Trump's base loved that he was a liar and a cheat — but now it's coming back to bite them

Rooting for a massive jerk to stick it to the liberals is super fun — until he's lying about Americans dying

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 4, 2020 1:05PM (EDT)

President Donald Trump discusses data around COVID-19 cases in the U.S. with Axios National Political Correspondent Jonathan Swan. (Axios/HBO)
President Donald Trump discusses data around COVID-19 cases in the U.S. with Axios National Political Correspondent Jonathan Swan. (Axios/HBO)

One of the most frustrating things, for both Democrats and the investigative journalists who worked tirelessly to expose Donald Trump's seemingly unending frauds, was how little Trump's base seemed to care that he was a liar and a cheat. The evidence of Trump's sociopathic disregard for business ethics, or any ethics at all, is overwhelming.

Trump cheated people who worked for him, finding ways to refuse to pay them. He spent decades engaged in tax fraud, reaping hundreds of millions through the process. Trump's claims to be a billionaire appear the inverse of reality, where he was a billion dollars in the red, making him the photonegative of a billionaire. Trump University was a scam, described in court as preying "upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money." Trump's supposed charitable foundation was also a scam that faked giving to worthy causes but operated largely as a way for Trump to pay bribes and pay down his personal debts with other people's money. Trump's real estate business was drowning in fraud, with the entire family engaging in practices that should have resulted in criminal charges, such as lying to potential buyers about how well their condos were selling

There are easily a dozen more examples of the various ways that Trump has shamelessly lied, distorted numbers, cheated other people and generally committed fraud with the ease most of us would pour a cup of coffee. It was inevitable that he would do the same thing as president — but with the coronavirus statistics, that has turned deadly. 

In an interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios that aired Monday night, Trump showed up with a bunch of fraudulent charts and made the preposterous claim that "we're lower than the world" when it comes to the coronavirus.

This is flat-out false, as Swan pointed out. The U.S. has by far the most cases in the world, at 4.7 million as of Tuesday morning. On a per-capita basis it's a little better, but we still rank eighth-highest in the world. The U.S. also has the most deaths, at 155,000 and climbing fast, and ranks 10th in the world in per-capita death rate. 

But Trump, using the flimflam talents of a lifelong tax cheat, insisted that the only number that counts is the ratio of deaths to infections, which ignores the fact that millions more people have been infected than would have been under a moderately competent administration, of whatever party or ideology.

Trump is "applying salesmanship that works in the worlds of real estate and reality television to the worst pandemic in the century," Swan said about his own interview with Trump

Honestly, he was understating the case. Trump's instincts towards fraud didn't "work" all that well in the world of real estate, as evidenced by his multiple bankruptcies. Arguably, Trump and other members of his family should have already been sent to prison for using these tactics in the business world, since it's clear he went well beyond legal puffery into outright fraud and tax evasion. The fact that Trump has so far managed to survive his own lengthy history of fraudulent behavior only speaks to the toxicity of an economic system that allows white men born into wealth to fail endlessly upward. 

It's no surprise that Trump is lying about this. He's always been a liar and a fraud. It's not like his own voters are ignorant of this well-documented fact.

But Trump's voters have never minded that he lies and cheats. In fact, that was exactly what they liked about Trump. As I argued in my book "Troll Nation," Trump's voters knew he was a raging asshole, but were convinced he'd be their asshole, a guy who would stick it to the people they viewed as enemies (immigrants, liberals, feminists, journalists and so on) and that he'd leverage his skills at cheating and defrauding others to their benefit.

Focus group data made this clear: The more that Trump voters heard that he was a bully and a con man, the better they liked him

Trump himself leaned into this narrative hard during the 2016 campaign, reveling in his own history of corrupt behavior but promising his voters that his evil ways made him the best champion for their interests. 

"All my life, my whole life I've been greedy, greedy for money," Trump told attendees as a 2016 event in Des Moines, Iowa, before promising, "but now I want to be greedy for the United States."

During an October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, when she highlighted Trump's long history of fraudulent tax avoidance, Trump retorted, "That makes me smart," arguing that if he had paid his fair share in taxes, they "would be squandered, too, believe me."

He played a similar game when Clinton brought up his multiple bankruptcies, portraying these not as business failures but clever ways to cheat the system. He even argued that he could use trickery to "renegotiate" the U.S. government's debt by half. (This is not possible.)

It's a turn as unsurprising as Darth Vader choking one of his own soldiers to death: Trump is only too happy to use his  instincts to defraud and lie to the very people he promised he'd fight for. Unfortunately, Trump isn't just lying about his sketchy personal finances anymore. He's lying how many people are dying due to his negligent and even malicious handling of a major public health crisis. 

It was inevitable that Trump would do this to his own voters sooner or later. His assurances that he would be a lying fraud, but one who was always on their side, were always the empty promises of a con man to his marks.

"If he can in any way profit from your death, he'll facilitate it, and then he'll ignore the fact that you died," Trump's niece, the psychologist Mary Trump, writes in her book "Too Much and Never Enough."

In this case, it's not so much that Trump thought he would directly profit from people dying. It was more that he convinced himself that any measures taken to mitigate the pandemic — whether that meant a rigorous lockdown, mask mandates or a serious nationwide testing regimen — would hurt his chances of re-election, and he'd much rather see people die in large numbers than let that happen.

But perhaps this is splitting hairs: However you slice it, millions of people have gotten sick and more than 155,000 are dead because Trump thought he could cheat on the coronavirus numbers the same way he cheated on his taxes, cheated his customers, cheated charities and cheated the so-called students at his so-called university. His voters elected him because they admired his sleaziness, and thought they would benefit from his cheating ways. But now they're just as likely to get sick or die as the liberals they were so eager to enrage and humiliate.

We can't expect some mass exodus back to reality among Trump supporters, of course. It's very common for people who have been defrauded to refuse to admit it, and to defend the con man who targeted them, rather than admit that they were wrong in the first place. This is visible in cults like Jonestown or Heaven's Gate, where members may be willing to die before conceding they should never have followed their cult leader. Trump's approval rating remains stuck at a stubborn 40%, so now we know: That's the proportion of Americans who would rather risk death from a pandemic than admit that maybe the liberals were right all along. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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