In 1973, Robert Redford and the late Paul Newman starred in the Academy Award-winning movie, “The Sting.” It was a story about how two professional grifters conned a mob boss – an exploit they referred to as their “big – or long - con.” You might remember “The Sting” because Marvin Hamlisch revived Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic, “the Entertainer” as its theme song.
But the movie also offered great insight into the modus operandi of our new President, Donald Trump – and his own “big con.”
A con man picks out a “mark” – in Trump’s case, ordinary working people who have not seen their incomes go up in decades.
Then he “plays” the mark. He wins the “mark’s” confidence – hence the name “con man.” He creates a plausible scenario to get the mark to willingly part with his money – and in Trump’s case – their votes and then their money.
The “sting” itself refers to the moment when the con is successful. And if he has done it well, “the mark” does not realize he’s been conned until the con men are long gone.
Great con men operate like magicians.
Magicians generally employ several distinct phases of activity to create their illusions.
First, the magician tells you what he is going to do – so you begin to expect to see what will actually be an illusion.
Second, the magician creates an elaborate preparation for the illusion – one that begins to convince your subconscious mind that it just may be plausible.
Finally, the magician directs your attention away from the site of the actual trick ― usually with something you can’t ignore. The dove flies out of the hat. Or the magician uses comedy because, it turns out, recent neuroscience has found that humor suppresses attention. Or maybe he separates the actual trick from the illusion in time, by completing the trick during the apparent preparation.
Then, the magician – or the con man – presents you with an illusion that you believe.
We pay to see magicians because we want to be deceived and made to believe. A magician convinces you that her assistant has been made to disappear – and you can’t prove it isn’t true until you see her walk out of the stage door after the performance — and you love it.
The con man is a different matter – with the con man, you’re furious to learn, often well after the fact, that you have been defrauded and scammed.
I’ll give him this: by winning the presidency, Donald Trump showed himself to be one of the greatest con men of all time. He conned many ordinary Americans into electing him president of the United States because they became convinced that he is on their side, when nothing could be further from the truth.
The good news is that, as President Obama said in his farewell address, reality has a way of catching up with you.
Of course, winning the White House was not Donald Trump’s first con. Like Henry Gondorff, Paul Newman’s character in “the Sting,” there were many and varied dotting his career. Perhaps the most notorious was “Trump University” – a scheme so transparently fraudulent that he was forced to settle a lawsuit by paying victimized “students” $25 million before he assumed the Presidency. While he was busy trying to convince working people that he was on their side, he made his ties, his shirts, his perfume, his cuff links, his furniture and many of his other goods in low wage countries like Bangladesh, China, and Honduras. And his hotels were using every tactic in the book to resist allowing his workers to unionize and negotiate over their wages and working conditions.
The ordinary working people who were conned by Trump in the big “presidential con” will not realize they were conned simply because people like me tell them they were duped. Nobody wants to believe they were conned and telling them so will not be convincing.
But many of them will come to believe it on their own as they watch what he does rather than what he says in the months ahead.
In his dark inaugural address, Trump said that his administration would transfer power from the “elites” back to the American people.
But between that speech and the inaugural balls, Trump was busy signing an executive order aimed at beginning the process of taking health care away from what the Congressional Budget Office says would be 32 million ordinary Americans.
And he signed another order that would raise the cost of mortgage insurance by $500 per year for many first-time middle and lower income home-buyers. Now Donald, that doesn’t sound much like standing up for ordinary Americans on the very first day of your presidency.
Meanwhile, Trump has appointed the most billionaire-laden cabinet in memory. After promising to be a champion for ordinary people as an outsider, he has appointed the most insider cabinet imaginable ― what Senator Claire McCaskill referred to as a “three G Cabinet” – “Goldman (Sachs) , Generals and Gazillionaires.” And it includes many nominees who want to destroy the missions of their Departments – from environmental programs, to public education – all to benefit big corporations and the wealthy. Really? That’s looking out for ordinary people?
And speaking of benefiting big corporations and the wealthy, Trump has actually proposed a gigantic tax cut for big corporations and wealthy people ― like his family. That includes eliminating the inheritance tax that only applies to the sons and daughters of multi-millionaires like his kids. Of course we don’t know how much they would actually benefit, since – because he won’t release his tax returns – we have no idea what he is actually worth.
But none of that will stop his populist rhetoric – or his fake stories about bringing jobs back to this city or that. Like the con man that he is, he wants us to be distracted by shiny objects like the “wall” on the Mexican border, not the money he takes from the pockets of ordinary people.
In his inaugural address, Trump said, “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.”
Another con. America’s trade policies often have not benefited the middle class. But it isn’t because they so massively advantaged other countries. It’s because they enhanced the power of huge corporations, CEO’s and the wealthy, relative to ordinary workers, in the U.S. and around the world.
In fact, America is wealthier today than it is ever been – wealthier than any other country on earth. America’s gross domestic product per person has increased 48 percent over the last 30 years. That means all of us should be 48 percent better off than we were 30 years ago. But ordinary people’s incomes have stagnated. That’s not because all that money has flowed to foreign corporations. It’s because it has mainly been siphoned off by America’s billionaire class – people like Donald Trump.
Oxfam recently released a study showing that eight men control as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. Six of these are Americans.
An Oxfam study also found that one percent of the world’s population now controls as much wealth as all of the other 99 percent combined.
The famous bank robber Willy Sutton said he robbed banks because, “that’s where the money is.” When you want to know the reason that ordinary people’s incomes have stagnated, look at who got the money.
It wasn’t immigrants, or poor people, or people who don’t look like the belong in a Norman Rockwell painting who got all of that money. Those Trump targets are nothing more than “ shiny objects” intended to district us from what is really going on in Trump’s big con. Trump wants us to pay attention to them, while he and his billionaire pals that now run the government make off with all the loot.
Luckily, it isn’t taking long for people to begin to figure this out.
In the 45 years I have been working in progressive politics, I have never seen such a massive popular mobilization as the ones we have begun to see since the Trump election. There were major mobilizations in the Civil Rights movement, against the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq, but never the kind of spontaneous energy that has exploded over the last several months.
A week and a half ago, it was a massive outpouring at rallies across the country demanding that Congress prevent Trump from taking way their health care coverage that has been made available by the Affordable Care Act.
This last weekend it was the astonishing mobilization of millions of women and their male supporters at the Women’s March in Washington, D. C, all around the country – and all over the world.
I attended the massive 250,000 person march in Chicago. My wife, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky joined the half million marchers in Washington.
Among the slogans on the thousands of homemade signs were:
“Never underestimate the power of extremely pissed-off women.”
“ I no longer accept the things I cannot change – I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
“GOP: If you kill the ACA – you will all have hell to pay.”
“ My kitchen cabinet is more qualified than your presidential cabinet.”
“Fight like a girl.”
“Respetar mi existencia o esperar mi resistencia” (Respect my existence or expect my resistance).
“Love not hate makes America great.”
“ Grab them by the emoluments – resist Trump”
“Yes We Can.”
From the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor – I lift my lamp before our golden door.”
And my favorite – was a mutation of failed GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964 slogan, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.”:
“In Your Gut You Know He’s Nuts.”
But of course Trump isn’t nuts at all. He’s crazy like a fox – like a great con man who has just made the sting of a lifetime.
There is of course one thing. Most great con men are cool as a cucumber. Trump’s Achilles heel is that he can’t let any slight pass. He is a pathological narcissist. That may be one of the reasons why Trump’s “marks” wake up to the fact that he intends to empty their pockets well before he and his billionaire friends have finished the job.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.