A recent list of the “Top 10 Famous Con Men” includes the inventor of the “Ponzi Scheme.” But interestingly, this list includes neither politicians, nor corporate CEOs, nor preachers.
Studies indicate that many corporate CEOs have the personality characteristics of psychopaths. Alan Deutschman summarizes the research. Such men
…have a profound lack of empathy…use other people callously and remorselessly for their own ends… pathological liars, master con artists, and heartless manipulators. Easily bored, they crave constant stimulation, so they seek thrills from real-life “games” they can win – and take pleasure from their power over other people.
From the Elmer Gantrys of the early 20th century to the contemporary Protestants Marjoe Gortner, Jimmie Swaggart,
Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and Ted Haggard, to the Catholic sex abuse scandals, to similar scandals among Buddhist and Hindu gurus, the list of financial and sexual scandals among religious leaders seems infinite. Some intentionally con their parishioners, while others are victims of their own sexual repression, people who in a sense have conned themselves.
Others maintain the con after losing their own faith. Former televangelist Frank Schaeffer admitted that
…once he became disillusioned he “faked it the whole way.” He faked it because it was easy, it was lucrative, and — rather poignant to say — he felt he had no other options. “What was I going to do? If two lines are forming, and one has a $10,000 honorarium to go to a Christian Booksellers Association conference and keynote, and the other is to consider your doubts and get out with nothing else to do, what are you going to do?”
But our American culture of celebrity actually celebrates those con men who (like the archetypal trickster – see Part Three) are adept at crossing boundaries. We can’t help but admire them because they exemplify our deepest values.
One aspect of our demythologized world, especially in America, is that the distinctions between religion, politics and entertainment have collapsed. This is perhaps because all three of these areas of public life share the con man’s man interest: making money and aggrandizing the self. If in the Age of Trump you haven’t noticed this, you haven’t been paying attention.
I submit Glenn Beck as our best example. For years, he shamelessly cried on camera at will, bemoaning America’s slide into godless socialism, exaggerating the terrorist threat and predicting massive inflation and a decline in the value of the dollar. Then he would slide into commercial mode and sell investments in gold and silver to the same audience.
But in the political world, the con man can manipulate entire populations.
The Ronald Reagan years in particular saw over 138 administration officials investigated, indicted, or convicted. But this should be no surprise, since Reagan made his first career as an actor, his second as a salesman and his third as shill for big business. He was an early (not the earliest) proponent of “making America great again,” selling the nation a vision of returning to a fictional past of traditional family values – while quite deliberately pursuing policies that damaged and destroyed the middle class.
Sam Smith writes:
Ronald Reagan was clearly a major winner of new show business politics. But as Robert Lekachman put it, “Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000.”
By turning the world’s greatest creditor nation into its greatest debtor nation in a mere eight years, Reagan was perhaps was America’s supreme political con man.
Or at least until Barack Obama, who, like Reagan (whom he has publicly admired) temporarily motivated millions with his own unique brand of false rhetoric, only to immobilize his base while serving the same corporate interests. No, I’m not talking about Trump.
We watch what politicians do, not what they say. To understand Obama’s MOA, however, we must also watch what he doesn’t do. In one particularly egregious example, Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report shows how Obama has consistently refused to enforce the Fair Sentencing Act that he himself signed into law, an act with particularly major impact on African-Americans.
Pick an issue: surveillance, drone attacks, military budget, tax breaks for CEOs, prosecution of whistle-blowers, non-prosecution of financial con men, medical marijuana, etc. Here is the precise nature of the con: “If the Bush-Cheney administration were doing this to us we’d be out in the streets over it,” says Dixon.
Five years into his administration, many on the Left became stuck in the mud of lost innocence and have abandoned social engagement, while others perpetuate their own cognitive dissonance with elaborate excuses, the “post-racial” narrative and surreal justifications for the cruel policies of a president who has African blood but apparently no compassion for the poor or concern for the future.
No con man can succeed without a “mark,” however, and this is where American myth re-enters the conversation. The important issue, as Mark Stoller writes, is this: The source of Obama’s power to trick us comes from our own willingness to be tricked. Of course politicians lie all the time, says Stoller,
But Obama’s politics, and his career, are built on an exquisitely and brilliantly constructed narrative of integrity and progress. He is the outsider become the insider, the multi-racial meritocrat whose black and white heritage came together into the ultimate conciliator and political leader. His is the story of America, that of a brilliant Harvard Law school educated striver with roots in community organizing…(who) first and foremost understands the challenges facing the nation…though he ultimately finds solace in his belief in America, in American institutions, and in the ultimate goodness of the American way of life.
But as with all con men, there is a shadow narrative behind the one we want to believe. In this narrative,
Obama is the ultimate cynic…His narcissism…is his defining character trait. It’s not just that he’s a liar. Lyndon Johnson was a liar, but LBJ lied us into a war in Vietnam as well as a war on poverty. FDR lied all the time, for good and ill. Obama’s entire edifice is based on lying almost entirely to help sustain his image, with almost no interest in sound policy-making. Obama has no better nature, he is what he’s done in office…
It is a painful and difficult thing to admit that the Hero is not waiting to manifest his better nature, that he is not restrained by loony Republicans, but that we must hold him (and ourselves) accountable for what he does, for the human misery he produces, not for what he says, not for his rhetoric.
But, you say, you can’t really speak of Obama (and Hillary Clinton) in the same breath as you speak of Trump! Of course Trump is a con man, and most people (including his admirers) have known this for thirty years. Many have admitted that this is precisely why they love him.
As one writer whom I forget observed insightfully, the press took him literally but not seriously; his supporters, however, took him seriously but not literally.
But here’s the difference: Trump has inspired the racist and evangelical 30 % of the population who have reliably supported the far right ever since the Reagan years. But Obama managed a much greater feat: they conned the liberal intelligencia, the establishment media and most progressive-thinking people into believing that he were a true alternative.
The fact that so many still hold to their idealistic view of Obama is an indication of how much they still have invested in the myth of American innocence. The narrative of hope and change is powerful. Perhaps it, or something like it, is a necessary component of a cultural movement toward a sustainable future. But when it is heard within a broken political system that only raises either con men or psychopaths to national prominence, it inevitably results in disillusionment.
So we are stuck with a duality of either unrequited faith or a collapse into depression and immobility – unless we can begin to think in mythological terms.