The two most jarring events in the past decade of American life both had the whiff of a grand con about them. One was the crisis of 2008, after which a lot of ordinary Americans turned their attention to the financial-services industry and discovered something that looked, on the surface, uncannily like a classic bilking: There was a lot of hard-to-follow shifting about of who owned what and who owed what to whom, and in the end a lot of people found that their retirement savings had vanished. The other was the election of Donald Trump, who has always been fairly open about his talent for old-school hucksterism. To the very end, many people were convinced his entire campaign had been a long-game self-promotional exercise — a man wandering past real estate, casinos, reality television, mail-order steaks and wealth-building seminars to arrive at right-wing politics as a high-quality grift.
"Grift" and "grifter" are old-fashioned words, but ever more useful ones. "Grift" evokes not so much specific criminal acts as a broad, opportunistic racket, executed with a bit of cunning and panache. "Grifter" captures the kind of person who takes up such ploys as a trade, an art, a way of being. Both labels are constantly attached to Trump and his retinue. This year, Salon labeled the president the "grifter in chief," and the late-night host Seth Meyers called him "a grifter who surrounds himself with other grifters." A Daily Beast headline gallantly allowed that "Trump Is Not a 'Moron' — He's a Grifter, and He's Created an Administration of Grifters." Representative Ted Lieu of California warned of the steady "drip, drip, drip of grifting from Trump's appointees," and when Forbes looked into Wilbur Ross's business history, it concluded that "the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history." In Slate, Jacob Weisberg invented a parlor game to keep things straight: Which administration figures were grifters, and which were grafters ? Grafters are stolid and conventional, lining their pockets and then quietly retreating to one of their several homes. Grifters are the ones with flair and ambition, who seem to delight in the con itself — the cleverness of the scheme, the smooth ease with which the marks were gulled.
The grifter is a lot more entertaining, and this summer, con stories seemed to be everywhere — not because of any sudden renaissance of fraud, but because the media had tapped into a bottomless appetite for hearing about it. The blockbuster was the tale of Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey, a European 20-something who managed to persuade New York socialites that she was a wealthy heiress, living out of Manhattan hotels on, reportedly, a series of forged documents and an air of general blitheness. (Both Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham are at work on TV adaptations.) And this was nearly nothing compared with Anthony Gignac, an orphan who spent decades impersonating a Saudi prince. According to an October story in Vanity Fair, he was exposed when, during the slow negotiation of a multimillion-dollar business deal, he raised suspicions by ordering prosciutto.
The appeal of these stories is hardly mysterious. There you are, stuck at work, while others somehow declare themselves to be billionaires or airline pilots or Stanley Kubrick. We admire the gall, and often the craft — the cinematic complexity of a well-developed con, whether it involves high-wire role-playing or just chiseling petty cash out of passers-by. If you ever feel like the old-fashioned grift has gone the way of fast-talking men in hats and three-card Monte on street corners — the way of Harold Hill in "The Music Man," commencing his 1912 grift with a rousing patter song about moral decay — all you have to do is Google terms along the lines of "elaborate Walmart returns scheme" to witness the American ingenuity still on offer. It was a treat to read the story, this summer, of how a security worker for the McDonald's Monopoly contest spent years filching winning tokens and finding co-conspirators to redeem them. We deplore this stuff, in theory, but under the right circumstances we are entranced by the audacity — at the hacker's skill of spotting the weak spots in the systems that bind the rest of us, and bluffing straight through them.
A grift needn't be a crime. That's part of the word's appeal: It opens its arms to encompass any phenomenon that arrives in the rough shape of a racket, from online marketing to whole political movements. On the news site Splinter, the writer Alex Pareene has characterized much of modern conservatism as a grift gone wrong — pulling from the historian Rick Perlstein's 2012 Baffler article "The Long Con," which traces out just how much of the movement's far-right fringe was born and nurtured in self-enriching direct-mail and media operations. The game here is simple: Persuade people that everything they value is under attack, and they can be soaked for donations; feed them conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve and civil unrest, and they will become extraordinarily receptive to ads for bunker supplies and gold. A solid scheme, Pareene suggests, right up until you find that you've overagitated the marks, and they've started deciding party primaries.
The personality type that responds to this sort of thing is, naturally, not restricted to the right. Trump's election opened the field for a parallel play among liberals, spurring the rise of the "Resistance grifter" — a type of social-media personality who shovels forth alarmist news and wild speculation about the president's perfidy, posing as a lonely hero standing against it and raking in donations or subscription money along the way. Telling people what they wanted to hear used to be part of the average grift; lately, thanks to social media and crowdfunding, it works beautifully as a grift in itself.
Even if what you tell the world is sincere, something happens once you've started profiting from it — someone's bound to think you're playing everyone. After that article in July recapped the details of the 1990s Monopoly-token scheme, a few readers were offended to learn that its author was fed the idea by a film producer, who is now co-producing a big-money adaptation of the article — the same strategy he had used with high-profile films before. Was that a bit of a feint?
This is the thing about grift-logic: It immediately radiates outward, by analogy, from literal scams to broad systems that merely have the same sensibility as a scam. Selling fake stereo equipment is a classic con; you can call the police about it. Selling iffy nutritional supplements, or tricking people into endless monthly payments on an impulse-buy rotisserie, is a touch safer; they'd have to write letters to the state attorney general. Clickbait publishers, unaccredited online education, apps that quietly harvest personal data, shady Amazon drop-shippers, patent trolls — these can all be legal, but what difference does it make? Once you begin to identify such arrangements as grifts, you are bound to discover, in our baroquely capitalist society, that loads of things are essentially grift-shaped, from oddball start-ups to arcane financial services: They begin with a slick appeal, go on to create nothing of concrete value and end, like any good bilking, with your money in new pockets.
This line of thinking can, pretty obviously, be a glib one; to say something like "capitalism is a grift" is to express an intuition, not file a detailed indictment. Grift is capacious. In just five characters, it can casually point out the suspect mechanics and empty, grasping heart of almost any figure or phenomenon. Young people look at their paychecks and suspect that their college educations were a grift, or at least the student loans were. One Twitter skeptic smells grift in all of "the business world," another in the artificial scarcity of diamonds, another in all skin care beyond sunscreen and acne medication, another in liberal podcasts, another in "everything."
This might scan as terminally cynical, a way of sneering diffidently at, well, everything. But it's not exactly outlandish (or unpopular) for a modern person to note that many of the systems she encounters have been carefully constructed to extract maximum profits, to sustain themselves, to get what they can while the getting is good — not unusual for a modern person to suspect it would be easier to deal with an actual con artist than with Wells Fargo or a budget health-insurance company. And perhaps this is cause for despair.
But over the course of the year, it has begun to feel that the energy behind calling everything a grift is the very opposite of jaded. You just need to turn your focus from the grift to the negative space around it. If huge segments of our economic activity manage to feel — aesthetically, if not legally — like fine-tuned rackets, then the segments that remain must consist of actual work with actual purpose, productive labor that requires no puffery or misdirection to sustain. This is the surprisingly wholesome, traditionalist set of values that sneering at grift inevitably pushes you toward: old-timey rectitude and integrity, honest work and firm handshakes and mutual respect. The opposite of a grift, you find, is creating things of real value, paying fair wages, asking what is right more than what is profitable. The opposite of grift is a square deal.
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