Pamela Meyer’s mission is to help people get to the truth. Extensively trained in the use of visual cues and psychology to detect deception, Meyer teaches audiences how to go from lie-spotting to truth-seeking to trust-building.
“To study the lingo of the con is to study the con itself.” That’s the wisdom of “The Big Con,” a book cum manual that details the slippery trade craft of con men. Published in 1940, the anthropological study holds firm today — and one need to look no further than the U.S. presidential election to see how political frauds can dupe innocent victims. Simply observe the soaring promises of Donald Trump to see the big con in action.
In his book, author David Maurer interviews scores of con men to learn the tricks of their trade. While the aims are always monetary, Trump demonstrates how easily and successfully they can be applied to the political arena.
Step one is identifying a “mark,” or a victim. Con men look for human frailty to exploit. This is most often greed. Trump found a different vice, anger. The emotional are always the most susceptible to manipulation. It is a reality not lost on a man who spent the last decade in and out of reality television.
Once the mark is found, in Trump’s case a large swath of disaffected Republican voters, the con man plays to their darker instincts. If they feel fear, he promises security. If they feel greed, he promises wealth. If they feel anger, he promises resolution.
Once the con man has earned their trust, he’s in. The trick is to get victims to constantly focus on the wild promises that the con is selling. Trump has dazzled voters with his pie-in-the-sky guarantees of a 2,000-mile border wall along the southern border — and improbable assurance that the Mexican government will pay for it. He’s wowed them with his promises to deport all illegal immigrants, and he’s soothed fears about ISIS and terrorism by vowing to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Like the famous Nigerian prince schemes — where fictitious African royals only need a few dollars in order to transfer millions into your bank account — Trump uses dazzling promises to distract voters from asking the critical question: “how?”
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Escaping questions is key. Ask an average Trump fan how he could realistically force the Mexican government to pay for a 2,000-mile wall that would cost billions, and they default to childlike trust.
“He’s going to appoint the best people to do it!” is a common refrain. Note that this does not answer how you get Mexico to cough up a fat share of their GDP. It simply exports responsibility to a nebulous third-party.
Any good businessman learns to ask “how” in a deal. It is what separates a serious proposal from an unserious one. One immutable trait of the gullible is that they are credulous to a fault. Though no-doubt well-meaning, the naïve are Trump’s base.
Victims of the Nigerian prince schemes testify to the effectiveness of these wild promises. They were willing to believe excuse after excuse for why the money hadn’t yet arrived in their checking account. In many cases, victims were willing to send increasing amounts of money to help the con man transfer his fictitious wealth. They were so blinded by the glimmering promises, they couldn’t spot blatant lies two inches in front of their noses.
Victims of manipulation do not like to be told they have abandoned reason and self-control. A drug addict does not want to admit he is under the control of illicit substances. Cultists do not want to admit they have been manipulated by charisma. Nigerian money scheme victims do not want to accept that they had been swindled. To accept those realities is to accept their own faults. Denial of our own weaknesses is something we all suffer from time to time.
Trump has exploited the pervasive gullibility in his own ranks. He’s even gone so far as to make fun of his supporters’ weakness for snake oil, jesting that he could shoot someone on Fifth Ave. and still wouldn’t lose support.
And he’s probably right. His fans have shown all the familiar symptoms of those conned by charisma and glittering promises. Any normal candidate who mocked the disabled, or made crude reference to a woman’s menstrual cycle or dabbled in 9/11 conspiracy theories would be out of the race. Trump’s fans remain. And wait for more.
Like those millions of dollars coming in from Africa any day now, Trump has his supporters all eagerly waiting for that ban on Muslims, or that “yuge” border wall, or those mass deportations. That these promises exist outside the realm of the law or fiscal reality is immaterial. He holds these kernels out in the palm of his hands, and his supporters eagerly peck at them — ever waiting for that moment when he finally delivers.
Like all victims of con men, their fate is sealed. Disappointment awaits.