ScAmerica: How We Got the President Trump We Deserved
The New York Times recently had a good round-up of podcasts covering American scams, businesses built on deceiving people — a category in the U.S. that accounts for billions in annual profits, and millions of victims. I’ve been listening to these series about pyramid schemes and other cons, and they are both fascinating and disturbing.
Multi-level marketing companies recruit armies of salespersons to buy overpriced cosmetics, dubious wellness remedies, and other products that they rarely ever can resell; few make a profit, and those that do mostly thrive not by selling product to consumers but by recruiting others into the scheme. And big players in the MLM world, like the DeVos family’s Amway, have used their riches to lobby and lawyer away government efforts to hold them accountable. Dietary supplement MLM Herbalife, which sells the American dream to immigrants and other striving Americans, hired former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a former Joe Biden chief of staff, and other connected Washingtonians to help it survive a Federal Trade Commission probe.
Land schemes — selling gullible people worthless property in the desert based on phony claims of future growth and motivating them to recoup their investments by convincing friends and family to attend a sales pitch and buy in — have persisted for generations, even after they were exposed by Ralph Nader and penalized by the Federal Trade Commission almost fifty years ago.
One twisted lone scammer even lured film industry bit players to Indonesia by pretending, over the phone and email, to be various Hollywood producers promising a big break.
Another powerful podcast, which the Times might have also mentioned, is Yahoo Finance’s “Illegal Tender” series reporting on a scandal we also extensively cover here, the for-profit college scam, where sharp operators of both the Wall Street and strip mall variety have deceptively sold dreams to veterans, single mothers, and others struggling for better lives, and left many of them with substandard educations and buried in debt.
An even bigger scam has been perpetrated by the oil, gas, coal, and utility industries: hiding the truths about perilous climate change and toxic pollution. Then there are the blatant scams that Wells Fargo perpetrated against its consumer banking customers. And many more. With all these big corporate deception schemes, campaign contributions to politicians, expensive PR campaigns, and bipartisan teams of lawyers and lobbyists have helped the scammers to keep up their destructive activities and avoid real accountability.
One name came up in several of the podcasts about scams, a name I wish I could forget: Donald J. Trump. A Trump admirer connected to a major land scam said the scheme’s architect, one Nat Mendelsohn, reminded her of Trump. But it’s not just about personality; before becoming president of the United States, Trump was involved in a remarkable range of similar scam operations, aimed at making suckers of everyday Americans.
Businessman Trump was the pitchman for not one but two multi-level sales operations: one, called The Trump Network, selling a vitamin cocktail supposedly based on individual urine tests, and the other, ACN, somehow pitching, in the 2010’s, a landline video phone.
Trump’s company has been involved in a series of deceptive or abusive operations related to his supposed main business, real estate: allegedly misleading condo buyers, running possible tax scams involving real estate valuations, allowing Trump buildings to be used for money laundering.
And, of course, the former president’s Trump University was a predatory operation that told prospective students that all instructors were hand-picked by Trump, when they were not, that used high-pressure tactics to sell overpriced seminars. One of Trump University’s sales managers testified, “I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.” In 2016, Donald Trump paid $25 million to settle fraud charges brought by former students and New York’s attorney general.
After a string of bankruptcies and other business failures with his inherited money, Trump revived his career and built a larger following by posing as a successful businessman on the “reality” TV show “The Apprentice,” which sold Americans the dream of winning at business. (Trump also used the platform to pitch his video phone scam operation.)
Thus, America was tricked into electing a real con man as president. And Trump continued the con in office, leveraging his role as president to make money for his businesses and rewarding his cronies, even though he ran as the people’s candidate fighting to drain the corrupt Washington swamp. Trump rode the adoration of his millions of followers to spread lie after lie, from his fibs about crowd size, to his denial of knowing about the payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels, to the repeated false claims that he would unveil a perfect health care plan in two weeks, to the lethal lie that the coronavirus was under control, to the final big and deadly lie that he won the 2020 election.
After he lost the election, Trump’s political operation pumped up its coffers not only by lying about election fraud but also by scamming small donors into unintentionally making recurring contributions.
Decades of business scams have revealed America to be, or turned us into, a nation of scammers, their highly-credentialed shills, and lots and lots of suckers. Con artists make up a big block of our wealthy notables, our tax base, our employers. The election of Donald Trump closed the deal.
Fortunately, after the horrors of 2020, our country woke up and got rid of Trump. But millions still believe his lies, millions still believe related grotesque conspiracy theories, and millions still fall prey to the kind of business scams he’s been running his whole life, as well as the larger scams run from Wall Street. We need to find our way out.