For many Americans, it is next to impossible to make sense of Donald Trump’s success. Behavioral scientists have less trouble finding the right range of terms; from narcissist to Machiavellianist to psychopath to autocrat—all, in the candidate’s own lexicon, “the best words” to describe elements of something most of us know as a con man.
In all elections, the techniques of the con man are present—every successful politician uses persuasion techniques—they all want you to give them something they want…a vote. Once elected, most powerful people want more power. But for the last several decades, there has been acceptable levels of decorum as well. (Howard Dean’s celebratory rant, for instance, was a bit too much for voters as recently as 2004). But in this last presidential election, one candidate—one who, arguably, because of his career history has more practice—showed us all how to apply to The Art of the Con to a winning campaign. And as president, Donald Trump continues to use the same playbook. Here are some highlights:
1) Focus your energies on those who seem most adrift and disconnected
The term “confidence man” or con-man originated in the US in the 19th century. In a newly forged nation made up of immigrants and transients without deep local community ties, con men flourished. Americans were forced to make decisions about new comers to their communities on a regular basis. Without kinship-based connections to verify the truth of the con man’s story or historical behavioral data about these strangers, Americans came rely on their “gut feelings.” We are still doing it today. (While there is not great evidence about how common successful scams are in various countries, we do know that the US is near the top of the list for credit card fraud.) And a good con man knows how to focus on those—in any society—who are most disconnected; those most likely to rely on their feelings rather than analysis.
2) Get them to like you and your ideas – these initial impressions are hard to change
A good con man does everything he can to get the mark’s brain to say: “I like that; he seems right; that’s a good thing.” Those imprinted positive feelings get stuck in our brain as “truth”– even if the story/situation/behaviors change later—that’s just the way our survival-evolved brains work. This election year, many traditionally politically-less-engaged citizens heard non-Politically Correct things from Trump and liked them; those sentiments had been in the back of their minds for years, perhaps. Trump created in them synapses of affinity—of likeability; and reinforces those blatantly (“everybody loves me”). Those warm and wooly feelings will carry those Trump voters to the ballot box no matter how many times Trump changes his mind between now and November.
3) Stories are better than data
According to Harvard Psychologist Jerome Bruner if you can make a story believable to a target audience, they will accept the story as more robust than actual data. If you’ve lost your job, the notion that Mexicans have taken your job is a much better story (hint: it has a villain) than the fact that local economies are always changing and a job/skill that was in demand a decade ago has become relatively useless today.
4) Be an authority
Each of us is an authority in our narrow realm, but we all rely on other experts to tell us about the rest of the world. One of the most important assets a con man can use is asserting power through insider information (“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory.”), authority (“I am the most successful person to ever run for president”) and expertise (“I wrote the No. 1 selling business book of all time.”) The best con men are those who convincingly pretend they are experts in areas that they really know little about (“I have a very good brain”), especially if they then give us expert opinions that we are likely to believe anyway.
5) Once hooked, keep the mark on an emotional roller coaster
Social psychologist Robert Zajonc has spent a lifetime studying how emotions are much more important than thought or logic in determining what we will believe and how we will act. If a con man can keep the mark focused on their feelings (good, bad, happiness, fear … it doesn’t matter), their brains will have little ability to process actual data. Our limbic systems—the reward and fight or flight centers—naturally take over, and the brain doesn’t have the resources to process logical information effectively.
6) Disrupt the conversation often, so that the mark does not have time to refute or study anything
Psychologists Fennis, Das and Pruyn said it all with the title of their 2004 article “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with nonsense.” A conman will try to barrage the mark with different (and even conflicting) information so that about by time the mark has started to develop a counterargument to something they have heard, the topic changes—and the nub of opposition is lost.
7) Label as bad anything that might refute what you are saying
Conmen work assiduously to preempt the authority or believability of any source they know will contradict them. The snake oil salesman, for instance, explains that medical doctors just wants to make more money by keeping you ill, so those “frauds” will never recommend life-saving snake oil. Trump spends a significant amount of each speech undermining his critics in ways that the audience is likely to remember: “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie” – all the “losers” in the press; including the “Obama network” (NBC and MSNBC), “failing” New York Times, and “dishonest” Politico. All of these are meant to discount any disconfirming data that the mark is likely to encounter.
8) Don’t give details –as long as the payoff is big enough
Finally, good con men make the potential rewards seem so attractive that the bet is worth it—certainly quibbling about inconsistencies is not worth the effort. As Economists Jeff Langerderfer and Terence Shimp wrote in 2001, “For individuals facing a scam offer, part of the decision process is whether to carefully examine the message or to indulge their fantasies and accept the swindler's version of how the transaction will proceed.” Every time Trump reassures people that he can make them rich or get them jobs (“I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created”) or keep them safe from some real or imagined threat (“I have proven to be far more correct about terrorism than anybody. It’s not even close”), his supporters stop thinking. The claims that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower is another great example of no evidence; pure assertion. Republican congressmen don’t want to alienate the Trump core by challenging the President on this or anything else; they want to keep their positions of Washington power which are enhanced by a Republican in the White House.
Trump certainly never read any the academic studies cited above before he started to use con man techniques. (From his use of language, it is unclear whether or not he would understand these articles if he had read them.) Some people seem to be almost born with these skills—learning to “get their way” at a young age through these behaviors. Others learn them in On the Job Training—and there are probably no better industries for honing The Art of the Con than commercial real estate, gambling, pro wrestling, reality TV, and politics.
Trump is not primarily after our money – he’s not stealing watches or setting us up for an insurance scam, is he? So why is he so interested in swindling us. I found the best explanation for that in Maria Konnikova’s excellent book, The Confidence Game. “Con artists are after power: power over you and your future actions.” What greater payoff could there be for a con man than the power to control lives—of supporters and, especially, of his detractors.
“Why Donald Trump Supporters Are Voting Alone; Most Donald Trump voters are civically disengaged—a fact that may yet cost him the nomination.” The Atlantic, April 7, 2016.
“Countries With the Most Card Fraud: U.S. And Mexico.” Forbes, Oct 22, 2012.
Fennis, B. M., Das, E. H. H. J., & Pruyn, A. Th. H. (2004). “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with nonsense”: Extending the impact of the Disrupt-Then-Reframe technique of social influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 280-290
“Success, in many professions, is achieved through a skillful manipulation of visceral factors. Automobile salespersons, realtors, and other professionals who use ‘‘high pressure’’ sales tactics, for example, are skillful manipulators of emotions. Con men are likewise expert at rapidly invoking greed, pity, and other emotions that can eclipse deliberation and produce an override of nor- mal behavioral restraints.” in George Lowenstein, “Out of Control: Visceral Influences on Behavior” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Vol. 65, No. 3, March, pp. 272–292, 1996.