Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a Fascist politician’s rise to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here, are now bestsellers. Indeed, Amazon has sold out of both.
But another book ought to be on your reading list as well: The Confidence Game by the science journalist Maria Konnikova.
A study of the art of the con artist and the psychology that leads victims to fall for scams, the book was written and published before most of us thought Trump had any chance of victory, and it was not meant to be political. Yet it reads like a history of his rise.
The con artist begins with the choice of a “mark” and the “put-up” or the study of what makes the mark tick. “As any good confidence man will tell you, someone who is emotional is someone who is vulnerable.” And as much as I feel that the “economic anxieties” of Trump voters are inadequate moral justification for supporting Fascism, it helps to explain their action. When one feels emotionally vulnerable, one is susceptible to the confidence game, regardless of how intelligent or competent one may otherwise be. Konnikova presents cases of very successful professionals who fell hard for New York City psychic scams. If the con artist tells you just what you want to hear when you’re most desperate to hear it, he can convince you of just about anything.
One tool from the con artist’s inventory is to make the mark feel special, exceptional: Sure, if I said this to anyone else, it wouldn’t make sense. But you’re smart, you’re discerning, and above all, you deserve all the good things that are coming your way, unlike those other people. Isn’t that right? In one case that Konnikova presents, a grifter managed to convince a wealthy, educated, aristocratic French family that they were the keepers of an ancient secret (a la The Da Vinci Code) and therefore the target of a secret Masonic conspiracy. For their own protection, then, they handed him their entire fortune and took up menial jobs.
When it comes to feeling exceptional, Americans need no convincing. In that respect, they’re primed to be conned. And if one good con artist could get an entire wealthy family to believe themselves characters out of a Dan Brown novel, another could surely convince half a nation that “Mexico will pay for it” and “we’re going to win so much you’re going to get sick of winning.”
Among the book’s most chilling observations is the scientifically established insight that marks usually refuse to admit to what happened:
Cons are often underreported because, to the end, the marks insist they haven’t been conned at all…. Of course, it’s not particularly pleasant to dwell on moments that put our skills or personalities in question. We’d much rather pretend they never happened. And even if we do remember, we’re much more likely to shift some of the blame in other directions. The test was rigged and unfair. He was being mean. She didn’t give me a chance…. We fall for the tale because we want to believe its promise of personal gain — and don’t much feel like recalling any reasons why that promise may be more smoke and mirrors than anything else.
Marks refuse to accept having been fooled even when any objective observer can see the con plainly, even if the evidence is staring at them in the face. Explaining to Trump voters at this point that they have been taken for a ride is therefore unlikely to help. Facts and figures are powerless against an emotional narrative.
“Buy American and hire American,” Trump said in his inaugural address. Below the podium his supporters were discovering that those “Make America Great Again” hats were made in Vietnam. But this slipping of the mask, like so many instances before when the mask slipped as well, won’t convince many of them to abandon him. They already voted for him; they already invested in him. If they admit to being conned now, then how silly would they look? Better to stay the course and hope that everything turns out well. It’s the same logic by which investors in Ponzi schemes keep throwing good money after bad.
Usually marks only admit to being conned until the absolute end, which is to say, until they have lost everything. The French family didn’t admit to what happened until they gave away six million dollars and their family chateau and were cleaning toilets for a living.
Another case Konnikova discusses, that of the distinguished UNC Chapel Hill physics professor, is equally frightening. Professor Paul Frampton was a stereotype of the book-smart but socially inept science guy, and at 68, he was a lonely divorcee. Then he “met,” online, a “Czech model” 36 years his junior. Anyone could have told Frampton that he was being played. But no, Frampton reasoned, he was a distinguished scholar, so why shouldn’t an exotic beauty fall for him? Then she asked him to go meet her in Bolivia. She didn’t show but instead asked him to bring back a suitcase for her. In it, Frampton discovered too late, were two kilos of cocaine. It wasn’t until he’d been sentenced for drug smuggling and fired from UNC that Frampton came to accept that his “Czech model” had conned him and conned him good.
The same has been true for political con artists. The Chinese did not reject Mao even after his economic policies led to a famine that killed tens of millions. The Germans stuck to their Fuhrer until the Red Army was inside the Reichstag. A large proportion of Russians even today sympathize with Stalin.
What catastrophe, then, has to happen before Trump people come to accept that they’ve been conned?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."