Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a threat to democracy and described him as the most dangerous candidate for president ever. But I find the way people are chanting their support of his candidacy at the Republican National Convention even more frightening than "The Donald."
As I was watching news clips (mainly from Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert) of the convention and the Trump ascendency, I decided to put together a list of the greatest American frauds and fakers. Check out my list and decide where you think Donald Trump's theft of the Republican Party should rank.
Political fraud and unprepared presidents are not new phenomenon and are bi-partisan. Unprepared American presidents have included such non-noteworthies as James Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur, all of whom became president when elected presidents died. Vice presidential candidates are often among our most incompetent knuckleheads. Think Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and Sarah Palin. Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton's arch-nemesis, was elected vice president in 1800.
Presidents from both political parties have pushed phony excuses for war on the American people. Remember the Maine? In 1898 an American ship exploded in a Cuban harbor for unexplained reasons. Republican President McKinley declared war on Spain and seized Puerto Rico and the Philippines as American colonies. In 1846 Democrat James Polk claimed Mexico "shed American blood upon America's soil" and used it as an excuse to invade Mexico and annex California and most of the Southwest. In the House of Representatives Abraham Lincoln demanded to know the "spot" where the attack took place, but war fever carried the day. In 1964 Democrat Lyndon Johnson fabricated a North Vietnamese attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify sending ground troops into Vietnam.
The list of phony excuses for war also has to include Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983 to defend American college students from Cuban construction workers and George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, a war in its second decade that destabilized the Middle East and lead to ISIS and a wave of global terrorism.
Fraud and fakers have often been celebrated for their promotional ability and "chutzpah." P. T. Barnum promoted the Cardiff Giant, one of the more famous hoaxes in American history. The "giant," the petrified body of man over ten feet tall, was supposedly discovered on a farm in upstate New York. The original version of Coca-Cola with wine and cocaine as ingredients was developed by Dr. John Stith Pemberton of Atlanta and marketed as a wonder drug that would promote sexual performance. When the state of Georgia went temperance in the 1880s a newer version, now called Coca-Cola, appeared with the wine removed but still with cocaine. George Parker became infamous for selling New York City landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge, to unsuspecting tourists. Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can ran scams in more than two-dozen countries while impersonating doctors, lawyers, and teachers. The German pop group Milli Vanilli won a Grammy in 1990, but it was later discovered that were lip-syncing.
But clearly some frauds have more serious consequences then others. The 1690s Salem Witch Trials and the 1741 New York Slave Conspiracy trials sent dozens of innocent people to the death, many through torture. Fraud and fakers can also be threatening to ethnic and religious minorities. In the 1920s and 1930s automobile industrialist Henry Ford promoted anti-Semitic tracts as truth in his Dearborn, Michigan newspaper. Ford was also an early supporter of Adolf Hitler in Germany.
The Great Depression of the 1930s led to tremendous hardship and the rise of populist fakers. Huey Long of Louisiana was a Governor and a United States Senator. He started out as a supporter of the New Deal but then allied with anti-Semitic rightwing Roman Catholic priest Charles Coughlin in an independent bid for the presidency that was cut short when he was assassinated. Coughlin was one of the earliest fakers to use new media, the radio, to build up his following. During the 1960s Alabama Governor George Wallace was able to move onto the national scene and run for president as an independent candidate by stirring up White resentment against African American struggles for civil rights.
The two worst cases of political fraud are probably the 1863 Miscegenation Hoax and the anti-communist hysteria promoted by Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and 1950s. In an effort to thwart Lincoln's reelection campaign, Democratic newspapers accused abolitionists and Republicans of promoting forced interracial marriage. Nixon, a Trump hero, used fear of a communist conspiracy in the United States to move into the Senate and get elected vice president. Racism was probably more responsible for his eventual election to the presidency.
Political fraud also happens on a smaller more mundane level. Muckraker and journalist Lincoln Stephens detailed the extent of corruption in American politics in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities. Late 19th and early 20th century New York political rogue is George Plunkitt is credited with a series of newspaper articles explaining the benefits of what he calls "honest graft." According to Plunkitt, "Everybody is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin' rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There's all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft -- blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. -- and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics. There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
Religion and business have produced some of the greatest frauds and fakers in the history of the United States. In 1843, William Miller, a New England farmer, predicted the world would end between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. Many followers sold or gave away their earthly possessions in anticipation of a rapture that did not come. Reverend Pat Robertson, who campaigned for the Republican nomination for president in 1988, had predicted the world would end in 1982, but as with Miller, it didn't happen. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, based his religion on two sacred texts that he discovered but that disappeared with out a trace, the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. Prominent business fakers include Charles Ponzi, who invented the Ponzi scheme, and more recently Kenneth Lay of Enron, Bernie Madoff, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and Charles Keating.
There is debate over whether P. T Barnum coined the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute" or it was actually said by David Hannum, one of his competitors. In either case we can only hope the American people aren't suckered into electing Donald Trump president.
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