People who still support Trump believe that despite all his other failings, he’s competent. He isn’t, and never has been, but it’s very hard for them to see this — even now — and one reason for that is a psychological trait we all share, though it shows up under different circumstances.
First a little background: Trump has been making it up as he goes along for his whole life, like he’s doing in his daily coronavirus briefings (see The Bulwark’s supercut below). Throughout his career he’s left wreckage in his wake, while managing to skim enough off the top of one failed scam after another to maintain the appearance of personal success.
Playing the role of a successful mogul on TV gave him a huge boost, and saved him at a time when his real-world reputation was so bad he could no longer borrow money from legitimate sources.
The financial community in New York had long since figured him out: he’s just a cheesy real estate promoter with no principles and no skills beyond bullshitting — the one thing he really is good at.
Con artists master techniques for exploiting a few key aspects of our psychology. Among the most important is our extreme reluctance to accept proof that we’ve been fooled — we’ll believe almost anything else first.
One reason for that reluctance is shame, which is one of the most powerful negative motivators there is. Many con artists get away again and again with no complaints filed against them, because their marks are too ashamed to admit, even to themselves, that they were duped.
To this day there are “graduates” of Trump University who are convinced they made a good investment by over-paying for sloppily packaged, conventional advice they could have gotten for much less elsewhere, or for free from a public library.
Another reason we can’t see when we’ve been conned is that we have a deep need to believe in something or someone, especially when we’re going through a hard time. That explains how even smart, well-educated people can fall for scams that may seem obvious in retrospect.
There really is very little to Trump. He knows next to nothing and seems to be both incapable of and uninterested in learning. Most of what his supporters see in him isn’t actually there, it’s what they want and need to be there.
He’s a con artist. But, thanks to a unique confluence of his particular game and this time in our history, he’s the most successful con artist there ever was.
And that will be his legacy: History’s Greatest Con.
If he could embrace that now, he could spend the rest of his life making a living from it, and, I expect, taking pride from it. And he could give up pretending to do the job of President, which would be a true public service: if he were replaced by someone who actually was competent, it would save many lives.
For more on how cons work, I recommend “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It… Every Time,” by Maria Konnikova. It’s well-researched, highly readable, and, as you might expect, disturbing.