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Why Donald Trump’s Scams Won’t Stick

If you believe the system is rigged, then Don the Con is your man.

MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images

In February, Marco Rubio, desperately trying to give a jolt to his dying campaign, called Donald Trump “a con artist.” Such harsh words are common in the heat of campaigns, but what is remarkable is that Rubio now endorses Trump for president while still refusing to walk back his characterization of Trump. “I’ve stood by everything I ever said in my campaign,” Rubio told the Miami Herald last month. So the Florida senator’s position is that Trump is a grifter who should be president.

What’s true of Rubio applies to the Republican Party as a whole, which by and large is sticking with Trump despite overwhelming evidence that he’s a flimflam man of epic proportion. In fact, the fact that Trump is a shady character is likely to boost his popularity with his base, who buy into the idea that the system is corrupt and therefore can only be destroyed by someone who knows how deep the rot is because he’s corrupt himself. Trump is so little concerned with being tagged as a con artist that he openly touts his support by Don King, whose sordid history includes stomping a man to death and bilking the boxers he was supposed to represent.

On Monday, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold published a blockbuster report showing that the Republican nominee used money donated to his charity, the Trump Foundation, to pay for private lawsuits. Speaking on CNN, Fahrenthold summed up the case in blunt terms: “Trump is using his charity to benefit his businesses, which is against the law.” The Trump campaign responded to Fahrenthold’s allegations of charitable self-dealing by saying it was inaccurate, but without offering a single factual correction. Nor has the Trump campaign been able to refute Fahrenthold’s other major revelation, that Trump took credit for donations made by the foundation—a charity to which Trump himself has not contributed since 2008. He also used foundation money to buy gifts for himself.

The Trump Foundation is just one of many examples of Trump’s grifting. There remain the outstanding accusations that Trump University, according to the sworn deposition of a former employee, was a “fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.” Trump has also used money donated to his campaign—at least 20 percent of it back in May—to line the pockets of his own business. There’s also Trump’s long history, amounting to hundreds of cases, of not paying bills for services and products he’s purchased. Yet it’s unlikely that this week’s latest evidence that Trump is a scam artist will have much of an impact.

There are three major accusations that can be made against Trump: He’s an unstable man capable of wildly unpredictable behavior (Dangerous Don). He’s a bigot who demeans anyone who is not a straight, white able-bodied male (Deplorable Don). And he’s a swindler (Don the Con).

The Clinton campaign has made Dangerous Don and Deplorable Don big campaign issues, but hasn’t really made the case against Don the Con. Why not?

One of the core ideas that Trump is selling (that the system is corrupt) also helps insulate him from the con-man critique. In the early days of his campaign, he argued that he was so rich he couldn’t be bought (unlike the other politicians). In the first Republican debate, he complained that the insurance industry had too much power over health care, slyly noting that “the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians—of course, with the exception of the politicians on this stage.” The same message can be found in the nickname he coined for his rival in the general election: Crooked Hillary.

Earlier this month, the website of the Claremont Review of Books published an influential anonymous pro-Trump post,The Flight 93 Election,” which declared:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

The article repeatedly refers to our “corrupt times,” as in: “only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise.” For the author of the post, the fact that Trump distills everything that is wrong with America is all the more reason to think the Republican nominee is the right leader for the times—someone who can fight against the very corruption he’s benefitted from. There’s an old adage, “It takes a thief to catch a thief.” Trump’s supporters seem to think, “It takes a fraud to change a fraudulent system.”

Trump doesn’t have to worry about accusations of being a con artist because they reinforce one of his key messages: the system is rigged, and his success within this corrupt system is proof that he has the strength and shrewdness needed to fix it. He’s selling himself as the only solution to the very problem he is a symptom of, which means attacking him as a huckster will only make his core supporters love him more.

As often with Trump, the very reason his supporters love him is grounds for non-supporters to become even more suspicious. So one might think Clinton should push the Don the Con narrative to sway independent and undecided voters. After all, Trump’s corruption seems more clearly demonstrable by facts than the likelihood he’ll be an unstable Commander In Chief (which is conjecture) or that he’s a bigot (which is a matter of opinion).

But there are good reasons for avoiding the Don the Con characterization, as it interferes with the other two narratives. If Trump is a fraud, then his bigotry could also be just a game. And if Trump is a mountebank, that makes him seem not dangerous but a clever trickster who is perhaps even lovable, in the tradition of charming rogues like W.C. Fields or the heroes of the 1973 movie The Sting. The flip side of the con man is the hustler, always on the make with an eye for opportunity. These are qualities that many Americans, not just Trump supporters, admire.

It’s true that in the White House, Trump’s manifest corruption could prove disillusioning, as it did under Richard Nixon. But right now, Don the Con’s flock of gulls won’t be persuaded by mere facts that his scoundrel ways are a threat. They already know he’s a con, and they wouldn’t want him any other way.