By Dartagnan | 14 June 2022
Con artists are a special breed of predator. Not only do they traffic in humanity’s most basic passions—their hopes, fears and expectations—but they rely on the singular human emotions of self-respect and self-worth in order to protect themselves from blowback if their con is discovered. The most painful thing for any person to admit is that they were snookered, led down the merry garden path by a huckster, or simply “ripped off.” Most people are so intrinsically prideful that they will bend over backward with rationalizations to avoid admitting this.
A fundraising committee affiliated with Donald Trump told supporters the president had activated an "Official Election Defense Fund." But the fund didn’t exist, according to Amanda Wick, senior investigative counsel for the House Jan. 6 committee.https://t.co/w7ggSHf4hy
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) June 17, 2022
The Trump phenomenon is a stark illustration of what can happen when you combine the talents of an accomplished con man with polarized political loyalties. Donald Trump’s prior business endeavors—his bankrupt hotels, his phony “university,” his feigned mettle as a supposedly talented businessman—are all evidence of his ability to bluff and cheat people to enrich himself at their expense, by hyping his nonsensical products with an insouciant, relentless bluster. That has been Trump’s MO from the beginning of his career, and it continues to this day.
But conning the populace on a mass scale in politics? That relies on those being conned—the “marks”—staying in line to support the con. And there is no stronger bond or motivator in politics than the perception of being persecuted—or worse, being threatened with expulsion from your tribe. This is why Republicans pay such fealty to Trump’s Big Lie that the election was somehow “stolen” from him, despite all rational evidence to the contrary. To admit the evidence in front of them demands a contrary conclusion is effectively the same as admitting that their faith in Trump was misplaced or wrong.
That is a personal indictment of their own intelligence and self-worth, as well as an indictment of the people in whom they most commonly put their faith (usually friends and family); for that reason, their errors can never be acknowledged. The fact that those who presume to challenge their self-worth are their political opponents makes such an acknowledgment doubly impossible under any circumstances.
It is absolutely true that many Republicans’ views align closely with the ideology Trump espouses, but that is the case with any political allegiance. It does not explain why so many millions of Republicans willingly mouth their full-throated agreement that the 2020 election was fraudulent, choosing to believe what someone like Trump tells them, rather than their own logic and experience. The reason so many do stems more from the real fear of being cast out of their tribe, combined with a reflexive sense that their own self-image and self-worth are under assault by those who contend the exact opposite of what their own tribe is telling them. Trump and those who advise him, such as the preemptively pardoned alleged fraudster, Steve Bannon, know this full well.
People in Steve Bannon’s “immediate circle” have received subpoenas in recent weeks requesting that they testify before a New York state grand jury about Bannon's fundraising for a private border wall. https://t.co/fkNPsbItHc
— Rolling Stone (@RollingStone) June 3, 2022
Trump uses every opportunity to tell his supporters that such assertions are the product of a “left-wing mob,” which stokes the same visceral fight-or-flight response in which Fox News regularly traffics. But the real kicker is the cloying implication that his supporters have special knowledge, that they’re smart, danger! And every assertion to the contrary by Democrats is simply perceived as an attack on their intelligence.
“Of course the election was stolen, my tribe and a hundred social media sites confirm this,” they insist. And it makes no difference how much evidence is produced to the contrary.
This may explain why so many putatively “religious” people in the regime of white evangelical “Christianity” cleave so closely to the Big Lie. An attack on Trump is viewed as an implicit attack on their faith, for which they’ve invested (some of them literally) practically everything they own. Their entire self-worth is predicated on the implicit assumption that they, and they alone, are “right.” In fact, that’s the comforting attraction of many religions: the need to be proven right. And as a corollary, anything espoused by “godless” Democrats—no matter how objectively rational—must be wrong.
Behind church doors: White evangelicals are quietly fueling Trump's Big Lie https://t.co/SmoZsi3Yqq
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) June 17, 2022
California Rep. Zoe Lofgren explained during Monday’s Jan 6. hearing how Trump rabidly fundraised off the Big Lie to enrich himself, literally defrauding millions of his supporters. What Republicans hear is someone—a Democratic woman—telling them their support of Donald Trump is misplaced, and even worse, that they’ve been taken advantage of. Barring some type of collective epiphany (which never occurs), the right’s most likely reaction is to insist that they are being personally attacked, that their intelligence is being impugned.
In fact, everything Donald Trump, their church, and social media warned them against is happening. Rather than feeling uncomfortably chastened or embarrassed, they choose to feel vindicated. It’s an easy choice; in fact, it’s a no-brainer.
As Lofgren stated:
“Throughout the committee investigation, we found evidence that the Trump campaign and its surrogates misled donors as to where their funds would go and what they would be used for. So not only was there the “Big Lie,” there was the “Big Rip-Off.” Donors deserve to know where their funds are going, and they deserve better than what President Trump and his team did.”
This is the psychology knowingly employed by Trump and those who willingly enable him; many, such as the corporate powers backing virtually all Republican elected officials, do so in full awareness of exactly what they’re doing. They count on and cultivate an ingrained sense of tribalism and persecution that effectively forestalls any effort by their less sophisticated base to reason out the fact that they are being conned. Under this type of formulation, graphic video evidence of the Jan. 6 attack, and all the mayhem that accompanied it, can simply be rationalized away as “ordinary citizens” justifiably retaliating against Democrats for opposing the Big Lie—a lie which they know must be true, because they simply can’t tolerate the prospect that they might be wrong.
All of this is a consequence of the mindset that con artists of all stripes exploit. Maria Konnikova, a writer for The New Yorker, has authored books about how confidence scams generally work. They work through knowing the mind of the “mark.” In a 2019 interview with NPR, she explained how confidence men and scammers rely on their target’s unwillingness to ever admit they’ve been conned.
One of the things you realize when, you know, you study con artists is that we’re conning ourselves all the time about who we are, about our stories. And con artists just pick up on that. They figure out how we’re conning ourselves. That’s one of the reasons why we’re so susceptible.
In that interview, Konnikova notes that most people who are victimized by scams and con artists don’t come forward because of the shame associated with being fleeced. Elizabeth Winkler, writing for Quartz, noted in 2016: “The longer you believe in the con, the harder it is to admit you’ve been scammed.”
Republicans have willingly submitted themselves to Trump’s con for a long, long time. So while the hearings of the Jan. 6 committee may confirm everything Democrats have long believed about Trump, his character, and his assertions—and they may serve, in the long run, to refresh and perhaps even change a few memories—we shouldn’t be surprised when Trump supporters take away from the very same evidence validation of what they’ve chosen to believe from the outset, ignoring all other interpretations.
After all, that’s the way a con works.
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