several of his businesses had gone bankrupt and some, like Trump University, may have been fraudulent. Rubio implied that Trump’s Presidential campaign was another instance of intentional deception. It’s a message we’ve heard not just from Rubio, but from Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney, as well as various pundits. I heard it with special interest: my book “The Confidence Game,” about con artists and the psychology of the con, was published earlier this year. Suppose that Trump is a con artist—what, exactly, would that mean?
Politicians often call one another liars. By calling Trump a con artist, Rubio may have just meant to say that Trump was a grandiose liar—someone who has lied above and beyond the typical level permissible in politics. Many politicians—indeed, many people—are deceitful, and many business people run companies that go bankrupt or which sell products that aren’t particularly good. Still, these people are not necessarily con artists. In writing “The Confidence Game,” I learned that a con artist, or “confidence man,” is a very specific type of person.
In what New York's attorney general called a "stunning reversal," president-elect Donald Trump agreed Friday to settle fraud cases involving Trump University for $25 million.
The cases involved a lawsuit by New York state and two class actions suits in California against the university, which promised to reveal Trump's real estate investing "secrets" to people who enrolled in the courses.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who filed suit against Trump two years ago for what he called "his phony university," said the president-elect agreed to settle the lawsuits for $25 million and pay an additional $1 million in penalties to the state of New York for violating state education laws. The deal does not require Trump to acknowledge wrongdoing.
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?
For a con artist, no matter the chosen racket—Ponzi schemes, à la Madoff; feats of imposturing, as from “Catch Me If You Can”; romance scams; psychic scams; old-fashioned street grift—the end goal is the same: personal profit. But the profit need not be financial. Often, it isn’t. Underlying almost any con is the desire for power—for control over other people’s lives. That power can take the form of reputation, adulation, or the thrill of knowing oneself to be the orchestrator of others’ fates—of being a sort of mini-god. The path to that end is entirely secondary. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, one of the greatest con men in history, was known as the Great Imposter. He never finished high school but impersonated everyone from a professor to a surgeon to a prison warden. Demara was often penniless, despite his scams—but he found ways to enjoy the admiration of multitudes and to exert power over the lives of others (very concretely, in the case of surgery). The racket itself mattered less than those ultimate goals.
If Trump were a con artist, he would be interested in politics only as a means to some other end. He wouldn’t believe in his political opinions; instead, he would see those opinions as convenient tools for gaining what he actually desires. Insofar as he believed in any of the policies he espoused, that belief would be purely incidental. Con artists aren’t true believers; they are opportunists. Trump, as a con artist, would give up on politics the moment it stopped serving his purposes, moving on to the next thing that gave him the same level of attention and adulation. He might, for example, drift away from political life the same way he drifted away from “The Apprentice,” or from any of his business or real-estate ventures before that.
Con artists don’t sell reality; they sell an illusion that their victims already want to believe. Most of us go through our lives in thrall to optimistic illusions. We think of ourselves as being a bit better, smarter, more attractive, and more important than we actually are—and we remain convinced that tomorrow will be better than today. As Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, put it, people generally believe that “the present is better than the past and that the future will be even better.” It’s how we get through life. Taylor explained that “in effect, most people seem to be saying, ‘The future will be great, especially for me.’ ”