A few days ago, I watched An Honest Liar, a documentary about the magician and charlatan-debunker The Amazing Randi. I had forgotten that in the 70s and 80s in America, belief in psychics like Uri Geller, faith healers like Peter Popoff, extraterrestrial abductions, and the like was not all that far from the mainstream. Such events and people were covered in newspapers, on the evening news, and featured on talk shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The media is awash in pieces attempting to explain the success of the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Many are puzzled…how could this happen in America!? After watching Randi debunking hoaxes, I’m no longer surprised at Trump’s success. Maria Konnikova, author of a recent book on scams and cons, wrote about Trump and con artists for the New Yorker.
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 that are 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?
She doesn’t express an opinion on whether Trump is a con artist — it’s difficult to tell without knowing his intent — but it’s clear that like Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, Trump is adept at making people believe what he is saying without a lot of hard evidence. Like The Amazing Randi said in the movie: “no matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.” Hopefully, like Geller, Popoff, and UFOs eventually did, the idea of Trump as a viable candidate for President will soon disappear back into the fringes of American discourse.