Donald Trump is con artist in chief of the United States. His many apparent and impeachable crimes, such as the Ukraine scandal, collusion with Russia and violations of the Emoluments Clause, flow from that fact. Of course, Trump’s long con involves millions and perhaps even billions of dollars. But Trump’s big score, his ultimate goal, is permanent control of the presidency of the United States and the power for him and his family and allies to engage in legal theft indefinitely.
This article first appeared on Salon.
There are the small scams. For example, Donald Trump continues to run contests where in exchange for an online donation he promises supporters that they can “win” an exclusive meal with him. Apparently, no one has ever received this prize.
There are the bigger and more morally repugnant scams.
The Trump Foundation found a way to profit from children’s cancer events whose proceeds were supposed to go to charity.
A New York judge recently ruled that that Trump should personally pay $2 million as punishment for “persistently illegal conduct” connected to his foundation.
Trump's many schemes are remarkably lucrative: He and the Republican Party now have at least $300 million for the 2020 campaign, many times more than the Democratic National Committee has in its coffers.
In total, Donald Trump is a textbook example of a con artist because of his “dark triad” of anti-social personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy.
Trump’s supporters are also perfect marks who, like him, are straight out of a textbook or FBI profile. As described by Cornell professor Glenn C. Altschuler in an essay for Psychology Today, victims of the con are vulnerable because of various factors, which include:
[T]he “Lake Woebegone Effect” (an unwavering commitment to the notion that we are better than almost anyone else); “confirmation bias” (a predisposition to process evidence to support what we already expect to be true); “positivity bias” (confidence that good things will happen to us and we will manage to avoid bad things); “cognitive dissonance” (a predilection to ignore disconfirming information); “momentum theory” (a decision to move forward despite obstacles); “motivated cognition” (the process by which our views are reinforced by self-serving biases in perception); and “anticipated regret” (that generates a reluctance to relinquish a chance of “winning”).
Trump’s supporters manifest these personality traits and psychological processes in the extreme.
Maria Konnikova, author of “The Confidence Game,” explained to Business Insider how con artists choose their victims:
It's a situational kind of thing: Where are you at this point in your life? People who are going through life transitions become more emotionally vulnerable and con artists can spot that…. We become a little bit uncomfortable because humans don't really like uncertainty and ambiguity…. We like things to kind of be meaningful. Everyone really wants black and white answers. It's really hard to deal with when everything is kind of shifting around you.
“Con artists can spot that and they can take advantage of it because what they sell is meaning and certainty. They're going to tell you the story that makes sense, that actually makes you say, 'OK, now I have something that makes sense in this particular moment in my life.'"
Instead of ill-gotten quick money from a real estate scam or a spambot “Nigerian” who promises to share money from a former dictator’s personal bank account, Trump’s marks are motivated by racism, nativism, sexism, authoritarianism, ignorance and a fear of their own obsolescence in a changing world.
But to call Trump’s supporters “victims” is far too simple and in many ways inaccurate: They chose to support him, and continue to do so -- with eyes open. His victims are also enthusiastically complicit with his evil. Trump does not operate through sneaky subterfuge or masterfully crafted lies. Trump the con artist is exactly who he has repeatedly shown himself to be in his 40-odd years of public life.
One of Trump’s most lucrative cons is issuing membership cards in exchange for campaign donations from his cult-like followers.
Donald Trump’s newest membership cards were announced in a campaign email sent out last week:
Did you see the President’s email?
He’s calling on his fiercest, most loyal defenders to come together and stand firm against these nasty WITCH HUNTS from the Left and the Lamestream media.
As one of his strongest supporters, he was disappointed to see you hadn’t already activated your status as a Charter Member and ordered your Official Impeachment Defense Membership card.
We haven’t shipped out the first round of membership cards yet because we wanted to give you ONE MORE CHANCE to become a CHARTER MEMBER and to get on the FIRST list that we send President Trump.
We are in the fight of our lives right now, and the President is counting on YOU to be there with him on the front lines of this nasty impeachment battle.
