The Psychology of Con Artists, and How to Avoid Them
Jordan Belfort otherwise known as the “Wolf of Wall Street”, pleaded guilty to fraud and related crimes in connection with stock-market manipulation and running a boiler room as part of a penny-stock scam
Pastor plans Easter “woodstock” at church.
From beauty pageants to mafia ties; from cryptocurrency zealots to FBI raids; from Dolce & Gabbana clad Dutch millionaires to “the biggest scam in the world” — this story has it all.
Last year, BBC producer Georgia Catt and writer Jamie Bartlett stumbled upon the bizarrest of stories. In this episode, we follow their tale as they chase leads all over the world trying to unravel the mystery of one enigmatic company, and its charismatic founder — Dr. Ruja Ignatova.
Hear all eight (8) episodes of the BBC’s ‘The Missing CryptoQueen’ here.
Seven or eight years ago, I was on a commuter flight, sitting in an aisle seat. Two rows ahead of me, across the aisle on my right, a guy was arguing with his wife/girlfriend. It wasn’t a ferocious argument, but any sort of personal disagreement is noticeable in these circumstances, and it had been simmering since I noticed them boarding the plane.
There were two other things I noticed when they sat down. The wife/girlfriend had the husband/boyfriend’s name – Randy – tattooed on the back of her neck, and Randy had the letters T – R – U – S – T tattooed on the fingers of his left hand. I remember smiling to myself when I saw this. Obviously these two were from a very different background than me, but I really appreciated the public display of commitment they had made by getting these tattoos. I remember thinking to myself that I bet their relationship was a strong one, even though the disagreement seemed to simmer throughout the flight.
The plane landed and we all stood up. And then I saw the letters tattooed on Randy’s right hand.
N – O – O – N – E
All of a sudden, I was pretty sure this guy’s name wasn’t Randy. All of a sudden, I was pretty sure this relationship wasn’t likely to last.
I feel like I have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on my hands today, and if you’ve been working in finance for more than 10 years, I bet you feel exactly the same way.
Used to work for Bear? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Lehman? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Citi? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Merrill? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Deutsche Bank? I know you feel this way.
Yeah, we’ve all got these tattoos today. We have them as a reminder, as a figurative reminder (or literal in the case of “Randy”), that we really really really shouldn’t trust anyone AGAIN.
Because we need a reminder. Because we want to trust again.
Jimmy Dell is the con man in the 1997 David Mamet movie, played by Steve Martin in his finest dramatic role. In lines like above and below, Jimmy builds a personal trust with the mark by calling his attention to the lack of trust in business relationships. Effective consultants do this a lot, speaking of confidence games.
Jimmy Dell: Always do business as if the person you’re doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he’s not, you can be pleasantly surprised.
That’s the thing about the Spanish Prisoner con. It doesn’t work on saints. It doesn’t work on people who forgive and forget, who turn the other cheek and have an unending reservoir of faith in their fellow humans. It also doesn’t work on sociopaths. It doesn’t work on people who truly trust no one, who can lie to themselves and others without consequence or remorse.
The Spanish Prisoner con works best on smart and accomplished people who think they have TRUST NO ONE figuratively tattooed on their hands, who think they’re too clever to be fooled again, but end up only being too clever by half.
The Spanish Prisoner con works best on coyotes.
Too Clever By Half
Who is a coyote? A coyote is a clever puzzle-solver who really has the best of intentions. Who really wants to be successful for the right reasons. Who really wants to accomplish something of meaning in the world. Who is smart and aware and nobody’s fool. Who has been beaten up professionally a bit and has a healthy skepticism about the business and political world.
And who is just a little bit on the make.
The defining characteristic of the Spanish Prisoner con is that the mark believes he is doing well while doing good. The mark believes that he is doing the right thing, that he’s the good guy in this story. And if the liberated Prisoner is financially grateful, or if the Prisoner’s sister is grateful in her own way if you know what I mean and I think you do … well, that seems only fair, right?
Now the Spanish Prisoner doesn’t have to be an actual person that needs rescuing. That’s a con for the rubes. The Spanish Prisoner is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – anything that serves as an Object of Desire for the mark, anything that motivates the mark and furthers the narrative arc of the con.
In fact, the most effective MacGuffins are rarely simple signifiers of wealth like an rich Spanish dude. No, the most compelling Spanish Prisoners are Big Ideas like social justice or making America great again or resisting the Man. That’s what gets a coyote’s juices going. Especially if there’s also a pot of gold associated with being on the right side of that Big Idea.
