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The decade the hucksters overran the halls of power

In this decade, the rich scammed the poor.

Feb 28, 2020, 3:05 pm*

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Mike Rothschild

Opinion

The term “grift” once implied small-scale swindling by petty crooks insinuating their way into the lives of the rich and powerful. 

But in the last decade, it’s become the rich and powerful who are trying to scam everyone else.  

Now, the halls of power are stacked with people trying to separate others from their money, houses, and livelihood. 

In the 2010s, society learned we’d always been the marks. 

It’s every conspiracy theorist and fringe pundit cashing in off their small followings, every expensive wellness products that does nothing for you, every hedge fund whiz kid who made a boatload of money, every start-up that offloaded labor and costs onto employees, and in particular, everyone around President Donald Trump. 

Because if policy starts in Washington and travels out, so too do the hucksters. 

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It seemed impossible to catch even the slightest amount of news and not hear a story about someone connected to the Trump administration profiting off their association with the president—or profiting off the near-evangelical fervor that many of his supporters have.

It’s impossible to overstate just how intertwined the president and his inner circle is with money-making schemes based on his status. Trump himself has been relentless in using his bully pulpit to promote his family business and his properties. 

From spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway exhorting Fox News viewers to “buy Ivanka’s stuff” to the over 170 tweets mentioning his hotels or golf courses to the hundreds of visits to Trump properties from White House staffers to the short-lived announcement that Trump would hold the next G7 meeting at his own club, there seemed to be no end to the ways in which the Trumps would monetize the Oval Office.

Grifters made it into the upper ranks of the Trump administration: Short-lived acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was linked to World Patent Marketing, a company that charged inventors hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote bizarre inventions like a “masculine toilet” and time-travel technology. 

The company was hit with a slew of complaints and lawsuits, and then an eight-figure fine before being shut down for good in 2017—just in time for Whitaker, who served as a board member for the company, to become Trump’s top cop. 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was hit with allegations he’d stolen over $120 million from his own companies through dodgy stock deals, former EPA head Scott Pruitt was pushed out of office over allegations that he’d charged taxpayers for personal trips around the world, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson was accused of spending over $31,000 of taxpayer money on a dining room table for his office.

It’s not just about a lack of ethics, it’s a desire to fleece anyone you can for anything they’re worth before they realize they’re getting ripped off. 

And a base of fervent Trump supporters was willing to model itself after the president. A veritable merchandising industry exploded around the president’s image, tweets, and beefs with various people. 

YouTube conspiracy theorist Bill Mitchell parlayed his unceasing devotion to the president into a scheme where he sold overpriced bullets with Trump’s face on the box. Trump’s campaign auctioned off meals with the president, only for none of them to take place. 

Disgraced TV preacher Jim Bakker found a particularly lucrative avenue: He teamed up with evangelical media figure (and hardcore conspiracy theorist) Lance Wallnau to sell a $45 gold coin printed with Trump’s face praying next to Persian empire founder King Cyrus. 

It promoted “The 70 Year Decree” and the “Cyrus-Trump Proclamation.” Bakker and Wallnau claimed that the coin would serve as a “point of contact” for those praying Trump gets re-elected in 2020. How does a gold-plated coin help one contact the Almighty, anyway? Nobody knew, but even in a time when almost anyone can cash in by slapping Trump’s face on overpriced merchandise, invoking God and King Cyrus seemed a bit over the line.

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Pro-Trump conspiracy theories also became a lucrative profit center for those who pushed them. And as much as anyone, the story of the grift of the 2010s runs through Alex Jones. The conspiracy theory media mogul transformed paranoia and logical fallacies into an empire that netted him as much as $5 million in 2014. 

Jones built his marketing machine on a constant public presence, broadcasting an endless stream of bizarre rants, incoherent accusations, and uncut paranoia for hours a day.

But the bulk of Jones’ income came from selling a dizzying array of merchandise and untested supplements. Compounds like “Super Male Vitality” and “Brain Force” made the conspiracy guru millions of dollars in income. Did they actually do anything? No, but helping people wasn’t the ethos of the decade.

It was getting yours while you still could. 

Conspiracy-driven grift was everywhere, and none had more fraud than QAnon. The completely un-evidenced notion that Trump is leading a military intelligence operation against deep state pedophiles began in fall 2017 and allowed an army of online evangelists to steal from a scared group of believers. 

Over 3,500 posts, called “drops,” followed—and with them, a virtual merchandising empire. The “drops” posted by QAnon were interpreted in a range of books and by a cadre of prolific video makers who amassed six-figure YouTube followings by telling viewers what they think the cryptic messages and rhetorical questions posted by Q actually mean.

