Cons and Scams: Their Place in American Culture

37th Social Research Conference April 23-24, 2018 – The New School, New York

Cons and con men have long been present in American culture and are often represented as romantic figures. Cons abound — from Bernie Madoff’s billion dollar Ponzi scheme to street corner crooks and their games of three-card monte; from art forgeries to fraudulent scientific articles; from predatory universities and pseudo-academic journals to magical cures for incurable diseases.

The con is so pervasive that the con artist, a strange appellation to say the least, has played a starring role in classic American fiction. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn includes a pair of con artists, the Duke and the Dauphin; and Herman Melville named a novel for the central character in his The Confidence Man. Edgar Allan Poe even wrote a well-known essay about the con-man, “Raising the Wind; or Diddling Considered one of the Exact Sciences,” in which he wrote, “Man is an animal that diddles, and there is no animal that diddles but man” (“diddling” being an earlier term for a swindle or cheat). The ever-present con men—and, to be sure, there are also con women—also have had starring roles in films such as The Sting, Paper Moon, and the 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 with a detailed listing of various scams used in the heist. There are cons everywhere we look, but this is perhaps the first time we have a US president whom some have called a con artist.

In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, the term “con man” was used frequently in relation to Donald Trump. The renowned linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky famously claimed in a January 2017 interview with the Pacific Standard that Donald Trump was “kind of a con man. He was able to say things to a sector of the population that, in a way, articulated their own concerns and feelings, and did it pretty effectively.” This view was echoed by George Soros, Bruce Springsteen, Philip Roth, Michael Bloomberg, and others, including Marco Rubio, a fellow Republican, who appears nonetheless to have cast his vote for Trump.

If Donald Trump is indeed a con man, how was it possible for him to con a large portion of the voting public? Is this a unique phenomenon in the history of the American presidency? What are the circumstances that allowed it to happen, and what do they say about the state of American democracy? Speaking more broadly, what transforms us into “marks”—what are the circumstances that allow people to be conned at all?

Join us on April 23 and 24 to explore cons and scams in their many guises, what makes us vulnerable to them, with particular attention to the current political scene in the US. This event is free and open to the public.

This event is cosponsored by The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University.

Click Here for further details and registration.