Donald Trump, criminal mastermind: Scholar Gregg Barak on the supreme con artist of our time

Author of "Criminology on Trump" on our 45th president as "a superb agent of obscene, transgressive enjoyment"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 1, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks on May 28, 2022 in Casper, Wyoming. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks on May 28, 2022 in Casper, Wyoming. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

Donald Trump can fairly be described as a political crime boss. His contempt for democracy and the rule of law is reminiscent of the legendary organized-crime leaders found in both fiction and reality. He used his presidency (and its aftermath) to enrich himself, along with his family and other members of his inner circle. Trump is deeply attracted to violence, although — like the head of a crime family — does not personally engage in it. He may be a sociopath or a psychopath, but regardless of clinical definitions is certainly antisocial and destructive.

Despite his uneven recent record of political endorsements, Trump remains the obvious leader of the Republican Party and the larger fascist movement in and around it. For millions of Americans, his orders and wishes are not to be disobeyed, and at least some of his loyal foot soldiers are willing to commit acts of violence at his command and perhaps to kill or die for him.

Trump runs his crime family from his Mar-a-Lago headquarters in Palm Beach. Republican candidates, party leaders and other members of his MAGA movement arrive there to make offerings of cash and undying loyalty, and to receive his praise (or admonition) and receive their further orders.  

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Crime as politics, or "criminogenic" politics, to use the academic term, is a distinguishing feature of autocratic and authoritarian regimes. Real or aspiring strongman-type leaders, Donald Trump very much included, have no conception of public service that extends beyond accumulating money, power and personal glory. Politics and governance are but means to that end, and the law is not understood as a leveling force that applies equally to all. Instead, it is an instrument of power, tailored to serve the personal needs of the autocratic-dictatorial leader and the most loyal members of his regime.

There exists a literal mountain of scholarship, research, reporting, commentary and analysis by people from a wide range of disciplines — journalists, mental health professionals, philosophers, lawyers, historians and political scientists, to name a few — on the subject of Donald Trump and what his rise to power has meant for American democracy and society. But to this point, very few experts in crime and criminal behavior have specifically addressed the Trump phenomenon and its larger consequences. 

Gregg Barak has tried to fill that void with his new book "Criminology on Trump," published in May by Routledge. Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and was formerly a visiting distinguished professor in the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University. He is also the author of "Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding" and "Violence, Conflict, and World Order," among other works, and is co-founder and North American editor of the Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime.

In this conversation, Barak explains his view that Donald Trump is not a hapless fool or idiot, as some have depicted him. For Barak, Trump is a consummate con artist and perhaps a criminal mastermind who has spent decades mastering the law and learning how to escape accountability for his criminal actions and other transgressive behavior. Barak says that Trump had a mentor in this regard, the legendary fixer and right-wing political operative Roy Cohn, who taught Trump that even legal defeats or setbacks can be spun as symbolic victories. 

Barak also argues that Trump was in all probability central to the planning and execution of the Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt — and took great joy in watching the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Barak also warns that Donald Trump is such a skilled performer that he is likely to evade responsibility for his criminal misconduct no matter what evidence is presented later this month by the House select committee investigating Jan. 6. Donald Trump's followers have not been duped into supporting him, Barak concludes, but greatly enjoy his antisocial behavior and live vicariously through it.

How are you feeling given all the crises we have faced in America during the Age of Trump and beyond?

I'm emotionally stressed. I'm anxious. I'm seeing the end of democracy. I'm just totally absorbed in writing about and thinking about Donald Trump. I began thinking about writing a book about Donald Trump in 2017. I got sucked in. Everyone else had been talking about Donald Trump from the perspective of journalists, lawyers, therapists and other points of view. But where were the criminologists? Donald Trump is a matter of crime and justice.

You say that you "got sucked in," that Trump pulled you into his orbit, in effect. I have heard many people say that about him. How did this happen? What is so compelling and intriguing about him? That's a big part of his power.

I'm sucked in because I study deception. I study mistrust. I study the con. Donald Trump is the archetype of all those things. He's a grifter, he's a racketeer. He's all of those things in one persona and one individual.

I have also described Donald Trump as a con artist, as well as a professional wrestling "heel," a carnie and a street hustler. What's the con that Donald Trump is running — and why are so many people suckered by it?

Donald Trump is all of those things. But how does he get away with all the lawlessness. be it as a candidate or as occupant of the White House? He's a media-savvy showman. He offers himself up as a subject of both enjoyment and pain, and that helps him to elicit effective identification among the public. Ironically, Trump's positive attraction is fundamentally derived from his negativity, cruelty and deviance.

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Trump's political attraction has to do with his chauvinistic attitudes of white supremacy, cultural racism, and misogyny. In other words, Trump has become a superb agent of obscene, transgressive enjoyment. This is true whether he's vilifying immigrants, denigrating women or trying to humiliate a former ally.

His fake populism is all about style and attitude. It has absolutely nothing to do with any belief system, set of values or ideologies. Trump has no principles or ethics that he truly subscribes to. The only thing that matters to Trump is the accumulation of power and glorification.

People are not really being conned by Trump: They know it's a con. But they admire the fact that he's basically saying "f**k you" to everyone and getting away with it.

