Why Americans Get Conned Again and Again

Their admiration for ingenuity and gumption leaves room for opportunists.

Keith Bedford / Reuters

For decades, Donald Trump has been compared to the legendary showman P.T. Barnum. Trump himself has publicly embraced being likened to a man described by historians as “vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked.” His willingness to invoke that set of values—quite different from the Horatio Alger-style “luck and pluck” that serve as an unofficial national ethos—may be what his supporters are praising when they say he “tells it like it is.” His base seems to view his readiness to dispense with ideals and ethics (“anyone would have taken that meeting”) as a sign of fitness to deal with the world as it is: a cesspool of corruption and “carnage” in which only suckers still believe that honesty is the best policy.

At this political moment, few books could be more timely than Fraud: An American History From Barnum to Madoff, by the Duke University historian Edward Balleisen. Other academics have documented the ways that the United States has been steeped in fraud and chicanery from the earliest days of the republic—notably, Stephen Mihm’s outstanding A Nation of Counterfeiters. But

Balleisen’s book provides a far more sweeping view than its predecessors, offering a much-needed big-picture perspective. Balleisen never mentions Donald Trump, but effectively contextualizes his ascent by tracing centuries of grift, fraud, and con men in American history.

While Balleisen’s text is often rollicking and engaging, it leads readers to a rather bleak conclusion: Americans don’t really want cheaters and con artists punished, or driven out of national institutions. On the contrary, the historical record Balleisen reviews suggests that many Americans actually admire con artists and seek to emulate them.

Fraud is a phenomenon that knows no borders, but American exceptionalism, as Balleisen shows, includes a special vulnerability to fraudsters and con artists. As he points out, “Many of the world’s most expensive and ambitious frauds have occurred in America” because “openness to innovation has always meant openness to creative deception.” The country’s lionization of entrepreneurs and inventors creates tempting opportunities for those trafficking in highly implausible scenarios. It has made the U.S. home to genuine innovators, from Thomas Edison to Oprah Winfrey, but it has also facilitated the far-reaching deceptions and empty promises perpetrated by people like Bernie Madoff on Wall Street and Elizabeth Holmes in Silicon Valley. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was the largest known financial fraud in history, and Holmes’s biotech start-up Theranos faces multiple lawsuits and federal investigations after its products didn’t work as claimed. (Holmes and the company deny any wrongdoing.)

Misrepresentations are usually made possible by two factors: their complexity and their proponents’ social craftiness. Madoff and Holmes used both of these to their advantage. When it comes to complexity, the basic principle is that the less people understand of an underlying business proposition, the more vulnerable they are to being taken in by pretenders. Schemes involving science or math have been particularly successful because the knowledge needed to evaluate such proposals critically is not widely distributed in the population. This makes it easy to pass off nonsense as the next big thing. Balleisen’s book is littered with variations on this science-and-math theme, from lightning-rod scams to Americans’ passion for lotteries. These stories have a poignant edge, considering how many recent innovations originally were poorly understood and seemed totally fantastical, but worked anyway (such as paying for groceries with a mobile phone). Even for skeptical consumers, it can be difficult to distinguish between flimflam and genuine opportunities.

While complexity provides cover for con artists, it’s their social wiles that draw in their prey, known as “marks.” The scammers’ job is to make themselves seem not only trustworthy, but familiar: just like their marks, only more successful. The easiest way to perpetrate this deception is on members of one’s own demographic group—a phenomenon known as “affinity fraud.” In the 1920s, for example, Charles Ponzi, newly arrived from Italy, preyed on other immigrants through his eponymous pyramid scheme—a pattern repeated with other immigrant groups, including those from India, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, in the ensuing century. Immigrants, along with people from rural areas, have long been favored targets of fraud; as Balleisen writes, “demographic groups likely to suffer from informational gaps” are shut out, whether willfully or accidentally, from crucial knowledge about the world.

