“Life doesn’t imitate art,” Woody Allen once remarked, “it imitates bad television.” Back in May 1958, an episode of the CBS drama Trackdown, set in the Wild West, featured a conman named Walter Trump, who pledged to build a wall to protect a small town from the end of the world. “I am the only one,” Trump told local people. “Trust me. I can build a wall around your homes that nothing will penetrate.” The show’s narrator referred to the Trump character as “the high priest of fraud”.
It’s difficult not to think of Walter Trump when you hear Donald Trump speak of the “big, beautiful wall” he wants to build along the border with Mexico. Throughout last year’s election campaign, the property tycoon assured Republican voters that Mexico would “pay” for the wall “100 per cent”. “Trust me,” he said. Yet, in recent days, it has become clear that it is the US taxpayer who will have to stump up the money for Trump’s signature proposal. “He may not spend much time trying to get Mexico to pay for it,” the Republican former House speaker Newt Gingrich, his close ally, admitted in an interview two days after Trump’s victory.
“But it was a great campaign device.”
Indeed it was. So, too, were his vicious attacks on his Democratic opponents. He spent more than five years cultivating support among the Republican grass roots by leading a racist “birther” campaign against Barack Obama, only to announce, on the eve of the election, that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period”. He received cheers from his supporters on the campaign trail when he referred to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” and declared she “should be in prison”. Yet when those same supporters began chanting “Lock her up” at a post-election rally in December, Trump responded: “Forget it. That plays great before the election. Now, we don’t care, right?”
All politicians lie, mislead and deceive. Yet most do so for open and obvious reasons – to get elected, to seek power, to advance their vision or ideology. Trump, however, “is a con artist”, says Maria Konnikova, the acclaimed author of The Confidence Game.
What distinguishes the con artist from the average politician, she tells me, is that the former is willing to “take advantage of other people’s confidence for their own personal ends and those ends are not what they say they are”. The reason Trump is a con artist rather than a politician is that he is clearly using “politics as a means to an ulterior end . . . to be rich or famous or loved or legendary”. Trump doesn’t give a damn about parties or policies; politics is merely a tool for his own advancement.
Konnikova is not alone in her assessment of the president. During the GOP primaries, one of Trump’s main rivals, Marco Rubio, tried to convince voters not to buy the snake oil that Trump was selling them. “A con artist is about to take over the conservative movement and the Republican Party,” he said. But voters were in no mood to listen – only 11 per cent opted for Rubio, a Republican senator; 45 per cent went with Trump, a former pro-choice, pro-gun-control donor to the Democratic Party.
How did this huckster from Manhattan, with no discernible principles or ideology, and a long history of stiffing both his contractors and the students at Trump University, dupe millions of rural Republican voters? Conmen are created by the yearning of their victims “to believe in something that gives life meaning”, Konnikova writes. “Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.”
Trump did his homework, gathering reams of intel on his intended victims – his “marks” – long before he declared his presidential candidacy. According to New York magazine, his advisers spent “thousands of hours” listening to talk radio in 2014, briefing him on how “illegal” immigration was inflaming the GOP base. Consequently, while Jeb Bush began his campaign in 2015 by endorsing a de facto amnesty for undocumented immigrants, Trump raved about the height of his border wall and called Mexicans “rapists”.
The bigots and xenophobes in the GOP base lapped it up – and haven’t stopped. Trump’s first 100 days in the White House have been plagued by scandals, controversies, gaffes and shameless U-turns. Yet this nominally Republican president continues to command the loyalty of the Republican electorate. His approval rating among Republicans is roughly 80 per cent. Only 2 per cent of Trump voters regret their vote.
On a recent visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof found a group of working-class Trump voters “upset” and “aghast” with the president’s proposed budget cuts and the health-care reform debacle. Yet they all said that they might vote for Trump for re-election.
This is the classic cognitive dissonance associated with victims of a con artist, who refuse to see or act on the evidence in front of their own eyes. There is a reason why so many conmen get away with their crimes for so long: their victims don’t want to admit to themselves, let alone to others, that they were foolish or credulous enough to be taken in, so they don’t go to the police.
How do the Democrats get through to victims of Trump’s con? “I wish I had a very upbeat answer . . . a three-step process to get victims to admit they’re victims,” Konnikova says. But conmen such as Trump “appeal to people on a visceral, emotional level – and emotion trumps logic every time”.
So, what happens come 2020? How do you defeat a candidate who has mastered not merely the art of the deal but the art of the con, and won a blind, cult-like following? “We’re f***ed,” Konnikova says, with a sigh. “He’s going to win a second term.”
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On