New Orleans Vigilance knows no holiday, nonetheless I don’t want to be a bore even while I write, Paul Revere style, from door to door crying out the alarm that James O’Keefe and his copycats are dangerous to democracy and chilling the efforts of mass organization and support. I beat this drum regularly, but found myself reading Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker called “Sting of Myself: Amateurish spies like James O’Keefe III attempt to sway the 2016 campaign” and forced to yell “Wolf!” everywhere I can be heard. I just sent the piece out to all corners where I work in the spirit of “be prepared!”
I’ve been arguing that O’Keefe’s credibility has been shot to smithereens, but I’m making the mistake of assuming that we are living and working in a rational political environment and that is clearly my bad. Most recently, he was caught amateurishly once again while trying to scam Open Society, the George Soros foundation, when he mistakenly kept babbling on his target’s voice mail. In a more normal world that might be the final straw, but, oh, no, not with this bad penny.
O’Keefe’s dark money funders have such deep pockets that putting some bets on him is the equivalent of picking up the bar tab on major league politics like a presidential campaign and therefore a trivial matter. His misnamed, Project Veritas, which gained an IRS tax exemption for charitable and educational activity, turns out to be raking in the dough. Mayer clearly looked at his IRS Form 990 filings and found that he took in $1.2 million in 2103 and then doubled down with $2.4 million in 2014. Likely when the 2015 filings become public, he will have added to that stash as well.
Justin Bieber has a new hit about a girl where he sings, “if you like the way you look that much, Oh, baby, you should go and love yourself.” He could have written that song about O’Keefe who is on a Trump-style ego trip of self-delusion, self-promotion and grandiosity, but like Trump and Bieber’s ex-girlfriend, that doesn’t mean he’s not very dangerous, especially now that he has a bank account to fuel his pomposity.
He claims he has the money to have buried his operatives in numerous campaigns, and that’s likely true though the notion that they are at the heart of anything rather than the periphery is unlikely, but that’s OK for O’Keefe, because that his modus operandi anyway. Taking trivia from low level, public-facing staff and volunteers and trying to make political scandal mountains from molehills is his shtick. I used to advise organizers to start with lower targets in a campaign to build momentum, saying metaphorically that they should “hit the meter reader” on their way to the top in utility campaign for example, but O’Keefe never gets above the meter reader because for all his big talk about upending politics, he’s really just trying to break back into the rightwing echo chamber that still listens to his line.
So, why not ignore him, as even Glenn Beck now does? Well, because the biggest problem with O’Keefe is that his presence on the scene is chilling to real work. He breeds caution in organizations that need to be aggressive. He and his imitators still leave many organizations afraid to engage in voter registration and engagement for fear of attack and infiltration by scurrilous means and reputational damage from public attack. He forces organizations and campaigns to spend time and money in internal training and self-protection rather than pursing their objectives and doing the work. For fear of seeing these sentences quoted in an O’Keefe fundraising pitch to some conservative, billionaire zealot, I should add that increasingly organizations have tightened up to the new reality of such scammers, caulked the holes, and stepped out again, and Jane Mayer’s effective outing of O’Keefe in such a prominent publication helps inoculate opinion makers, donors, politicians and others not to fall for this stuff in the future, which acts to effectively reinsert backbones where they were starting to sag under the constant assault of similar attacks.
His day might not be quite over, but hour by hour it’s coming closer to the end.