The most successful con operators are the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy. Why? Well, partially because you’ve gotta have some heft to credibly commit to rescuing a Big Idea from the clutches of whatever Big Baddie has it now. But mostly because running the con for money is just thinking waaaay too small.
The Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy don’t need your money. They already have it!
The con here is to gain your trust – again – so that you willingly hand over your autonomy of mind. So that you accept without thought or reflection the naturalness of your current relationship to the State and the Oligarchy.
You’d never fall for this con if it were part of a straightforward commercial arrangement like a job or a purchase. Please! You’re much too savvy for that. You have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on your hands, remember?
But for the chance to help rescue a Big Idea …
But for the chance to make a few bucks or enjoy yourself a bit more as part of doing the right thing …
There’s not a coyote in the world that can resist that bait. And that’s why once you start looking for the Spanish Prisoner con, you will see it everywhere.
Libra, the cryptocoin promoted by Facebook, is a Spanish Prisoner con.
What’s the Big Idea? Why it’s banking the unbanked. It’s facilitating cross-border remittances. It’s bringing the benefits of crypto to the global masses. ALL OF THIS IS TRUE. So far as it goes.
And if it facilitates e-commerce along the way? if it’s possible to make a few bucks or enjoy some greater conveniences as part of Facebook and its partners executing on this Big Idea? Well, what’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that this is how Bitcoin dies.
This is how a censorship-embracing coin replaces a censorship-resistant coin. This is how the State and the Oligarchy co-opt crypto. Not with the heel of a jackboot. But with the glamour of convenience and narrative.
And in a few years it will all seem so natural to you.
Using government-approved electronic money will be the water in which you and your children swim. You will not be able to imagine a world where a censorship-embracing coin is not everywhere.
Libra was designed to co-opt Bitcoin.
Libra was designed to allow government oversight over your economic transactions.
Libra was designed to provide a transparent regulatory window and control mechanism over your money.
Libra was designed for Caesar.
A year from now, the narrative story arc regarding “criminal activity” through cash transaction networks AND censorship-resistant transaction networks like Bitcoin will be louder, not softer. In three years, it will be deafening.
Libra and its e-commerce convenience, together with its Big Idea skin of helping The Poors … that’s the carrot.
The “Boo, terrorists!“ narrative … that’s the stick.
Will Bitcoin itself be outlawed? Maybe. But I really doubt it. It’s too useful as a societal steam valve, now that we’ve got Libra and (soon) other Oligarchy-sponsored and State-supported cryptos in circulation.
What does Bitcoin become in a world where state-approved e-money is in wide circulation?
It becomes an act of effete rebellion, like a non-threatening tattoo on your upper arm that you can cover up with a shirt if you like.
Bitcoin becomes a signifier of Resistance rather than a tool of Resistance.
Owning Bitcoin will make you a Bad Boy! or a Bad Girl! … a safe malcontent that the Nudging State and Nudging Oligarchy are delighted to preserve.
What’s my message to the true-believers who continue to see Bitcoin as a tool for Resistance?
For the next fifty years, you get to play the role of the grumpy old man yelling at clouds.
You know, the role that gold true-believers got to play for the past fifty years.
It’s a miserable way to live.
It’s a miserable way to live for two reasons.
First, and most crucially, this role that the Nudging State is laying out for you is steeped in negative energy. You will find yourself rooting for catastrophe. You will find yourself hoping for decline and collapse. You will find yourself conflating justice with loss and comeuppance. You will take on sadness and schadenfreude as your resting psychic state. Trust me when I say that I know of which I speak. Negative energy is deadly. That is not a figurative statement. It will literally kill you.
Second, you’ll be infested by raccoons, which will be tolerated if not encouraged by regulators, in exactly the same way they are tolerated if not encouraged by regulators in gold-world. Sure, you’ll have the occasional show trial of egregiously aggressive security frauds and Crypto-Funded Criminals ™, but the run of the mill hucksters and con men will walk with impunity.
Because this is what ALWAYS happens.
The money quote from Too Clever By Half:
And that brings me to what is personally the most frustrating aspect of all this. The inevitable result of financial innovation gone awry, which it ALWAYS does, is that it ALWAYS ends up empowering the State. And not just empowering the State, but empowering the State in a specific way, where it becomes harder and harder to be a non-domesticated, clever coyote, even as the non-clever, criminal raccoons flourish.
