"The first unusual characteristic was that Hof was a self-described pimp, the owner of several brothels in rural Nevada. The second was that, by the time election day came around, Hof was dead."
“The Campaign Doctor,” a tall, sturdily-built, mostly bald man in a novelty imitation lab coat, was standing on a chair at the back of the classroom, reading a novelty imitation medical disclaimer out loud.
“Liberals over the age of 18 may experience dizziness, shortness of breath, and skin-rashes,” he said, to chuckles among his 15 “patients” — prospective candidates for local office and aspiring campaign strategists — all seated at desks, twisting around eagerly in their chairs. The clinic was funded by a non-profit group, and therefore had to be officially nonpartisan; in practice, it was aimed squarely at the conservative grassroots. It all took place at “Ahern Academy”, a small institution nestled, to the detriment of the medical theme, within the grounds of Ahern Rentals, a purveyor of construction equipment and industrial vehicles in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“Last year was a disaster for the Republican Party in Nevada,” affirmed the Doctor, aka Chuck Muth, a veteran operator in the libertarian circles that had once defined the state’s political culture. In 2018’s midterm elections, Republicans had limply surrendered their US Senate seat, failed to budge a three-to-one disadvantage in the House delegation, and lost the governorship along with enough seats in the state legislature to give Democrats majorities in both chambers — a “trifecta” of power within the state. In the process, the legislature had also become majority-female, a first in US history.
“I mean, a disaster!” Muth repeated, shaking his head. He had, in fact, been personally responsible for one of the Republicans’ few successes: he had managed Dennis Hof’s campaign for a seat in the State Assembly. No Democrat could have competed for the district in question, a huge swathe of desert dominated by military test sites and otherwise home to about two and a half people per square mile. But Hof’s triumph, with 63 per cent of the vote, was still remarkable in view of two unusual characteristics that might once have been considered disqualifying. The first was that Hof was a self-described pimp, the owner of several brothels in rural Nevada (prostitution remains legal in eight counties); the second was that, by the time election day came around, Hof was dead.
Dennis Hof was no run-of-the-mill pimp. He had starred in Cathouse, an HBO reality series set in one of his brothels, and authored a memoir, The Art of the Pimp. He was also the subject of rape allegations by multiple former employees. His nickname, “The Trump of Pahrump” (Pahrump being the largest town in the district), was supposedly bestowed by none other than the political strategist Roger Stone (now under indictment in the Mueller investigation). But Chuck Muth had also realised the obvious: that, in the age of Trump, rape allegations against a famous TV pimp could be dismissed as the whingeing of “disgruntled former employees”. Being “controversial” was an asset. Being sleazy clearly had its upsides. And being famous, for any reason, was to be considered electoral gold.
Even while he remained alive, Hof became mostly a ventriloquist’s dummy for Muth. The district’s incumbent, a moderate Republican, had voted for “the largest tax hike in Nevada’s history”, a 2015 package of commerce and cigarette taxes designed to rescue the failing school system. This provoked Muth, who is also known as Nevada’s “keeper” — i.e. enforcer — of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a blanket injunction against any tax increase issued to Republican officials by his fellow operative Grover Norquist. Like Norquist, Muth is tied into the billionaire Koch brothers’ network of donors and political infrastructure that supports libertarian-leaning campaigns, lobbying, policy development, and grassroots training programmes across the country.
“Make Nevada NEVADA Again” was the Hof slogan. “I think people will resonate with that,” Hof told the Las Vegas Sun. “Low taxes, drinking, gambling, girls and guns — that’s what this state was founded on.” Hof seized the Republican nomination; Muth, a prolific writer of op-eds and columns in the regional press and on his own website, “Muth’s Truths,” was then free to revel in slick, sardonic attacks, delivered under Hof’s name, against the hapless amateur who challenged for the seat as a Democrat.
