Con men always need a dance partner.
I’ve spent 25 years writing about scams, and I’ve interviewed 1,000s of victims. I’ve talked to 90-somethings who are sure a woman (or man) in Nigeria loves them and just needs money for a flight home. To people who are sure that this pill or that gadget will make them younger or smarter or thinner. Sure this annuity is better than that index fund (just ignore that stuff about fees). Convinced that the pyramid scheme they’re in isn’t really a pyramid scheme because the man who is making all the money told them it was multi-level marketing.
Worse yet, I’ve talked to lots of people right as they were writing checks to scammers and couldn’t talk them out of it. The victims were “prepped” for our conversation. “The media is just trying to ruin it for everyone,” says the man running the pyramid scheme. “Don’t listen to people who say I don’t love you,” says the sweetheart scammer. It breaks my heart to think of all the lonely, elderly people I’ve hung up with, knowing they will continue to spend their life’s savings on a fantasy — and in fact, probably hate me, at least for now.
Victims come from all walks of life. Young, old, smart, uneducated. One of my main principles is this: Folks who think they are too smart to fall for a scam are the easiest marks. I find people with a conspiracy-theorist orientation are the easiest to trick; their mental filters tend to be an on/off switch. They distrust you completely until they trust you completely. Flip them, and you are taking candy from a baby.
Flipping is easily done by finding a common enemy. With the sweetheart scam, it’s the family: “They don’t want you to be happy. They’re jealous.” With health, it’s “here are cures they don’t want you to know about.”
With politicians, it’s “news they aren’t covering.”
There are seven reasons I think people fall for scams, as I’ve written before. But I can distill them down to one here: Con men need a willing dance partner. The vast majority of financial crime victims I’ve interviewed played a real role in their own demise. They wanted money for nothing. They wanted an easy way out of debt. They wanted to believe.
When reality arrives in the form of questions from someone like me, the resistance is frighteningly firm. Victims just can’t bear the cognitive dissonance that comes with the horrible reality that the cute military man stationed in Lagos is just…a man stealing from you in Lagos.
Victims are always the last to know.
What does this have to do with our current political climate? I’ve heard from several people I love and care about recently who echo our president’s claim that the media is the source of our problems in America. Politicians have been blaming journalists for their troubles since the beginning of journalism, so that’s not a surprise. The surprise is the long list of people who are falling for it. Now. At this moment in time.
We live in an age when there are thousands of media outlets available to every American in an instant, the vast majority completely free of charge. You can read or watch them from any room in the house, from the backyard, on the bus, at a coffee shop. In addition, there are millions of people posting and Tweeting their eyewitness accounts and their commentary about all this. Again, all free.
There is no media conspiracy. Nobody is hiding things. There are no stories “they don’t want you to know about.” There might be a TV channel or a newspaper you don’t like. Great. There’s hundreds more. Thousands more. Never in human history has media been so free and easy. If you feel like a TV channel isn’t giving your point of view a fair shot, well, try a few more. Better still, start your own publication. It costs a few bucks, if that.
Given this reality, blaming the media is nonsensical. If you believe it, you’re a dance partner.
How far does this nonsense go? At every public event, our president takes the time to single out working journalists kept in a pen and deeply insults their character — they are bad people and so on. That’s OK. We’re used to being insulted. I’ve been verbally undressed at public meetings my whole adult life; it’s part of the job. Again, it’s a tried and true technique.
Trump takes it to new heights, however. On Tuesday, he complained to the crowd that the dishonest media was turning their cameras off so he couldn’t get his message out to the people watching at home. As before, these kinds of statements whip the room of willing dance partners into a frenzy. But that moment was broadcast live on TV. By several networks. To repeat:
His claim that the “fake news” was suppressing his speech was broadcast, for free, by the “fake media.”
Thousands cheered. Perhaps millions more at home cheered. Did none of them smell even a whiff of absurdity?
Steve Jobs was a well-known liar and manipulator. He managed to get his way by creating what came to be known as a “reality distortion field” at Apple. Someone would pose an idea on Tuesday, he’d say it was stupid, then he’d show up on Wednesday and pitch the same ideas as his own. People around him were so confused, and so intimidated, he’d get away with it.
Normal people don’t think this way, so it throws them off. Con artists are often masters of this technique.
I can think of no better example of a reality distortion field then this “they’re turning those suckers (cameras) off fast” claim being broadcast on live TV.
I’m here to tell you: Donald Trump is not liberating you from some media conspiracy. He’s dancing with you. Don’t be the last to know.
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