Is the GOP the new Columbia House record club?

The GOP road-tests a new strategy that seems pretty unlikely to work.

If you had any doubts that the GOP is becoming a cult, Shane Goldmacher reports in the New York Times that House Republicans are telling donors that if they don’t agree to make their donations recurring, then they will be defectors. To “defect” means to switch one’s alliance, typically to a nation, most often from a repressive regime to a freer and more democratic one. This metaphor does not flatter the Republican party.

Or perhaps the better description is “scam.” Check out this little yellow box:

The opt-out nature of the House Republicans’ pitch, wherein the donor commits himself to recurring donations unless he deliberately unchecks a little blue box, is probably legal, but it’s very heavy-handed. The behavioral economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law Professor Cass “Nudge” Sunstein call this “choice architecture” wherein inaction registers as assent. It’s an effective strategy for getting employees to contribute to their pensions, but its use here is liable to stir unhappy memories of the “negative option billing” once practiced by Columbia House record club, which prompted the Federal Trade Commission and Congress to impose strict disclosure requirements. (Click here for a classic 1977 TV commercial for Columbia House. Columbia House is also, my son Will reminds me, one of the trials tormenting the Coen brothers’ 1960s suburban-dad Job in A Serious Man.)

Credit card companies were not amused when President Donald Trump used this choice architecture last year to raise money for his failed re-election bid. Largely because of it, according to a remarkable Times investigation by Goldmacher published April 3, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and their shared accounts had to return more than 10 percent of all funds raised. A further bizarre wrinkle is that Trump, according to Politico, sent a cease-and-desist letter last week to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senate Committee, and the Republican National Committee, warning them not to use “his name and likeness on fundraising emails and merchandise.”

None of this will persuade voters that the GOP is a political party and not a protection racket or Ponzi scheme. Nor will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s threat this week to “woke capitalists” who take offense at Republican efforts to minimize African American participation in elections. In my latest New Republic column I interrogate, as the kids say, the power relationship between McConnell and his party’s corporate funders, and conclude that while there are subtleties here that may go unrecognized, the basic reality of who is servant and who master contradicts McConnell’s bullying rhetoric.