Three weeks before the election, Norquist and other conservative luminaries attended Hof’s 72nd birthday party, which began with a rowdy campaign rally at the Golden Nugget Casino in Pahrump, before wending its way back to the Love Ranch, one of his nearby brothels. Hof expired in his sleep that night; his body was discovered the next morning by the veteran porn actor Ron Jeremy, who remained on hand to brief the press. (Another guest, Flavor Flav of the rap group Public Enemy, was said to be weeping inconsolably inside the Love Ranch.)
The women who would make up a majority of members in the 80th session of the Nevada legislature would not have to rub shoulders with Hof, after all. Jennifer O’Kane, one of his accusers, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, simply: “My rapist is dead. There’s no more drugging other girls. There’s no raping other girls.” Muth solemnly ushered the campaign across the finish line (a Republican substitute would be selected by the board of county commissioners, after the election). Then, dusting off his lab coat, he prepared to re-enter the fray in the guise of the Doctor.
“An ideal candidate,” he wrote on Muth’s Truths in December, “is someone with extensive direct sales experience: car salesmen, real estate salesmen, insurance salesmen…especially entrepreneurs, as a political campaign is, at its core, a business operation . . . You know, like Donald Trump and Dennis Hof.”
The post continued:
It’s all about PERSUASION. It’s about sales . . . Candidates need to learn about marketing. They need to read about marketing. They need to listen to podcasts about marketing. They need to study marketing. They need to live, breathe and eat marketing. Marketing, marketing, marketing.
It would be these insights that formed the core of the Doctor’s curriculum at Ahern Academy.
The first step was understanding that “you need to arrive like no one else”. The Doctor indicated his lab coat and the fact that he had opened the session by standing on a chair at the back of the class. He often sent his flyers to prospective consulting clients inside novelty aspirin bottles — “and they absolutely love it!” By now he was standing at the front, flanked by fake potted plants on one side and, on the other, by a scale model of one of the hydraulic cherry-picker vehicles in which Ahern Rentals seemed to specialise. “This is essentially a marketing class,” Muth told the mostly late-middle-aged crowd of patients, gathered in their polo shirts and blazers.
He occasionally returned to that other word, “PERSUASION,” though almost always in close conjunction with either “marketing” or “sales”. He would alight there only for a moment, launching off again before anyone could consider what the gentle-sounding word meant. This concept of persuasion did not apparently encompass appeals to moral principle, or deductive reasoning, or hard facts, let alone democratic compromise. It did not have anything to do with forging a personal connection with voters. Going door-to-door, for example, the Doctor considered a naïve waste of time.
In truth, he was not really attending to his patients’ appeal to voters. He was attending to their appeal to donors. He handed out a long list of questions that would vet the basic viability of any campaign from the point of view of an investor: How many votes do you need to win? How much will the campaign cost? How will you allocate funds? Do you have any experience in direct sales? “Don’t talk about politics and issues to donors,” he warned. “Donors want to know if you know what to do responsibly with their money. They want to know if they can win.” The donors would be telling you what the issues were, was the implication. A different arm of the Koch network, such as the Nevada Policy Research Institute, could deal with the substance. The Doctor, here at Ahern Rentals, was merely tuning up the delivery vehicles.
He had brought in Jerry Dorchuck, a thin man with a steely bespectacled gaze, for a guest presentation on robo-calls. “Everybody hates robo-calls, but everybody uses them,” said Dorchuck, whose two young daughters were sitting patiently at the back of the room. “They only work if you do them correctly.” An exemplary robo-call for Dennis Hof’s campaign had used a Donald Trump voice-impersonator, who began, “This is not President Donald Trump, but I just wanted to tell you . . .” As Dorchuck explained, recipients “missed the ‘not’ part at the beginning, and listened to the whole message!” Another winning approach was to “get a kid” to record the message. “People love kids,” he said. “Especially seniors. And seniors vote.” When his presentation was complete, it was Dorchuk’s own kids, the two well-mannered girls, who handed out flyers detailing his paid services.