That’s not an accident. The State doesn’t really care about the raccoons, precisely because they’re NOT clever. The State — particularly the Nudging State — cares very much about co-opting an Idea That Changes Things, whether it changes things in a modest way or massively. It cares very much about coyote population control.
It’s all about coyote population control. It always is.
Is there a way out of this for Bitcoin? No. Co-option by the State and Oligarchy was the Doom of Bitcoin from the beginning.
I mean … I say “Doom” like it’s going to be hurled into the fires of Mordor, but that’s not it at all. There will still be true-believers and raccoons alike generating tradable narratives. You’ll still be able to make money by trading Bitcoin on these narratives (and altcoins, too, I’d expect, although I have no idea how you generate a compelling altcoin narrative these days).
It’s not like Bitcoin is going to go away.
But Bitcoin is going to be permanently diminished in its social importance by the adoption of Libra and other Oligarchy-sponsored and State-embracing crypto currencies. Bitcoin will never again mean what it used to mean.
You know … just like gold was permanently diminished in its social importance by the adoption of Oligarchy-sponsored and State-embracing fiat currencies. Just like gold will never again mean what it used to mean.
I wrote this note six years ago. It was the first Epsilon Theory note to get widespread recognition. You’ll see hints – more than hints, actually – of all the big ET themes over the past few years, particularly The Three-Body Problem.
How Gold Lost Its Luster, How the All-Weather Fund Got Wet, and Other Just-So Stories
The core of this note is a quote by Bob Prince, Bridgewater’s co-CIO and an actual prince of a guy. I just think he’s wrong when he says this:
The relationships of asset performance to growth and inflation are reliable – indeed, timeless and universal – and knowable, rooted in the durations and sources of variability of the assets’ cash flows.
I think Bob Prince is wrong in exactly the same way that JP “Jupiter” Morgan was wrong when he said this:
Gold is money. Everything else is credit.
If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this:
There are no timeless and universal relationships between asset performance and ANYTHING.
The only determinant of price for a non-cash-flowing thing is Narrative. Actually, the only determinant of price for a cash-flowing thing is Narrative, too, but we can save that argument for another day. And what I am saying about these non-cash-flowing things is this:
The introduction of Libra changes the Bitcoin narrative in exactly the same way that the introduction of fiat currency changed the gold narrative. And by change I mean crush.
That makes me sad. That makes me angry. I am convinced that it is part and parcel of a Spanish Prisoner con game. But I refuse to give into the negative energy of that realization AND I refuse to give up on the Big Ideas that I believe in.
So what do I do?
I con the con man.
I know what Mark and Sheryl and all the other Davos-going Team Elite sociopaths are about.
I see what they are offering me and I TAKE it. Without hesitation. Without remorse. I take it just as they are trying to take from me … in full sociopathic bloom.
And what do I give them in return?
Do I care about banking the unbanked and cross-border remittances? Yes, I do. Very much. So I will TAKE the protocols and the KYC procedures and everything else Libra offers, and I will USE all of that to further the social justice goals that I maintain. And they will get NOTHING from me in return. I will keep my autonomy of mind. I do NOT forget what they are trying to steal from me. I do not ALLOW them to steal that from me.
I refuse to give them my trust.
And I will look for every opportunity to destroy their Little Kingdom.
Do I really have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on my hands? No.
I trust lots of people. I trust my pack.
But Mark and Sheryl and Christine and Jay and Donald and Barack are not in my pack. And they never will be.
Trust no one? No.
I just don’t trust THEM.
Using computerized text analysis, Cornell professor of communication Jeff Hancock and colleagues at the University of British Columbia found that psychopathic criminals tend to make identifiable word choices when talking about their crimes. Hancock and UBC professor of psychology Michael Woodworth discussed the implications of their study at the October 17, 2011 Inside Cornell session at Cornell’s ILR Conference Center in Midtown Manhattan.
Understand that, and you’ll understand what he’s doing in the White House.
On Sept. 1, with a Category 5 hurricane off the Atlantic coast, an angry wind was issuing from the direction of President Trump’s Twitter account. The apparent emergency: Debra Messing, the co-star of “Will & Grace,” had tweeted that “the public has a right to know” who is attending a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election.
“I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, Helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir,’ ” wrote the 45th president of the United States.
