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On Trump the Con Man

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Finally, Donald Trump is being identified in the main ring of the 2016 Republican Party political circus in the United States for being what he is—a “con artist,” as Senator Marco Rubio called him last week.

“It’s time to pull his mask off so people can see what we’re dealing with here,” Rubio said at campaign rally in Dallas Friday. That followed Rubio repeatedly describing Trump as a “con artist” the evening before in the last TV debate between GOP rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, and in later media appearances.

“You all have friends that are thinking about voting for Donald Trump,” Rubio went on at the rally. “Friends do not let friends vote for con artists.”

Being a con artist is not a disqualifying factor for a politician. In the U.S.—and elsewhere—there have been plenty of con artists running for political office.

But that Trump has gotten so far without being fully called out in a bid for what is widely considered the most powerful office in the world has been remarkable—and outrageous.

There has been some investigative journalism pointing to this aspect of Trump.

Especially noteworthy, an extensive article in November in Time magazine headlined: “TRUMP U. What the litigation over Trump University reveals about the man who would be President.”

Written by Steven Brill, journalist, attorney and founder of Brill’s Content, a media watch publication, it compared to snake oil what was named Trump University, “a series of adult-education classes offering Donald’s Trump’s real estate investing methods.”

“Trump and his university—which operated from 2005 through 2010, when it was shut down as…[law]suits and multiple state attorneys generals investigations were beginning—lured approximately 7,000 consumers into paying $1,495 to $34,995 for courses,” Brill relates. “Trump ‘created, funded, implemented and benefited from a scam that cost them…thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars each,’ the lawyers suing him have argued.”

“I mean this is a guy,” said Rubio at the rally,” that’s taken Trump Airlines bankrupt, Trump Vodka, nobody wanted it, Trump Mortgage, was a disaster, Trump University was a fraud.”

Rubio also claimed, as he hit hard at Trump at the rally, that: “He’s being treated with kid gloves by many in the media in the hope that he’s the nominee. Some of them are biased, they’d love to see a liberal like Donald Trump take over the Republican Party and others know he is easy to beat once he gets there.”

As a journalism professor, I disagree with this analysis.

Trump has succeeded in manipulating media by, for starters, using his bombastic style to fiercely attack the press for doing its job of asking tough questions. His public assault on Megyn Kelly of Fox News after she had the nerve as a debate moderator to throw hardball questions at Trump was typical of how he has used intimidation on media people and institutions.

Then there’s his sense of what inflames—which media cover like any big fire.

As Howard Fineman, former Newsweek chief political correspondent and now global editorial director at the Huffington Post, has written, based on an interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin: “Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake, taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into—and exploit—every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.”

Fineman in his article last month—headed “Epic Media Fall: How And Why Trump Trumped The Press”—quoted Goodwin as noting how the media “are the key purveyors of the qualities of the candidates and of telling people who they are what they stand for.”

But Goodwin concludes that in in covering the fiery Trump, the press “preempted serious scrutiny of his past, character, record in business and suitability—if any—for the office of president.”

Then there’s Trump’s media savvy.

Sean Illing on Salon wrote a piece taking off from an article on Politico, both of which ran at the start of this month. The Politico story—“How Trump Did It”—revealed how in 2013 Trump told a group of “New York political operatives [who] had come to ask him to run for governor” that his plan was to run for president instead. He told them, “I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off me.”

Said Illing: “Trump knew all along that his celebrity and media savvy were sufficient to support his campaign.” Trump was aware that the “ability to control the narrative, to dominate the coverage, is all it takes. Trump’s amorality coupled with his gift for self-promotion has turned the Republican presidential race on its head.”

Illing said that the “biggest takeaway” from the Politico expose “is that Trump is indeed a professional huckster. And whatever else he is, he’s not stupid. He doesn’t believe half the absurdities he utters on the campaign trail either. As the [Politico] report makes clear, everything he’s done and said was designed to dupe the media into funding his marketing strategy. Trump’s a TV man; he understands the landscape.” Illling’s article was headed: “Donald Trump is a fraud: Report confirms the billionaire’s presidential bid is a long and calculated con job.”

No small thing is involved.

“The moment of truth: we must stop Trump,” was the headline of a piece last week in The Washington Post by Dr. Danielle Allen, director of the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and professor in Harvard’s Department of Government and also Graduate School of Education.

“Like any number of us raised in the last 20th Century,” she wrote, “I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.”

As to media coverage, she told of how “journalists cover every crude and cruel thing that comes out of Trump’s mouth and therefore acculturate all of us to what we are hearing. Are they not just doing their jobs, they will ask, in covering the Republican front-runner? Have we not already been acculturated by 30 years of popular culture to offensive and inciting comments? Yes, both of these things are true. But that doesn’t mean journalists ought to be Trump’s megaphone.” She asks “why not let Trump pay for his own ads when he wants to broadcast foul and incendiary ideas? He’ll still have plenty of access to freedom of expression.”

The Washington Post itself, in an editorial last week titled “GOP leaders, you must do everything in your power to stop Trump,” declared that “history will not look kindly on GOP leaders who fail to do everything in their power to prevent a bullying demagogue from becoming their standard-bearer.”

It continued: “This is a front-runner with no credible agenda and no suitable experience. He wants the United States to commit war crimes, including torture…He admires Russian dictator Vladimir Putin… He would round up and deport 11 million people, a forced movement on a scale not attempted since Stalin or perhaps Pol Pot. He has, during the course of his campaign, denigrated women, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities and many more. He routinely trades wild falsehoods and doubles down when his lies are exposed.”

The new host of TV’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah, said this month, “For me, as an African, there’s just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home.” He compared Trump to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and said that in this way Trump “is presidential.”

The stakes are enormous—and it’s no joke.

Unless he is rejected, we easily could be on the cusp of a media-knowing, veteran “reality show” host with a long record as a huckster becoming president of the United States.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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