The Scams Are Winning

American language suggests that grift can be separated from everything else. American life suggests otherwise.

Any scam that manages to succeed as a scam, if you squint a little when looking at it, will also look pretty similar to … competence. (HBO)

Late last month—shortly after the special counsel’s office delivered the results of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion in the 2016 election to the Justice Department (and shortly after Attorney General William Barr sent his four-page summary of the years-in-the-making report to Congress, and shortly after President Donald Trump summed up the summary by declaring that report amounted to a “Total EXONERATION”)—the University of Southern California law professor Orin Kerr posted a tweet. “Imagine if,” Kerr wrote, “the Starr Report had been provided only to President Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, who then read it privately and published a 4-page letter based on her private reading stating her conclusion that President Clinton committed no crimes.”

Kerr’s framing of the situation struck a nerve: The tweet was liked more than 69,000 times, and retweeted more than 22,000 times. (One of the retweeters was Monica Lewinsky, who added her own perspective to Kerr’s imagining: “if. fucking. only,” she responded.) Imagine if, it turned out, captured something about a report that continues to hover in a purgatorial place. The thing is done but not really; it is completed but not, as yet, conclusive; it exists in a state of suspended animation. The House of Representatives, in mid-March, voted 420–0 to release the report—a display of bipartisanship that itself typically exists, these days, merely in imagine if terms. On Tuesday, however, Trump described the ongoing calls to share the document as a “disgrace” and a “waste of time.”

The logic of the scam has permeated American life so completely that it has found its way to the Justice Department itself. (Cliff Owen / AP)

A report that was conducted, ostensibly, on behalf of the public, its full contents kept invisible to the public: It is yet another shock that is thoroughly unsurprising, another outrageous thing that does its angering out in the open, with impunity. It has become a running joke over the past year—the summer of scam. Scam season. The best scammers of 2018, ranked. Grift in the air; graft in the ether; cons, thriving in times of turmoil, having their way with the weary and the hopeful.

But the language of the scam can be misleading, precisely because the logic of the scam has permeated American life so completely that it has found its way to the Justice Department itself. The particular brand of absurdity at play in the report, the one that translated a multi-hundred-page work of investigation into an announcement of “Total EXONERATION,” is a rule much more than it is an exception. For every version of a scam that can be neatly categorized as illegal (or allegedly so)—Theranos, the Fyre Festival, Enron, the latest college-admissions scandal, a portion of the best scammers of 2018, etc.—there are many others that live in the liminal space of the lower-grade swindle. “Scam,” in that way, becomes its own false promise. It is too hopeful. It is overly naive. It assumes a world that does not exist. There’s so much that becomes fair game, after all, within a game that is rigged.

Theranos, the blood-testing company that went from “great hope” to “great hoax” almost overnight, has recently transformed into something else entirely: a media event. There were the newspaper articles and the magazine articles and then the book and then the ABC documentary podcast and then the HBO documentary and then, in due time, the Jennifer Lawrence–starring feature film. I’d call it overkill, except that having read the stories and heard the podcast and watched the doc and read the book, I have found myself, like a vulture on the savannah, ravenous and desperate and craving more—out for blood.

Why the appeal, especially when there are so many others scams-made-into-stories on offer? Part of it might have to do with the mechanics of this particular con: Any scam that manages to succeed as a scam, if you squint a little when looking at it, will also look pretty similar to … competence. Theranos became a Silicon Valley unicorn, with a valuation stretching to $9 billion-with-a-b, in part through means that are legal. It effectively siloed its workers to prevent intracompany gossip; it was exceptionally litigious with those staffers, and anyone else who might have questions about the company’s workings; its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, charmed investors and power brokers, almost all of them wealthy and white and older and male, until they believed in the stories the company was selling about itself. (The line between “myths” and “lies” can also be a thin one.)

This is all, as can’t-get-enough drama goes, notably bureaucratic. But that is part of the appeal. Critics will sometimes characterize entertainments such as The Social Network and The Martian as competence porn, named for the visceral thrill that comes with watching someone demonstrate both ability and cleverness when tackling a specific task. And to take in the Theranos story is, in a way, to experience a similar catharsis: Holmes and her deputy, Sunny Balwani, were extremely competent at fooling people—right up until the point, of course, when they weren’t.