It was a classic Trumpian ragetweet: aggrieved over a minor slight, possibly prompted by a Fox News segment, unverifiable — he has a long history of questionable tales involving someone calling him “Sir” — and nostalgic for his primetime-TV heyday. (By Thursday he was lashing Ms. Messing again, as Hurricane Dorian was lashing the Carolinas.)
This is a futile effort. Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.
I mean, O.K., there is an actual person named Donald John Trump, with a human body and a childhood and formative experiences that theoretically a biographer or therapist might usefully delve into someday. (We can only speculate about the latter; Mr. Trump has boasted on Twitter of never having seen a psychiatrist, preferring the therapeutic effects of “hit[ting] ‘sleazebags’ back.”)
But that Donald Trump is of limited significance to America and the world. The “Donald Trump” who got elected president, who has strutted and fretted across the small screen since the 1980s, is a decades-long media performance. To understand him, you need to approach him less like a psychologist and more like a TV critic.
He was born in 1946, at the same time that American broadcast TV was being born. He grew up with it. His father, Fred, had one of the first color TV sets in Jamaica Estates. In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump recalls his mother, Mary Anne, spending a day in front of the tube, enraptured by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. (“For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he remembers his father saying, “Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.”)TV was his soul mate. It was like him. It was packed with the razzle-dazzle and action and violence that captivated him. He dreamed of going to Hollywood, then he shelved those dreams in favor of his father’s business and vowed, according to the book “TrumpNation” by Timothy O’Brien, to “put show business into real estate.”
As TV evolved from the homogeneous three-network mass medium of the mid-20th century to the polarized zillion-channel era of cable-news fisticuffs and reality shocker-tainment, he evolved with it. In the 1980s, he built a media profile as an insouciant, high-living apex predator. In 1990, he described his yacht and gilded buildings to Playboy as “Props for the show … The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
He syndicated that show to Oprah, Letterman, NBC, WrestleMania and Fox News. Everything he achieved, he achieved by using TV as a magnifying glass, to make himself appear bigger than he was.
He was able to do this because he thought like a TV camera. He knew what TV wanted, what stimulated its nerve endings. In his campaign rallies, he would tell The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running, that you mattered. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiated its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish. For all practical purposes, he and the camera shared the same brain.
Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV. First, he used it like a celebrity, to broadcast himself, his first tweet in 2009 promoting a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance. Then he used it like an instigator, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News, road-testing his call for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterms.
When he was a candidate, and especially when he was president, his tweets programmed TV and were amplified by it. On CNBC, a “BREAKING NEWS: TRUMP TWEET” graphic would spin out onscreen as soon as the words left his thumbs. He would watch Fox News, or Lou Dobbs, or CNN or “Morning Joe” or “Saturday Night Live” (“I don’t watch”), and get mad, and tweet. Then the tweets would become TV, and he would watch it, and tweet again.
If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want?It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full.
Some presidential figure-outers, trying to understand the celebrity president through a template that they were already familiar with, have compared him with Ronald Reagan: a “master showman” cannily playing a “role.”
The comparison is understandable, but it’s wrong. Presidents Reagan and Trump were both entertainers who applied their acts to politics. But there’s a crucial difference between what “playing a character” means in the movies and what it means on reality TV.
Ronald Reagan was an actor. Actors need to believe deeply in the authenticity and interiority of people besides themselves — so deeply that they can subordinate their personalities to “people” who are merely lines on a script. Acting, Reagan told his biographer Lou Cannon, had taught him “to understand the feelings and motivations of others.”
Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.
Reality TV, writ broadly, goes back to Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” the PBS documentary “An American Family,” and MTV’s “The Real World.” But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.
Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it!
While shooting that first season, the show’s crew was rooting for Rudy Boesch, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL and model of hard work and fair play. “The only outcome nobody wanted was Richard Hatch winning,” the host, Jeff Probst, would say later. It “would be a disaster.” After all, decades of TV cop shows had taught executives the iron rule that the viewers needed the good guy to win.
But they didn’t. “Survivor” was addictively entertaining, and audiences loved-to-hate the wryly devious Richard the way they did Tony Soprano and, before him, J.R. Ewing. More than 50 million people watched the first-season finale, and “Survivor” has been on the air nearly two decades.
From Richard Hatch, we got a steady stream of Real Housewives, Kardashians, nasty judges, dating-show contestants who “didn’t come here to make friends” and, of course, Donald Trump.
