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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."