What persuasion meant, in this context, was cynical manipulation. And as they were being taught about these techniques, the patients were also being subjected to them. Muth and his guests were working for a cause they believed in, but they were aggressively marketing themselves at the same time, which meant that a portion of what they said had to be empty or false. While the biggest suckers were, of course, individual voters, the prospective candidates in low-level races would be in on the game only to varying degrees. You might turn out to be an effective foot-soldier for the movement, but if all you did was part with some cash in exchange for Jerry Dorchuck’s robo-call services, that was all to the good, too. This may have reflected Charles Koch’s patented “Market-Based Management” philosophy, which seeks to infuse an organisation’s internal culture with free-market competitiveness. And it seemed close to the essence of the Koch system, which spreads the ideology of self-interest as though it were a philanthropic gift, in order to advance the material interests of a specific corporation and its man at the top. In this way, it didn’t matter that the Doctor’s classes were nominally non-partisan. The ideology was structurally embedded, in all the manipulation and “MBM”.
“You’re all gonna do a book!” the Doctor announced, coming to his climax. “Because I’m gonna show you how.” He was talking about the kind of campaign memoir associated with high-profile candidates; his own patients looked around the room at each other doubtfully. He ran through some of the more obvious impediments: Not being good at writing, not enjoying writing, not having time to write a book, not having anyone to do it for you, not having a publisher. None of that was going to be a problem. “I was able to completely do a book in one weekend,” he boasted, “including the cover!”
Besides, the persuasive power of a simple book could be far greater than anyone imagined. Being a published author brought with it media exposure, credibility and celebrity. It could get you speaking engagements, for which you could charge “premium fees”. The book itself was the ultimate calling card, since people don’t throw books away because of their “high perceived value.” And of course the “thump-factor” — the noise it would make whenever you slammed it down on the table in front of someone. Dennis Hof had done a book: “They all had it at the events. He was giving it away free — Dennis had more money than he knew what to do with.” But you could also sell the book, or, better, give it “free” to anyone who donated, say, $45 to your campaign. For an $100 donation they could get an autographed copy.
The standard book-size is 6in x 9in. The minimum number of pages to get it printed with a spine is 131. The spine is this bit here that has your name on it, so it’s good to get a spine. (The Doctor had tips for inflating the page-count to secure a spine.) The standard paper colour is not in fact white — but off-white. What you do is “a recorded interview,” several hours long. Then you send that audio file to an affordable online transcription service — so it’s all “in your own voice”. Then you paste that text into an online self-publishing platform, also very budget-friendly. The interview questions become the chapters. The minimum number of copies they let you order is one.
“And you’re a ‘published author’!” Muth exclaimed, spreading his arms. One of the patients tentatively raised a hand. The man looked distinctive, in a generic way, with his cowboy hat over long black hair. It was Eddie Hamilton, Nevada’s legendary “perennial candidate”, the loser of at least 11 election campaigns since 2006, each time under a new nickname, like “Mr Clean!” or “Fast Eddie”. In 2016, Hamilton had targeted the US Senate seat being vacated by retiring minority leader Harry Reid. Running on a dual platform of unflinching loyalty to Donald Trump and lowering the age of nightclub admission to 18, he washed out of the Republican primary with 2 per cent of the vote. A failed mayoral bid the following year laid the groundwork for an assault on the 3rd Congressional District in 2018, in which he garnered 1 per cent of the vote. Now, flush with the excitement of having that week filed for a 2019 city council candidacy, Hamilton had a question for the Doctor, about doing a book.
“Can you — instead of doing an interview — just . . . do it on your own?” he asked.
“Of course!” replied the Doctor instantly. “Sure, you can just talk into the recorder yourself.”
Hamilton marked this in his notes with a satisfied nod. He seemed ready to do a book over the weekend — he seemed ready to do a book that night, if that’s what it was going to take. People were going to resonate with it. He’d get the thump-factor. Eddie Hamilton was going to arrive like no one else. He was going to arrive like Dennis Hof.