Reality TV has often gotten a raw deal from critics. (Full disclosure: I still watch “Survivor.”) Its audiences, often dismissed as dupes, are just as capable of watching with a critical eye as the fans of prestige cable dramas. But when you apply its mind-set — the law of the TV jungle — to public life, things get ugly.
In reality TV — at least competition reality shows like “The Apprentice” — you do not attempt to understand other people, except as obstacles or objects. To try to imagine what it is like to be a person other than yourself (what, in ordinary, off-camera life, we call “empathy”) is a liability. It’s a distraction that you have to tune out in order to project your fullest you.
Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.
Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.
Maybe the best definition of being real came from the former “Apprentice” contestant and White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in her memoir, “Unhinged.” Mr. Trump, she said, encouraged people in his entourage to “exaggerate the unique part of themselves.” When you’re being real, there is no difference between impulse and strategy, because the “strategy” is to do what feels good.
This is why it misses a key point to ask, as Vanity Fair recently did after Mr. Trump’s assault on Representative Elijah E. Cummings and the city of Baltimore in July, “Is the president a racist, or does he just play one on TV?” In reality TV, if you are a racist — and reality TV has had many racists, like Katie Hopkins, the far-right British “Apprentice” star the president frequently retweets — then you are a racist and you play one on TV.
So if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasonsof “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.
You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.
In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.
There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for
- being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for
- giving credit to their teammates, for
- interrupting him.
The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.
What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.
And America loved boardroom Trump — for a while. He delivered his catchphrase in TV cameos and slapped it on a reissue of his 1980s Monopoly knockoff Trump: The Game. (“I’m back and you’re fired!”) But after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one.
He reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself. He gets more insulting in the boardroom — “You hang out with losers and you become a loser”— and executes double and quadruple firings.
It’s a pattern that we see as he advances toward his re-election campaign, with an eye not on the Nielsen ratings but on the polls: The only solution for any given problem was a Trumpier Trump.
Did it work for “The Apprentice”? Yes and no. His show hung on to a loyal base through 14 seasons, including the increasingly farcical celebrity version. But it never dominated its competition again, losing out, despite his denials, to the likes of the sitcom “Mike & Molly.”
Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.
Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like “Apprentice” contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode:
- “I am the chosen one!”
Then cable news spends morning to midnight happily masticating the fresh batch of outrages before memory-wiping itself to prepare for tomorrow’s episode. Maybe this sounds like a TV critic’s overextended metaphor, but it’s also the president’s: As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as “an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”
Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his nature — calling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.
His character shorthand is “Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.” Plop him in front of a camera with an infant orphaned in a mass murder, and he does not have it in his performer’s tool kit to do anything other than smile unnervingly and give a fat thumbs-up.
This is what was lost on commentators who kept hoping wanly that this State of the Union or that tragedy would be the moment he finally became “presidential.” It was lost on journalists who felt obligated to act as though every modulated speech from a teleprompter might, this time, be sincere.
The institution of the office is not changing Donald Trump, because he is already in the sway of another institution. He is governed not by the truisms of past politics but by the imperative of reality TV: never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.
This conveniently echoes the mantra he learned from his early mentor, Roy Cohn: Always attack and never apologize. He serves up one “most shocking episode ever” after another, mining uglier pieces of his core each time: progressing from profanity about Haiti and Africa in private to publicly telling four minority American congresswomen, only one of whom was born outside the United States, to “go back” to the countries they came from.
- The taunting.
- The insults.
- The dog whistles.
- The dog bullhorns.
- The “Lock her up” and “Send her back.”
All of it follows reality-TV rules. Every season has to top the last. Every fight is necessary, be it against Ilhan Omar or Debra Messing. Every twist must be more shocking, every conflict more vicious, lest the red light grow bored and wink off. The only difference: Now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos, only press secretaries, pundits and Mike Pence.
To ask whether any of this is “instinct” or “strategy” is a parlor game. If you think like a TV camera — if thinking in those reflexive microbursts of adrenaline and testosterone has served you your whole life — then the instinct is the strategy.
And to ask who the “real” Donald Trump is, is to ignore the obvious. You already know who Donald Trump is. All the evidence you need is right there on your screen. He’s half-man, half-TV, with a camera for an eye that is constantly focused on itself. The red light is pulsing, 24/7, and it does not appear to have an off switch.