Trump's basic con is that he's going to bring something to people who feel aggrieved or that they need something. That he is fighting on their behalf. But again, it's not even that Trump doesn't deliver what he promises. Those people are not even really being conned: They know that Trump is a con artist. But they admire the fact that Trump can push back, that he can thumb his nose at the law and rules and norms, that he can abuse the law — and everyone else, for that matter — and get away with it. A big part of why Trump's followers are captivated by him is because he's basically saying "fuck you" to everyone and getting away with it. Donald Trump is a type of outlaw.

As a criminologist, what do you see when you look at Donald Trump?

I am looking at how Trump, throughout his lifetime, has been involved with fraud and deception. I see Trump as one of America's most successful outlaws. Why? Because he's been violating the law virtually every day of his life. He has not been charged once with a criminal offense. That's genius. That is just phenomenal.

This man's been accused of sexual assault, tax evasion, money laundering, nonpayment of employees and defrauding of tenants, customers, contractors, investors, bankers and charities. Yet has never been charged with any crime.

Donald Trump knows the law inside and out. When you've been a litigant who has been involved with 4,000 lawsuits, and have been the plaintiff in most of those cases, you get to know the law. Donald Trump knows how to play the law. In part, that is why he has been successful in weaponizing it.

What is the secret of Trump's success, in terms of never being held truly accountable for his crimes and all his fraudulent or unethical business activities? 

Trump hooked up with Roy Cohn back in the 1970s, during the first lawsuit involving Trump and his father, Fred Trump Sr. It was for housing discrimination. Fred Sr. gave Donald the job of going out and finding an attorney, and Donald connected with Cohn, who he had admired from a distance.

Cohn became a surrogate father and a mentor, in a sense. Trump learned how to deny things, how to sensationalize things, how to weaponize the law and how, even when you lose, you can still win by spinning events in the public eye. More than anything else, Donald Trump learned that, if possible, you never settle. Well, Trump settles sometimes, but he has only lost a small percentage of his cases. He has won the overwhelming majority of them because he wears people down. He goes on for so long that most people don't have the deep pockets to go the distance.

Trump enjoys litigation. He doesn't even care if he wins or loses a case, because whichever it is, he spins it as though he won. Why do Trump's lies work? Because he says them so many times, that after a while, people quit trying to repudiate the lie. They give up.

Some of the psychologists and other mental health experts I've spoken to have said that in other circumstances Trump would have been a petty criminal and gone to jail. What are your thoughts?

Perhaps Donald Trump would have gotten into trouble and gotten caught. But given how introverted he really is, with all his insecurities, I don't know that he would have even aspired, or had the nerve, to be a hood or a criminal. I'm not sure Donald would have been doing street crime. I just don't see it. I don't think he has the nerve.

What do you make of Trump's likely defense that he didn't really know what was happening on Jan. 6, 2021? That other people were acting without his knowledge, and that he is innocent or ignorant about such things?

On Jan. 6, Trump knew precisely the whole time what was going on. He was loving every minute of it. Everything he has done in his whole life has been with malice aforethought.

He knew everything. Donald Trump knew precisely the whole time what was going on. He was aware. Donald Trump is such a great performer that if he wanted to plead that he was crazy or that he was insane — and I am saying that tongue in cheek — I believe that he could pull it off. And we know how hard it is to pull off an insanity defense. He would be successful, and he'd tell you, "This is the greatest insanity defense you've ever heard." Yes, I am saying this as a joke, but Trump does not lack the knowledge to do this. And he doesn't lack the intent. Everything Trump has done in his whole life has been with regularity and malice aforethought.

One of the issues that comes up about Donald Trump and his apparent crimes is the question of whether he is actually capable of knowing right from wrong.

Donald Trump certainly knows the difference between right and wrong. On Jan. 6, Trump was sitting there when everybody was telling him, "Donald, you've got to stop this." He was loving every minute of it. He knew what was going on. The fact that he didn't stop what was happening at the Capitol is evidence of consciousness of guilt or intent. He knew what was transpiring. It's what he wanted to happen!

So many people are going to testify before they even get to Donald Trump. They won't even need him at that point. Donald Trump will not be able to successfully defend himself by saying he was an idiot.

You said you were joking about this, but could Trump mount a successful insanity defense?

Here is an important distinction. "The Donald," the persona and the character, could pull it off. But Donald Trump the real person can't. Donald Trump the real person cannot reveal that side of his vulnerability. He couldn't conceive that he wasn't a genius. He couldn't acknowledge that he was crazy. The Donald Trump character could do all of those things.

So at the end of this long story, does Donald Trump go to jail? There are folks who have convinced themselves that such an outcome is inevitable, that he will finally be punished for his crimes. I am of the mind that there is no way that happens. Rich white men like Donald Trump are largely above the law in America.

If Trump is acquitted, then he doesn't go to jail. If there's one juror who says no, then Trump is a free man. If there's a unanimous verdict, I believe that he'll be punished. If Trump is not actually incarcerated, he'll be on a short leash. He'll be under supervision. Perhaps he will be allowed to stay at Mar-a-Lago. Donald Trump is a stain on the presidency. He deserves to be locked up.

How dangerous is Trump? I have consistently tried to warn people that he is very dangerous, quite likely the most dangerous person in America. But you are a criminologist: Am I exaggerating?

He's as dangerous as anyone could be.

Read more on our 45th president and his never-ending campaign:

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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