Remember, your card will be PERSONALIZED with your information on it so that you can proudly display it and show America that you stand with President Trump against the baseless Impeachment Scam!
The deadline to become a Charter Member is 11:59 PM TONIGHT, so you need to act NOW!
Please contribute $35 TODAY to get your Official Impeachment Defense Membership Card which will be PERSONALIZED with your name and Defense Member ID number.
Is this a grift? Absolutely. But it is also something much worse and far more dangerous. Trump is a lawless president who imagines himself to be a king or emperor who is above the law. In TrumpWorld, he is the state and nation. He is the law.
The divine right of kings was torn down in the United States by the framers, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution. More than 250 years later, Trump and his allies want to reinstate divine right -- for him and other Republican presidents to follow.
Donald Trump’s “Official Impeachment Defense Membership Cards” are a loyalty oath, sworn by those who stand with Donald Trump against the rule of law, democracy, and the U.S. Constitution. By implication, Trump’s membership cards signify membership in a quasi-secret organization that deems itself superior to outsiders.
“Official Impeachment Defense Membership Cards” are also a symbolic license to act outside of the normal rule of law, civility, comportment, shared sense of national belonging and human decency in service of The Cause and The Leader. This is American fascism in action.
In all, American democracy is sick. Trumpism is poison being administered by a quack doctor who claims it is medicine.
This poison is causing “regime cleavage,” a concept recently explained in an essay for Politico by Cornell political scientist and Brookings Institution fellow Thomas Pepinsky:
[A] division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself — in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.
And there are serious consequences: An emerging regime cleavage in the United States brought on by President Donald Trump and his defenders could signal that the American public might lose faith in the electoral process altogether or incentivize elected politicians to mount even more direct attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. Regime cleavages emerge only in governing systems in crisis, and our democracy is indeed in crisis.
Just look at the hardening split among the American people on impeachment… This cleavage shows up in discourse across the American political spectrum that labels one’s political opponents as un-American, disloyal, even treasonous. But it is clearest in the argument that it would amount to a “coup” to remove the president via conviction in the Senate, and thus that the regular functioning of the legislative branch would be illegitimate. These divisions are over the laws that set out plainly in our Constitution how the president can be subject to sanction….
Pepinsky continues with a warning that “what distinguishes the current moment under Trump from the normal, albeit worsening, politics of executive-legislative relations in the United States is the politicization of the very notion of executive constraint in the face of an impeachment hearing — this is the source of the regime cleavage.”
Trump’s authoritarian soldiers have secret membership cards, a uniform, and slogans. Some have engaged in lethal political violence against their “enemies.”
Trumpists also exist in an alternate reality of lies and self-deception, sustained by Fox News and other parts of the right-wing echo chamber.
Trump, his spokespeople and their propaganda media use stochastic terrorism in conjunction with racism, sexism, nativism, bigotry, prejudice and talk of treason. Their goal is to legitimate violence against journalists, prominent Democrats and liberals, NeverTrumpers and other principled good Americans who oppose the Trump regime.
Trump and his acolytes have threatened civil war if he is impeached or otherwise removed from office. His paramilitaries are preparing to act on his orders.
Such events have taken place in other countries and at other times. They do not generally end well.
Trumpism, as a variant of fascism, is a hallucinatory ideology. As such, it is based on lies, deceptions, grand promises unfulfilled, the worst of human nature, a vulnerable and easily manipulated public, and outcomes made possible by opportunists who work against the common good.
Adolf Hitler's “thousand-year Reich” lasted only 12 years. Donald Trump's plan to “Make America Great Again” is doing exactly the opposite as the country’s standing, power, wealth, and influence around the world are being dragged down into the sociopolitical sewer.
Trump’s Big Lie rests upon and is surrounded by many little lies. But in total, Trumpism is just one Big Con. Trump’s political con job, like those of other authoritarian “populists,” is about more than money or personal power. It is a scam in which the fate of nations hangs in the balance.