2016, Politics, Psychology, Society

Is Trump the Greatest Con Man in American History?

Sorry for the clickbaity headline. What I really mean to ask is “Is Donald Trump trying to become the Greatest American Con Man of All Time?” because only if he wins the Presidential election will he achieve this feat.

What makes a successful con? The con artist – the one being deceptive, attempting to commit fraud or some other form of deception – must convince the mark that he, the con artist, is trustworthy. Not just trustworthy, but reliable, honest, upstanding – however you want to phrase it, the job of the con man is to convince the mark that the con man is above reproach. He needs to do this because the mark must place his absolute trust in the con man for the con man to carry off the con. Without absolute trust there is risk, more risk than most of us could stand, I suspect.

In order to create absolute trust the con man must, at some level, believe the lies he tells. If he doesn’t believe them, the mark may grow suspicious or never come to trust the con man in the first place. It strikes me that Donald Trump is very much a con man who is so far gone down the path of deception that he believes his own lies. (Documentary evidence of Trump lying.) Not partially, not just enough to convince the mark that he is trustworthy, but completely. I could be wrong about how sincere Trump is, but I don’t think he’s had enough people tell him he’s wrong in his life for him not to believe his own lies.

Trump is running for President of the United States of America on the idea that he is a successful businessman. Trump is not a successful businessman as documented here and here:

  • he was born rich,
  • bailed out of failures by his father
  • bailed out of failures by the banks who lent him the money to begin with because of a fear of the bad publicity (see the linked Newsweek article),
  • bailed out by a system that has let a billionaire declare bankruptcy multiple times and somehow still retain his assets – poor people who declare bankruptcy don’t get to do this.)

Warren Buffett and others have suggested that, had Trump invested his father’s money much more passively, he would be far richer now than he is. He is, by any definition, not a good businessman at the best and a borderline-failure at the worst. He’s not a complete failure, obviously. He does one thing really well.

Trump has demonstrated complete ignorance of both the foreign and domestic policies of the United States. He also appears to have no concept of budgets or even large sums of money, tossing them around as if they are immaterial to the running of government. One suspects this attitude towards his companies is why he has both declared bankruptcy so many times and had so many other spectacular failures (my favourite of which remains Trump Steaks). If his qualifications as a businessman who can come in and somehow make government efficient are suspect, his credentials as an administrator are literally non-existent; he appears to know virtually nothing about policy, he makes stuff up all the time, he doesn’t appear to know how to actually handle real people in real life situations, even some of his supporters hope his daughter will really run the country if he is elected. (What does that say about the people who support him???)

But despite all of this, Trump is extraordinarily good at one thing: convincing others he’s a success. He markets this perception about as well as anyone, to my knowledge. He sells books. He sells himself at speaking engagements. And, most importantly of all, he sells his name. He sells the rights to his family name to such a great extent that it creates the perception that he is the owner of innumerable enterprises, when he is often just the brand and has little to nothing to do with the actual day to day business. (Furthermore, if that day to day business ever gets anything wrong, his company claims they just sold the branding rights.) How he got to the point where he could sell his name like this is the subject of a book, but the reality is that he is extraordinarily successful at marketing himself as a success. This is why I think he’s a con artist; he is a bad businessman who has convinced a huge chunk of the world that he is The Best Businessman of All Time.

But he’s not even a good con artists. It’s easy for anyone who cares and has a coupler of minutes to discover all his failures and all the other things he glosses over. It’s extremely easy to catch him in lies. All you need to do is google him and you can find a ridiculous amount of information, contradicting most of what he has claimed about basically any subject, as well as information attesting to Trump’s mediocrity in business and his lack of knowledge about anything other than himself and what he believes “deal making” is. He’s not the brilliant con artists of David Mamet movies. He’s literally the opposite of a David Mamet con artist; he shows his hand the entire time he’s trying to play you.

Unfortunately, his mark – the part of the American public reacting with unthinking rage to systemic changes that have been in development for decades – is extremely gullible. They appear willing to be believe literally anything, rationalizing his lies, discrepancies and bigotry as somehow not representative of Trump. It’s almost as if they believe Trump is conning everyone else, and he will show his true, brilliant businessman self once elected – this part is all for show.

And that’s what makes the Trump campaign look like such a great con job and why people can’t stop wondering aloud if it’s a joke or if he’ll drop out before the election (or if he’s really a Clinton plant). His supporters think he is somehow showing up the establishment – he is the establishment, albeit only the monied side, not the political side – exposing them for what they really are (“Crooked!”), speaking truth to power and acting out a bit of political theatre. When he’s President, government will be efficient, the US will no longer be an empire and everything will be like it was when my parents were growing up.

But this is just a con. We don’t know if Trump will be a hands-off President letting his daughter or the Vice President run things, or if he will just get himself impeached because he hasn’t bothered to learn the differences between the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary and thinks he’s the CEO of America, but either way, it’s a good bet he will be uniquely bad at his job (even if the person really running things is not). The only thing he’s ever been good at is convincing people he is successful. But what happens when he is under the scrutiny that comes with being President? How many people will still be falling for the con when he can’t get anything done?

If he wins, it will make him the most successful con artist in American history; able to convince a plurality of the (voting public of the) United States that he is competent when he is clearly, demonstrably not.

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