Ponder this: Of all the speakers who will be appearing at the GOP convention Wednesday night, who is the most apt symbol of the Republican Party in 2016? It can’t be Ted Cruz, given how thoroughly Trump vanquished him in the primary. Mike Pence? He’s the concession prize to a hapless donor class. Marco Rubio? Please.
Personally, I think a case can be made for Michelle Van Etten. You probably haven’t heard of her. She might not even get any real airtime; my guess is that some networks will cut away to pundit commentary during her speech, as they’ve tended to do during more obscure speakers. I frankly have no idea how she was picked to appear, and while Van Etten confirmed for me via LinkedIn that she would be attending, she did not respond to my request for an interview. But her scheduled onstage presence is a wonderful example of conservative subtext suddenly becoming text—the Republican Party is the party of scams.
You see, Van Etten is a small-business woman who has made a go of it in the world of multilevel marketing, aka the legal yet deeply unsavory cousin of the pyramid scheme. For those unfamiliar with the basic hustle, it works like this: Companies like Amway, Mary Kay, and Herbalife recruit independent salespeople to move wares like kitchen knives, makeup, or vitamins. Of course, those men and women are expected to stock up on inventory. But rather than harass their Facebook friends and co-workers about the wonders of anti-aging nutritional supplements or whatnot, they can also make money by recruiting new members of the sales force, whose revenue they will get a cut of. As the network grows, the money moves from the suckers at the bottom of the pyramid back to the top.
How is this different from a pure pyramid scheme, where all the money comes from roping more marks into fraud? Theoretically, legitimate multilevel marketing firms are supposed to sell a certain percentage of their product to actual end consumers. But as the recent controversy over supplements company Herbalife shows, the boundaries between what’s a fraud and what’s legal can get a tad blurry. And in the end, data from court cases suggest that people who sign up to sell for these companies tend to lose money in the bargain. (And you too can experience those joys in Slate’s new multilevel-marketing game).
Van Etten, for her part, is associated with Youngevity, a company started by a former veterinarian and naturopath, Joel Wallach, that largely hawks nutritional supplements.* Wallach promotes fringe theories about human health and mineral intake and is an occasional guest on conspiracymonger Alex Jones’ program, InfoWars. The two men also have a tight business relationship; you can join the “InfoWarsTeam” to sell Youngevity’s goods, and you can buy an “Alex Pack” of supplements. (As the Daily Beast reported, Jones has said the company’s “Tangy Tangerine” mix makes him “feel crazed” enough with energy “to stomp some people.” You know, in a good way.) To her credit, Van Etten seems to focus less on the powders and pills than on selling clothes and accessories through a Youngevity subsidiary, MK Collab, which is a sort of boutique. Apparently, she’s quite good at her work; she’s achieved the rank of “senior vice chariman marketing director,” and her RNC bio says she has more than 100,000 in her network. She’s pretty high up on the pyramid.
So, distant association with quacks and chemtrails believers aside, what makes Van Etten such a spot-on avatar for contemporary Republicanism?
On the most literal level, the modern Republican Party is remarkably entangled with the multilevel marketing industry—perhaps nobody more so than Donald Trump himself. The GOP nominee did paid speaking engagements with ACN, a company that sells phones, and struck a licensing deal with the supplement seller Ideal Health, to turn it into the the Trump Network. (Like many of his naming-rights side-projects, this one ended in tears.) Dr. Ben Carson, meanwhile, had a long relationship with Mannatech, a supplement company that was sued for claiming its products could cure cancer. Multilevel-marketing firms are also prodigious political donors and have given money to groups supporting George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush, among others.
Like Trump’s nomination, bringing a multilevel marketer to talk at the national convention speaks to the GOP's increasingly unabashed embrace of obvious cons (as Paul Krugman's clever headline writer put it, it's a “Party Agrift.”) Movement conservatism has a long history of entanglement with get-rich-quick schemes and snake oil salesmen hawking miracle cures or gold bullion (just think about Glenn Beck’s advertisers). But this stuff is no longer at the periphery of the party. It’s on the convention stage. Likewise, Republicans have long sold magical thinking in public policy, like tax cuts for the wealthy that will pay for themselves. But now its presidential standard-bearer is promising to make Mexico pay for a border wall.
And then there’s the resonance with GOP philosophy—which, as much as anything else, stands for the notion that Americans have a right to get ripped off. On a small scale, they want to undo the Obama administration’s fiduciary rule, which merely requires retirement investment advisers to work in their client’s best interests. Much bigger: They want to cripple or kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is dedicated to making sure Americans aren’t preyed upon by financial companies.
So while Van Etten may not end up saying much of note, her presence Wednesday night still speaks volumes.
*Correction July 20, 2016: I originally referred to Joel Wallach as Ben Wallach, for some inexplicable reason.