From Donald Trump to George Santos, fraud cases expose the gullibility of rich conservatives

Their victims were bankers, tech bros, and GOP donors — what they have in common is giant egos fit for manipulation

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 12, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

George Santos and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
George Santos and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

For that subset of "true crime" fans who have a penchant for fraud stories, October is turning into a plethora of high-profile cases. Donald Trump is facing civil prosecution for his decades of defrauding banks, investors, insurance companies, and tax assessors. Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced CEO of FTX, is standing criminal trial on accusations that all that cryptocurrency trading was just cover for lots and lots of fraud. And Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., got hit with another round of indictments for defrauding campaign donors, including just taking their credit card information and apparently buying nice things for himself with it. 

For the accused, things have not been looking great. These new charges against Santos follow a guilty plea from his campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, suggesting she's turning state's witness against him. Bankman-Fried has also lost control of his co-conspirator, former girlfriend Caroline Ellison, who has pled guilty and testified for hours against him at trial on Tuesday. Trump, whose social media presence resembles a coked-up chimpanzee on good day, is doing worse than usual in the face of daily evidence that his "wealth" was composed of lies more than real money. In response to being removed from the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans, Trump screeched repeatedly on Truth Social that Forbes "is controlled by Communist China" and accused them of conspiring with the New York attorney general. 

It's fun watching such bad guys face the music, but there is one thing all these cases are lacking, if one craves a satisfying tale of crime and punishment: Sympathetic victims. Trump's schemes mostly involved swindling banks and insurance companies. Santos allegedly cheated and outright stole from Republican donors. And Bankman-Fried's empire was built on the backs of the kinds of tech bros who, when they're not gushing about the glories of cryptocurrency, are arguing that Elon Musk is a super genius. Different, if overlapping, victim pools, but they mostly have two things in common: They tend to embrace reactionary politics and they are extremely hard to feel sorry for. 

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This may surprise a lot of people, but unsympathetic victims are common in fraud cases. Conmen prefer to exploit people's base instincts, such as greed or arrogance. That's also why the victims of these crimes are disproportionately from the right side of the political spectrum. There's nothing a fraudster loves more than a potential mark who believes he is smarter, savvier, or more entitled than everyone else. Right wing politics not only draws such people in, but once in, the rhetoric of conservatism convinces them even further that they know better than the "sheeple." An overblown self-opinion, common in GOP circles, is a sign on your back that says "Swindle me." 

There's been a lot of attention paid to how Bankman-Fried publicly positioned himself as a liberal figure, donating heavily to Democrats and talking up a big game about "effective altruism." But when one digs in even a little deeper, that narrative starts to collapse. Most of the journalists who were hyping FTX and cryptocurrency weren't "liberal" in any meaningful sense of the word. The glowing coverage came mostly from the tech and business press, which are mostly apolitical, if not downright conservative. As the Washington Post's in-depth reporting reveals, Bankman-Fried donated "$5.2 million to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign," but "the campaign had never even bothered to call him." Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sat down to dinner with the cryptocurrency trader. 

More to the point, the chatter about "effective altruism" that Bankman-Fried used to paint himself as a noble figure may have borrowed its aesthetics from liberal academia, but it's just the same right wing arguments we've heard for decades. It's the "noblesse oblige" posturing of 19th-century industrialists, who pretended that building a few museums made up for grinding underpaid workers into dust. Or with Ronald Reagan's "trickle down" economics that pretended we'd all (eventually!) see a share of the massive fortunes hoarded by the extremely wealthy. As philosopher Émile P. Torres pointed out in Salon, the people pushing "effective altruism" are often also infatuated with other far-right ideas like eugenics.

But looking past pseudo-philosophy to the material victims of FTX is even more clarifying. Simply put, crypto preyed on libertarian dweebs. It's a group that may not be religious, but otherwise tends to the right on environmentalism, economics and culture war hotspots like gender and race equality. These are the same folks propping up far-fight "intellectuals" like Jordan Peterson or Richard Hanania, men who use fake science to prop up reactionary politics, instead of waving a Bible around. 

It's also a group of mostly men whose faith in their own intelligence far outstrips reality. It makes them forever susceptible to crackpot economic theories, from clinging to the gold standard or arguing that income taxes are unconstitutional. Crypto preyed on that libertarian desire to feel smarter about money than everyone else, proving of course that the opposite is true. 

Crypto bros are just the most ridiculous version of the same phenomenon. Trump's victims may have been more traditional bankers, but it appears he used similar theatrical tactics to hoodwink them out of looking too closely at what he was selling and how little value it actually had. He threw money around, put his name on everything, and, crucially, used threats of legal action to silence most people who would dare publicly question his shell game. In theory, banks shouldn't have been wowed by all this silly behavior. In practice, however, Trump's fakery worked shockingly well to loosen up cash reserves from people who really should have known better. 

But while their schticks are very different, Trump and Bankman-Fried were working the same grift: Appealing to the ego needs of their mostly conservative marks. Flattering them into thinking they're in on the ground floor of something novel, adventurous, and bold, whether it's 21st-century tech of crytpocurrency, or the Reagan era-style of capitalist boosterism that Trump hails from. The key, always, is to flatter the mark into thinking he's part of something beyond the reach of mortal humans, so he doesn't look too closely to see if that gold you're selling him is really just painted-up pieces of wood.

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Compared to these two, Santos is a small-time player in the fraud game, allegedly screwing people over for hundreds of thousands — at the most, a few million — instead of the billion-dollar scams Trump and Bankman-Fried are accused of running. But his scheme operated on similar logic. After years of allegedly running other nickel-and-dime scams, Santos appears to have concluded, for good reason, that the GOP donation pool is composed of easily shaken down marks. And, in his two-bit way, he played them like fiddles. Holding himself out as a gay and Latino Republican was its own spin on Bankman-Fried's "effective altruism" schtick: A way to convince greedy reactionaries that they're actually good people. It's a lie, but a lucrative one. 

Obviously, there are shady characters from both sides of the aisle, as the recent indictments of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., show. Notably, however, Menendez's alleged crimes are about bribery and influence-peddling, not fraud. That's certainly not because Menendez is a good person. On the contrary, what he's alleged to have done, in terms of sharing information on American diplomats, could have caused real harm to innocent people. No, it's probably just that defrauding Democrats is a lot harder to do than defrauding Republicans, and so a lot fewer people are tempted down that pathway. 

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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Commentary Donald Trump George Santos Sam Bankman-fried