It's easiest to understand this (admittedly nonexpert) diagnosis by breaking the behavior into individual categories. Let's kick it off with egocentrism.

In 2002, dozens of Maryland's community leaders received a faxed petition urging them to protect 600,000 lower-income families from escalating medical costs. The petition condemned a piece of legislation before the General Assembly that would purportedly devastate poor communities across the state.

But although the fax bore all the markings of a grassroots organization (it was riddled with typos and included a handwritten cover letter), it was actually a fabrication -- assembled by Bonner & Associates, a Washington "strategic grassroots" firm hired by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

The goal was not to save low-income families; it was to use grassroots-mobilization tactics to rustle up support for a bill that threatened PhRMA's bloated economic interests.

When snagged in this lie, Bonner & Associates did not acknowledge dishonesty or wrongdoing. Instead, the company attempted to position itself as a champion of American ideals.

"It's a great exercise in the First Amendment," said Founder Jack Bonner. "The more people and organizations that come forward on your behalf, the better off you are in politics. It's democracy. That is what this is about."

So rather than recognizing its petition for what it was -- at best, a manipulation; at worst, a full-blown guerrilla attack on democratic processes -- Bonner & Associates chose to spin deception as a heroic exercise in patriotism.

This demonstrated a delusional egocentrism -- something not far from what Hare, in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, calls "a narcissistic and grossly inflated sense of [the psychopath's] self-worth and importance."

Put a big, fat check mark next to Psychopathic Tendency No. 1.

Next up is a passion for "deceitful and manipulative behavior." To satisfy this requirement, we need not yet depart from the sinister shenanigans of Bonner & Associates.

Remember when Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., received Big Coal-sponsored Bonner forgeries from a nonprofit Hispanic group called Creciendo Juntos and from the NAACP a few weeks ago? Each invoked the concerns of phantom 'constituencies.'

Each urged Perriello to oppose the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act, a controversial climate-change bill. The statement from Creciendo Juntos carried the signature of a made-up person (Marisse K. Acevedo) with a made-up title at the organization (assistant member coordinator), and lamented the "tight budgets" of its members. The NAACP's faux letter was equally reckless, directly contradicting the organization's official stance on ACES.

"They stole our name. They stole our logo. … They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman without our authorization," Tim Freilich, a member of Creciendo Juntos' executive committee, told Daily Progress. "It's this type of activity that undermines Americans' faith in democracy."

"I am very appalled, as the president, that our organization has been misrepresented in this way by this bogus … letter," said M. Rick Turner, head of the NAACP's Charlottesville branch. "I hope that whoever's behind this will be brought to justice."

So there's your fluency in lying and manipulation. But saying that Bonner & Associates has a knack for dishonesty would be a ridiculous understatement.

It's more appropriate to argue that deceit is central to the company's existence. Lies, being good at lying and not owning up to exposed lies are absolutely fundamental to astroturfing -- the technique's Miracle Gro, if you will.

Predictably (and like psychopaths, who display a bewildering ability to breeze through their own contradictions and falsities), Bonner made absurd attempts to brush aside the event, arguing that the faxes were a "mistake," and that the person who was responsible had been fired.

This was despite the organization's anaconda-length track record of employing nearly identical tactics for nearly identical ends.

Checkmark No. 2 on the ol' psychopathy list.

But the most volatile -- and perhaps most important -- qualifier for psychopathic behavior promoted recently by lobbying organizations is what Hare would call "criminal versatility."

On June 22, Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., had to be escorted by police to his car after being shouted down by health care "protesters" at a town hall in Setauket, NY. Then, in early August, the office of North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller received a threatening phone call because of the politician's health-policy stance.

"The call to the D.C. office was, 'Miller could lose his life over this,' " Miller Communications Director LuAnn Canipe told Talking Points Memo. "Our staffer took it so seriously, he confirmed what the guy was saying. He said, 'Sir is that a threat?' "

Although it has stopped short of taking responsibility for such actions, FreedomWorks, a lobbying firm with its own rich history of astroturfing, has not shied away from provoking criminal behavior.

On Aug. 7, the company's vice president, Max Pappas, said on C-SPAN that FreedomWorks doesn't "have the power to control how many people turn out" at town meetings "or how they behave there. All we really do is facilitate their participation by letting people know when these town halls are and giving them information about the issues that are going to be discussed."

Pappas added, "The passions are so deep about this issue that we can't send out an e-mail that says 'calm down.' "

FreedomWorks can (and does) however send out "Action Kits" that claim President Barack Obama and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., should be "afraid."

And they do urge members to "turn up the heat," even as they pussyfoot around recent violent disruptions. Interestingly, no FreedomWorks document explains clearly what sorts of actions are "hotter" than the current boiling point. People are left to guess. Or to simply act.

This is alas the "versatility" with which FreedomWorks approaches criminality. By indirectly cultivating violence, the organization gets to play political saboteur and promote a corporate agenda at the same time.

Such a narrow focus -- one unobstructed by remorse, compassion or a consideration for other people's well-being -- is psychopathy's apex characteristic. And it syncs up well with one of Hare's definitions for the disorder. Psychopaths, he writes, are "social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please."

Sounds familiar.

I should point out that this is not a fault-free diagnosis. Certain characteristics on the PCL-R (impulsivity, lack of long-term goals) are not applicable to the astroturfing exploits of FreedomWorks and Bonner. The campaigns promoted by these companies are, after all, well-thought out. They aim to promote a very specific set of interests.

That's why it's best to focus on psychopathy's more toxic social-dysfunction-oriented characteristics. At the very least, it's food for thought.

The final irony in all of this is that organizations like Bonner and FreedomWorks are working tirelessly to create a false veneer of populist consensus in order to undermine reforms that Americans have overwhelmingly supported.

Seventy-two percent of citizens want a public option, and over 80 percent have said they believe we need serious reform. Inconvenient burps of public opinion like these seem to twist the astroturfing model into a self-destructive paradox.

Think of it this way: ruthlessly promoting your interests will only work as long as it's possible to hide behind "democratic" principles. So if the final goal is achieved, which is decidedly "undemocratic," you create a landscape where continuing the scheme would be impossible.

It might not come as a surprise that psychopaths tend to share this affinity for reckless self-destruction.