Before he became a politician – which hardly ever makes someone act MORE honest and LESS corrupt than before they became a politician, by the way – we already knew.
We knew he was a grifter. A celebrity reality TV game show host. A WWF wrassler.
We knew. Exactly what did you expect was going to happen?
Politicians often call one another “liars.” By calling Trump a con artist, maybe we just mean to say that Trump is a grandiose liar—someone who has lied above and beyond the typical level permissible in politics.
Many politicians—indeed, many people—are deceitful, and many businesspeople run companies that go bankrupt or which sell products that aren’t particularly good. Still, these people are not necessarily con artists. In writing “The Confidence Game,” I learned a con artist, or “confidence man,” is a very specific type of person.
A line, thin but perceptible, divides even egregious liars from confidence men. People deceive one another for all sorts of reasons: they might lie to stay out of trouble, for example, or to make themselves seem more interesting, or to urge a business deal toward its consummation.
David Maurer, a linguist turned historian of the con, said, “If confidence men operate outside the law, it must be remembered that they are not much further outside than many of our pillars of society who go under names less sinister.” Still, there is a meaningful difference between an ordinary liar and a con artist.
A grifter takes advantage of a person’s confidence for his own specific ends—ends often unknowable to the victim and unrelated to the business at hand. He willfully deceives a mark into handing over his trust under false pretenses. He has a plan.
What ultimately sets con artists apart is their intent. To figure out if someone is a con artist, one needs to ask two questions:
First, is their deception knowing, malicious, and directed, ultimately, toward their own personal gain?
Second, is the con a means to an end unrelated to the substance of the scheme itself?
For a con artist, no matter the chosen racket—Ponzi schemes, à la Madoff; feats of imposturing, as from “Catch Me If You Can”; romance scams; psychic scams; old-fashioned street grift—the end goal is the same: personal profit. But the profit need not be financial.
Often, it isn’t. Underlying almost any con is the desire for power—for control over other people’s lives. Power can take the form of reputation, adulation, or the thrill of knowing oneself to be the orchestrator of others’ fates—of being a sort of mini-god.
The path to that end is entirely secondary. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, one of the greatest con men in history, was known as the Great Imposter. He never finished high school but impersonated everyone from a professor to a surgeon to a prison warden. Demara was often penniless, despite his scams—but he found ways to enjoy the admiration of multitudes and to exert power over the lives of others (very concretely, in the case of surgery). The racket itself mattered less than those ultimate goals.
If Trump is a con artist, he would be interested in politics only as a means to some other end. He wouldn’t believe in his political opinions; instead, he would see those opinions as convenient tools for gaining what he actually desires. Insofar as he believed in any of the policies he espoused, that belief would be purely incidental.
Con artists aren’t true believers; they are opportunists.
Trump, as a con artist, would give up on politics the moment it stopped serving his purposes, moving on to the next thing that gave him the same level of attention and adulation. He might, for example, drift away from political life the same way he drifted away from “The Apprentice,” or from any of his business or real-estate ventures before that.
We already see some evidence of that drift in the evolution, such as it is, of his political views. Take, for example, immigration. One of the few points that he’s raised during his campaign is a promise to build a “beautiful” wall between the United States and Mexico. And yet, back in the nineteen-eighties, Trump was charged with employing illegal immigrants in the demolition of the Bonwit Teller building and the construction of Trump Tower. That disconnect seems more in keeping with an opportunistic mindset than one who is truly anti-immigrant.
Another thing that differentiates con artists from ordinary liars is their nuanced and targeted use of flattery. Confidence men know that the best way to achieve their desires is to tell people what they want to hear rather than what is true. The quickest way to gain a mark’s trust is to sell him a vision of the world as he wants, or believes, it to be.
Consider the 2013 case of Paul Frampton, a former physics professor who fell for a sweetheart scam of the highest order: he found himself in a South American jail for drug smuggling rather than married to a supermodel. The woman who posed as the model—she impersonated a real model, Denise Milani—played to Frampton’s vanity, convincing him that a divorced, sixty-eight-year-old particle physicist was the ideal match for a thirty-two-year-old former Miss Bikini World. It didn’t make rational sense, and yet Frampton was willing to believe that every supermodel should be so lucky as to score a mate with his intellect.
Con artists don’t sell reality; they sell an illusion that their victims already want to believe. Most of us go through our lives in thrall to optimistic illusions. We think of ourselves as being a bit better, smarter, more attractive, and more important than we actually are—and we remain convinced tomorrow will be better than today.
As Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, put it, people generally believe that “the present is better than the past and that the future will be even better.” It’s how we get through life. Taylor explained that “in effect, most people seem to be saying, ‘The future will be great, especially for me.’ ”
Inasmuch as con artists are peddlers of hope who tell us what we want to hear, many politicians have taken a page from the grifter’s playbook. Still, there’s a difference between ordinary political flattery and political grifting. Again, the dividing line is that of intentionality. Does a politician believe, to some extent, in his promises—or are they incidental to an ultimate goal, which, in the case of the political confidence man, will have nothing whatsoever to do with politics?
It’s not a case of misrepresenting one’s policies but of not actually having a policy.
And, indeed, Trump’s promises are often deliberately vague. He meets demands for specifics with another tool from the con artist’s arsenal: emotion. People who are emotional are not logical. Appeal to them on the emotional level and you no longer need coherent arguments. Here, as ever, there’s a thin line between ordinary politics and political grifting. Trump the politician might use emotion to inspire.
Trump the con artist would knowingly use emotion to deceive and mislead, caring little about the words or the substance as long as he gets what he wants.
We can never get into Trump’s head. We don’t know what his intentions are. It’s possible he does have political convictions. In the meantime, though, the best evidence for Trump’s potential con artistry comes from the lawsuits against his defunct for-profit educational venture, Trump University.
The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled a lawsuit brought against Trump University in 2013 could go forward. That suit accuses Trump of actual fraud, or, as the decision puts it, of the use of “deception, misrepresentation, concealment, suppression, false pretense, false promise, or unconscionable contractual provisions” to “defraud.”
If, in the end, the ruling goes against Trump, we will be able to say, definitively, he is a con artist—that he deliberately engaged in deception, using a wholly incidental platform to attain ends of money and influence.
In 2013, to counter disgruntled students’ claims, Trump set up a Web site—98percentapproval.com—that touted the high ratings that Trump University courses had received. How could the school be a fraud if students were happy? A California judge, Kim Wardlaw, addressed this issue in her ruling in another lawsuit against Trump University.
“As the recent Ponzi-scheme scandals involving onetime financial luminaries like Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford demonstrate, victims of con artists often sing the praises of their victimizers until the moment they realize they have been fleeced,” she wrote. Wardlaw is right about marks. Not only do they sing the grifter’s praises until the moment they’ve been fleeced but they often keep singing them afterward, so as to not admit to themselves, or the rest of us, that any fleecing has taken place.
This raises a depressing possibility. If Trump is indeed a con artist, and he is, in the end, elected, we may end up not wanting to admit that we were scammed.
At the moment, Trump’s supporters see him as authentic and honest, even as they dismiss more traditional candidates, like Hillary Clinton, as quintessential politicians—that is, as opportunistic liars. Perhaps, in the future, we’ll cling to this belief to preserve our collective self-image. In that case, the term “con artist” may end up applying to us, too.