What if Elizabeth Holmes, as her self-authored mythology insisted, really was a second coming of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Steve Jobs? (HBO)

The Inventor, Alex Gibney’s recent HBO documentary about Theranos, taps explicitly into that idea. Holmes famously—and, in retrospect, infamously—named Theranos’s blood-testing units after Thomas Edison, and Gibney embraces that connection as a central theme. He intersperses the story of the start-up with shaky footage of Edison in his New Jersey laboratory, reminding viewers that Edison was an inventor who was also, by necessity, a tinkerer: “I have not failed,” he said, of all that went into the creation of a functional incandescent light bulb, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But the film, in its comparison of Holmes and Edison, suggests that the celebrated inventor was also a scammer of sorts: Edison, too, had to talk up his own ideas, even and especially the most fanciful ones—to win the confidence that becomes a kind of faith—to fail those 10,000 times before the success came along. Myths are fragile things. What is a wild dream, the Theranos story asks, if not a lie that has yet to be made true?

It’s a perverse question, but one that is effectively—and uncomfortably—at home in this moment of atmospheric frauds. What if Elizabeth Holmes, as her self-authored mythology insisted, really was a second coming of Edison and Henry Ford and Steve Jobs? What if she saw things in a way others did not—and what if she simply needed more funding, more faith, more time? What if she just hadn’t gotten to 10,000 yet? Holmes wasn’t, and she didn’t, and she hadn’t, but in a world that is powered by hot air, the lines can warm and tangle and blur. “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world,” Holmes said, trying to defend herself and the lies that she’d told in the name of creating a better life for everyone.

Shortly after The Inventor premiered on HBO, the fourth season of the darkly comedic drama Billions premiered on Showtime. The series, centering on the cat-and-mouse game played between a hedge-fund founder (Damian Lewis) and the legal system that tries to hunt him down, began as an anthropology of wealth, detailing the lives of the 1 percent with a precision that mingled tragedy and high comedy. But the show has expanded far beyond its original purview of New York City, and the Southern District, and the easy expanses of Greenwich, Connecticut. Its plot now involves a Russian oligarch and a Middle Eastern sheik, broadening the show from its original cops-and-robbers drama to offer an indictment of a financial system that implicates and shapes the lives of people around the world.

In Billions, a show nominally concerned with justice but actually premised on competition, it becomes effectively impossible to tell where the legal tricks end and the illegal ones begin. (Jeff Neumann / SHOWTIME)

The central joke of Billions is that in a show nominally concerned with justice, but actually premised on competition, it becomes effectively impossible to tell where the legal tricks end and the illegal ones begin. An early episode of the new season features an extended, vaguely absurdist plot line involving Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the prosecutor, who tries—through deal making and influence peddling and occasional begging—to leverage his ability to dole out New York City park-anywhere cards. The item in question, which is large and laminated and whiffs of the cheery humilities of a FedEx/Kinko’s store, becomes an object of scorn to those Chuck attempts to offer it to. (“Already got one,” Donny Deutsch, making a cameo as himself, tells the law enforcer, rolling his eyes. “For each of my cars.”)

It’s a small joke that gets to the larger one: If you lose your leverage, in this environment, you lose everything else. You are what you are worth, and Chuck, that sad little card suggests, is currently worth very little. To watch Billions, a show that appends the broad arc of Breaking Bad to a philosophy that insists that companies are people, is to be reminded yet again of the vanishing thinness of the lines that divide corporate greed from all-out fraud. It is to be reminded of Theranos, and Bernie Madoff, and Anna Delvey, and Billy McFarland, and Fred Trump, and Fred Trump’s son. It is to watch a system get indicted one episode at a time. Is Chuck a high-ranking law-enforcement official or a con man? Is Bobby Axelrod, the hedge-funder whose money helps the world spin on its crooked axis, a scammer or a quintessential success story of swaggering American capitalism? The comedy of it all—the tragedy of it all—is that they are both at once.