Amazon has thousands of QAnon-related items for sale, from T-shirts and coffee mugs to intricate artwork and jewelry. More than two years on, QAnon continues to draw in followers who willingly open their wallets, to the point where a book written by followers of the conspiracy spent several days as the No. 2 release on all of Amazon.

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Amid all of this was aided and amplified by a giant web of social media fakery and fake news. The biggest social platforms are awash in grift and scamming, to the point where none of them have any real control over it.

Facebook was forced to admit that it had massively inflated video views, shocking a number of media companies who had used the company’s metrics as an excuse to gut their editorial staffs and “pivot to video.” YouTube continues to struggle with fake views and spambots pumping up engagement. And despite Twitter’s attempts to crack down on fake followers, the site is still overwhelmed with bots.

Inflated video views weren’t the only scam Facebook struggles with. Thanks to changes the social media giant made in its Newsfeed in 2013, hoax stories were able to flourish, with dozens of pieces about non-existent news stories going viral. The site is still awash in fake news, fraudulent political ads, and hoax stories; to the point where the top 100 fake stories that went viral on the site racked up close to 160 million total views. 

Fake news sites and the sharing of fake stories on Facebook allowed conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, Democratic voter fraud in 2016, mass shootings actually being staged false flags, and anti-vaccine hoaxes all to enter the mainstream discourse. 

And as much as Mark Zuckerberg will have you believe it was built on the backs of his labor, it was your data that made it all possible.

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Every powerful industry had its face for fleecing this decade. One of the biggest advances in the tech industry turned out to also be one of the most exploitative: the “gig economy.” Short-term, task-to-task employment became the lifeline for millions of Americans who either graduated into crowded fields with stagnant wages or who never recovered from the recession of 2008. While some people find advantages here, many others do not. 

The gig economy is undermining hard-fought worker protections, leaving millions underinsured (or not at all), subjecting contractors to wage abuses and theft, and is rank with sexual exploitation.

The worst of all, and the griftiest, is Uber. While the company promises its “workers” unlimited flexibility, the ability to work as much or as little as they want, and nearly instant cash, it delivers little of this. Instead, drivers are stuck paying big cuts of their profits to the company, while still paying for their own insurance, gas, and repair costs. It even costs money to get your money out of your Uber debit card. 

Meanwhile, its founder Travis Kalanick, despite the flaws in its business model, the rampant problems within its culture, and the fact that it’s never turned a profit, is worth nearly $3 billion.

In healthcare, it was Martin Shkreli. The loathed hedge fund wiz obtained a license to manufacture Daraprim, the first-line medication for a fungal infection common in HIV patients, and jacked the price up from $13.50 to $750 per pill. And he became a punching bag for the entire internet’s rage over the cost of healthcare. 

It didn’t help that the “most hated man in America,” as he was dubbed, frequently sparred with critics on social media, lied to patients about lowering the price of the drug, and used the profits to finance lavish purchases. After all, it wasn’t his money. 

And the whole time he was committing securities fraud, running a massive Ponzi scheme. He was at least found guilty.

And if Shkreli was the king of 2010s grift, Elizabeth Holmes was his queen. The former engineering student became America’s youngest self-made billionaire based on the valuation of her company Theranos—promising to run dozens of blood tests with only one drop of blood, on a device she invented. She raised hundreds of millions in seed money, had her name on a dozen patents, pumped up Theranos’ value to $9 billion, and was making licensing deals with some of the biggest companies in America. 

Holmes was such a canny businesswoman that she assembled a massively powerful board of directors, including luminaries like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and William Perry; as well as former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former CDC head, and multiple business tycoons. They flocked to Holmes’ vision of the future of medicine, and of the giant gobs of money floating around it. 

All those powerful people were either very blind or extremely grift-oriented themselves, because everything Holmes concocted was a complicated con. The Theranos scanner never worked and all of its miraculous results were faked. Still, she was able to sell it. After a series of scathing articles and revelations exposing the grift, Theranos was sued out of existence, and Holmes was indicted on wire fraud charges. Her trial is set to begin in July.

Shkreli and Holmes may have been grifters of the more old-fashioned variety, but what they did wasn’t small scale. It was huge, involving massive companies, enormous media attention, Congressional hearings, and billions of dollars. In a decade where seemingly everyone was grabbing for a piece of the pie, and getting famous in the process, they grabbed the biggest piece and ate the most.

It’s the story of the decade. Lofty promises with nothing delivered, grabbing as much as you could before someone figured you had no business being there. 

Only problem is, now they all belong.  

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*First Published: Dec 12, 2019, 6:30 am