Segretti, of course, was the Nixon operative who specialized in “ratfucking” – waging covert political warfare designed to embarrass Democrats running for office through forging inflammatory letters in their names and other deceits. Convicted as a Watergate conspirator, Segretti faded from history but his antics would be refined and expanded upon by Karl Rove and, later still, by James O’Keefe, who infamously showed up at ACORN offices impersonating a pimp in order to discredit the nonprofit group.
New York Times writer Michael Powell now presents an alarming overview of how contemporary ratfuckers have geared up to sabotage progressive organizations and political candidates. The piece revolves around John M. Howting, a young man who recently walked into the offices of a community action group, Manhattan Together, pretending to be interested in learning how to organize a union. Howting, however, soon popped an obviously loaded question:
“If he formed a union,” wrote Powell, “could his fellow workers join with the employer to shake down politicians for more money?” Howting was quickly found out and vanished.
Powell traced the imposter’s activities back to his days at Miami University of Ohio, where “Mr. Howting was accused by fellow students of once slathering tanning oil on his face and trying to pass as a Latino liberal activist on campus.”
Some of the stunts of Howting, O’Keefe and others have a comical, Jackass quality to them, but their ultimate political goals are no laughing matter, says the Times’ Powell:
Trained by well-financed foundations, these dirty tricksters pose as pimps, sex traffickers and Muslim activists and record conversations surreptitiously. Then they release videos that have often been heavily edited.
The endgame, Powell writes, is to muddy the organizations’ reputations, especially if they receive any kind of government funding. That’s when the grownups take over: “Conservative Congressional representatives call for investigations and try to slash financing.”
These political saboteurs are not misguided souls harmlessly getting in the way of the serious work of participatory politics. They have the power and money of cynical forces at their disposal, and share with their elders an unfading contempt for the democracy that has given them so many opportunities. And they are carrying out their dirty tricks at a time of grave economic crisis in America. Make no mistake – the O’Keefes and Howtings are not merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, they’re drilling holes in the lifeboats.