Marco Rubio got a lot of things wrong in his presidential campaign, but one thing struck home: Donald Trump may be one of history’s great con men.
Whether it’s actual cases of alleged fraud (see: Trump University) or spectacular feats of glib-tongued negotiating (see: failing to pay $334 million he owed to Deutsche Bank, then suing the lender for causing the financial crisis), The Donald exhibits many of the characteristics of a hall of fame huckster.
It’s a skill set that defines his political tactics, as well: He figures out exactly what his supporters want to hear, and then disregards any inconvenient facts, logic, or adherence to his own previous statements. PolitiFact found 76% of Trump’s statements to be “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.” They range from the outrageous (Congress’s budget bill funds ISIS) to the trivial (the “Trump steaks” he offered at a press conference were from a meat company called Bush Brothers). On a host of issues, from abortion to the flat tax, it’s impossible to know what Trump really thinks because he so dramatically changes his position. (“I will be changing very rapidly,” Trump told Fox. “I’m capable of changing to anything I want to change to.”)
There is actually a science to the study of con men, and Trump ticks all the boxes. As Maria Konnikova explains in her recent book The Confidence Game, con artists are experts at sizing people up, figuring out what they want, and selling it to them. There’s no question that Trump is genuinely connecting with voters’ concerns. His lead in the primary delegate count speaks to that. He figured out the key issues motivating Republican voters right now—job insecurity, unfair trade, illegal immigration and so on—and promises he’ll fix them all. It’s no coincidence that “Believe me” and “Trust me” are Trump’s most frequent exhortations.
It should be noted that anyone can fall for a scam. It’s not about who you are or how smart you are, but where you are in your life. People who are already down—in debt, for instance, or recently laid-off—are more vulnerable because they’re eager for quick solutions. On a larger scale, this means con artists thrive during times of social, political, and economic upheaval, when societies are in periods of tremendous change and people are desperate for someone to set things right—someone who affirms their beliefs about the world and themselves.
Many frauds occur in a one-on-one relationship in which con artists develop a personal rapport with their victims, but there’s a dark history of charismatic leaders conning the masses too. They all employ essentially similar techniques, says David Modic, a senior researcher on the psychology of deception at King’s College, Cambridge: They figure out what most people want and promise it to them, but vaguely, so everyone thinks they’re getting what they want. When Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, held large rallies, he famously responded to the screaming masses, “I cannot hear you very well, but I want to give you what you want.”
“As soon as you hold a position, you divide people into those who agree and those who don’t,” Modic explains. He, like Konnikova, stops short of calling Trump an actual con man.
The con game isn’t a one-way street. It depends on the willing participation of the person being conned—what Kodic refers to as “victim facilitation.” Con victims are almost always complicit in their own deception. They want to believe in the scam. That’s the true secret of the trade, as Konnikova notes: The victims do most of the work.
Christa Wolf, the German author who wrote under East Germany’s Communist regime, probably put it best: “No lie is too obvious for the people to believe if it accommodates their secret wish to believe it.”
Consider some cases from Konnikova’s book. Paul Frampton, a 68-year-old professor, met Denise Milani, a Czech model and former Miss Bikini World, on a dating site. They corresponded online for weeks, and Milani convinced Frampton that she loved him: She proposed they meet up in Bolivia, where she had a photo-shoot. Frampton hopped on a plane. But before they could meet, she was called off on another shoot in Brussels. She had accidentally left a bag behind; would he bring it with him to meet her in Brussels? Frampton was only too happy to comply. But the long-awaited meeting with his love never transpired: The suitcase was lined with two kilograms of cocaine. Frampton was arrested and convicted of drug smuggling.
In the early 2000s, the de Védrines family, members of the old French aristocracy, were taken in by a different scammer. Targeting the family’s sense of exceptionalism and historical significance, a man named Thierry Tilly convinced them that they were the guardians of an ancient secret, for which they were being hunted as part of a sinister Masonic plot. As they became absorbed in this fantastic, Dan Brown-esque delusion, Tilly got them to hand over $6 million in assets, the 300-year-old family estate, and valuable personal items before he was sentenced to prison for “despoiling” the family and “depriving them of ten years of their lives.”
Whether you’re an aristocratic family that believes in an ancient secret, or a Trump supporter who thinks the genius deal-maker can absolutely make Mexico pay for that wall, one thing is the same: The longer you believe in the con, the harder it is to admit you’ve been scammed.
In psychology, it’s called the endowment effect. As Konnikova explains it: “By virtue of being ours, our actions, thoughts, possessions, and beliefs acquire a glow they didn’t have before we committed to them.”
Often, as a con progresses, the victims are repeatedly asked to commit: to re-invest, to raise the stakes, to reassert their beliefs
Ann Freedman, an art gallery director, vouched for the authenticity of Pollack and Rothko masterpieces she bought from Glafira Rosales, a dealer with supposed ties to an anonymous collector. The whole New York art world knew she had vouched for them, so she kept buying another and another, for years on end. The paintings were later exposed as fakes, but Freedman maintained her insistent belief in their authenticity, piece after piece, right up until the end. After all, if she began to question Rosales’ paintings, what would it look like? How would she extricate herself? It’s in this recommitment, Konnikova explains, that the deal is sealed: The con artist’s victory becomes inevitable.
Trump’s supporters have invested in a vision that nurses their fantasies and indulges their prejudices, validating a worldview that allows them to envision a victorious future (“so much winning”) where the jarring present can be replaced with the soothing past.
The scam relies, in no small part, on their wishful identification with Trump—a classic con artist strategy in which fraudsters emphasize their own wealth and success to earn the trust of their victims.
Trump supporters don’t just want to follow Trump; they want to be him—to win and hate and bully as he does. Unfortunately for Trump’s many opponents, attacking him is counter-productive: It only encourages his supporters to re-commit to their belief in his power to fulfill their deepest desires.
In the end, these supporters are not so different from the victims of Trump University. A federal appeals court, ruling on a preliminary motion in the case, noted: “Victims of con artists often sing the praises of their victimizers until the moment they realize they have been fleeced.”
What would it finally take for Trump supporters to realize that the man they so fervently supported has instead taken everyone for a ride?