During the Republican presidential primary campaign, Florida Senator Marco Rubio repeatedly described Republican nominee Donald Trump as a “con artist.”
As Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton prepare to face off in the third and final presidential debate on October 19, it’s worth asking just how accurate Rubio’s assessment was. (Interestingly, Rubio told the Miami Herald editorial board in August that despite his endorsement of Trump, he stands by “everything” he said in the primary campaign, “con man” assessment included.)
Could Trump really be a con man?
Con artists are motivated both by a desire to be the center of attention and the power that comes with that ability to manipulate others, psychologist Maria Konnikova, author of “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time,” explained to me earlier this year.
“[They’re] addicted to that sense of power, that rush of being able to pull one over on people and get away with it,” Konnikova explained.
Along the way, they will deceive people in order to get that attention and power.
As for deception, Pulitzer-prize winning fact-checking organisation Politifact awarded Trump’s statements the 2015 “Lie of the Year” award. Of 298 Trump statements assessed at time of publication, Politifact rated only 4% as “true” and 11% as “mostly true;” 19% of Trump statements earned a “mostly false,” 35% a “false,” and 17% a “pants on fire.” (Of 272 Clinton statements assessed, 24% earned a “true,” 27% a “mostly true,” 15% a “mostly false,” 10% a “false,” and 3% a “pants on fire.”)
But being a con artist isn’t just about deception — it’s about intent. After all, many politic ans deceive people. They’re not all practitioners of the confidence game; many truly believe what they are saying or believe it’s worth it to stretch the truth to accomplish their political goals.
“If Trump were a con artist, he would be interested in politics only as a means to some other end,” Konnikova writes in The New Yorker. “He wouldn’t believe in his political opinions; instead, he would see those opinions as convenient tools for gaining what he actually desires.”
Power and being at the center of attention would fit as a con artist’s goal. “Trump, as a con artist, would give up on politics the moment it stopped serving his purposes, moving on to the next thing that gave him the same level of attention and adulation,” Konnikova wrote.
If Trump doesn’t win this election, we can see whether he’s a true political believer, focused on his goals, or whether he moves on to some new role that’s a departure from his stated goals but still keeps him at the center of attention.
Konnikova also explained to me that con artists are experts at telling their audience what they want to hear. Here again, Trump may fit the bill, though we can’t know for sure.
“Trump’s promises are often deliberately vague. He meets demands for specifics with another tool from the con artist’s arsenal: emotion,” she writes in The New Yorker. “Appeal to [people] on the emotional level and you no longer need coherent arguments.”
Still, it’s impossible to know whether or not Trump is definitively a con artist without getting inside his head, Konnikova told Business Insider’s video team.
If Trump “really knows exactly what he’s doing and he’s playing the media, that he doesn’t believe a lot of what he says … then it’s certainly a con technique,” she continued.
Of course, we don’t know for sure what’s going on in Trump’s head. Some may think that he truly believes everything he says and that he holds deep political convictions that he hopes to achieve with his campaign; others may think he’s willing to say anything in order to stay at the center of attention.
The appeals to emotion instead of fact and the seeming desire to be at the center of attention (while psychologists are unwilling to diagnose anyone from afar, many have no problem calling Trump a narcissist) certainly fit the bill of a con artist.
But without knowledge of his intent, we can’t say for sure whether it’s a con or not.
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