Being of the same demographic group also helps a big-talking salesperson fine-tune the image of success that he or she must project in order to convince an audience. Elizabeth Holmes promoted Theranos in part by imitating the personal and management styles of previous Silicon Valley wunderkinds—right down to wearing the same kind of plain black turtleneck long associated with Steve Jobs. Madoff, for his part, gave lavishly to charities in order to insinuate himself into Jewish philanthropic networks, whose members’ trust—and money—he needed in order to prop up his scheme. Madoff succeeded in impersonating a successful person so well, said one finance-industry executive, that “There was a joke around that Bernie was the Jewish T-bill,” referring to U.S. Treasury bills, considered to be the ultimate secure investment. “He was that safe.”

In view of such a masterful deception, it would seem imperative to have strong protections in place against fraud. Yet, as Balleisen makes clear, American laws and cultural norms have vacillated for decades between protective regulations and the rule of caveat emptor. For example, while the 1970s represented a high point in the institutionalization of consumer protection, the Reagan era onwards has seen a systematic dismantling or disabling of those institutions as part of the politics of small government. In that larger historical picture, the election of a man whose business career was defined by, in the words of the New York Times reporter David Barstow, “an operatic record of dissembling and deception,” is not an anomaly, but the predictable culmination of a long-term trend in American life.

With these basic themes laid out in the first two chapters of the book—the singular consistency of American fraud, and the puzzling ambivalence about putting a stop to it—the remainder of Balleisen’s text provides one highly detailed look after another at the major scams and frauds that have punctuated the country’s economic history. It is stunning to take in more than a century of history and appreciate how little has changed in the basic contours of fraud perpetrated on Americans.

As Balleisen writes, there is a remarkable “constancy in the scripts for business frauds” perpetrated in America. Elements of these scripts—strikingly simple and almost numbing in their repetitive effect—have a familiar ring these days. Con artists, he writes, first “find a way to grab consumers’ attention, to persuade them to invite the salesperson into their homes”—though today, the intimacy and immediacy of Twitter seems to far exceed those of the living room sit-down. Then there is the pitch: “The bait involves some fabulous deal … that may seem too good to be true,” Balleisen writes. And once buyers have made a decision, the con artist proceeds with the “switch,” persuading customers to accept a higher-cost alternative.

Over the course of nearly 400 pages, readers observe both the bait-and-switch script and the policy dithering on what seems to be an endless loop. It’s like Groundhog Day reimagined by Dostoevsky in a particularly sour mood: Its moral seems to be that Americans are fools, led to economic ruin by their own credulity, again and again and again. Or as Balleisen puts it, with slightly more good cheer, “One might wonder about the inability of Americans to wise up over the past two-hundred-plus years.”

Indeed, what is behind this stubborn trend? Balleisen alludes to some intriguing possibilities that deserve further exploration. He makes mercifully short mention of the usual explanation—“greed” on the part of ordinary people trying to get “above their station”—which has been trotted out after every financial fraud for the past 300 years. Instead, he makes some truly original observations, such as when he notes the strange failure of “transmission of economic memory from one generation to the next” in the United States. Indeed, many Americans don’t seem to teach their children well when it comes to avoiding scams. Why? Perhaps it stems from a wish to protect the next generation from knowledge of their own vulnerability, and to focus on limitless possibilities instead.

Balleisen, sticking to his role as an historian, does not probe these possibilities in much depth. Throughout his meticulously gathered examples, however, the theme of optimism gone wrong frequently arises. The belief dear to so many Americans in the power of individuals to invent something world-changing makes room for innovators both earnest and deceitful. In other words, in order for a Steve Jobs to find colossal success, there must be enough credulity baked into the culture to make room for a Bernie Madoff.

The unsatisfying part of finishing Balleisen’s book, though, is being left wondering what might actually break this cycle. Perhaps that calls for another type of thinker entirely. Traditionally, this is where the great American novelists have come in to explain the country to itself. They dream up illustrative, memorable characters, such as Fitzgerald’s romantic con artist Jay Gatsby. Or they offer piercing observations, such as Steinbeck’s account of Americans surviving the 1930s by each believing themselves to be “a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” What’s still missing, however, is a widespread attempt on the part of Americans to understand their own vulnerability to fraud, their ambivalence about confronting it, and their seeming unwillingness to learn from it. Without such a self-examination, they will continue to find themselves borne back ceaselessly into the past.