I once saw a steel briefcase filled with strips of black construction paper that were tied neatly into fat bundles.

To me, it looked like the first step of a highly professional Halloween craft project, but to the U.S. Secret Service it was evidence in a criminal wire fraud case that landed a local man in prison.

It’s been many years, but the briefcase taught me an important lesson. Every good con man has an accomplice and it’s often the person who’s being conned.

The hero of our story started out as the victim. He got hooked by some international operators over the internet, who convinced him they had a can’t-miss scheme.

To him, the briefcase was a box of money that had been dyed black by corrupt African officials trying to sneak it out of their country.

Our guy was convinced that all he had to do to get a share of the loot was to bring the black paper into the country and daub it with a special chemical to remove the dye and turn the strips into $100 bills.


The solution would cost very little money, which he was happy to pay, but there were problems. The chemist needed some  ingredients, so our hero sent a little more real money of his own. Then the chemist needed to bribe officials to get a permit to leave the country, so he sent a little more.

Then the chemist got arrested, needed more bribe money and our guy sent it. It was worth it – he had millions in the briefcase.

Pretty soon, he had sent all of his own money, and started raising more from others. He didn’t tell his “investors” what he was up to, just promised them big returns.

When the magic fluid failed to materialize, he was left with a briefcase full of worthless paper and a federal indictment.

Imagination is a powerful thing. Anthropologists believe that our ability to envision things that don’t exist is what separates us from the rest of the animal world and is responsible for all the accomplishments of human history.

But it can also get us into a lot of trouble.


This is what I think of when I hear people wonder when Donald Trump’s supporters are going to abandon him. The answer is never. The hook is in too deep.

People hate to admit that they were wrong. They hate to admit that they believed a lie. They hate to think that they fell for a con man.

They would rather tell themselves their own lies to keep the game going.

It’s easy to see when someone else is doing it, much harder when it’s you.

Every day, I see otherwise reasonable people twist themselves in knots trying to make excuses for the president as evidence of corruption mounts.

When he’s caught lying you hear, “everybody lies.” He abuses his power and you hear, “the other side is worse.”


When he mangles a complicated situation, like destabilizing Syria and leading to the slaughter of our Kurdish allies – something he apparently did on a whim to please Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan – you hear “he’s playing four-dimensional chess.”

The guy who ran on a promise to drain the swamp is running the swampiest administration since U.S. Grant. Five cabinet secretaries have had to resign under the cloud of corruption charges, and close associates of the president are in prison. And that doesn’t even account for the latest scam – pressuring Ukraine to get involved in the 2020 presidential election.

Trump will almost certainly be impeached by the House, but when there is a trial in the Senate, 20 Republicans would have to abandon him to remove him from office.

Before that could happen, some large part of 60 million people would have to admit that they made a terrible mistake, they got conned by the most obvious con man in America.

Trump’s poll numbers are extraordinarily durable. Nothing he does can make them go up or down more than a few points.

Part of that comes from our fractured media environment, where people can choose the news that makes them feel better instead of confronting stories that challenge their point of view.

But a big part of this is our built-in reluctance to accept that we’ve been fooled.

You can only con yourself for so long, however. There’s going to be a reckoning.

The sooner everybody accepts that the treasure chest we bought is full of worthless paper, the better off we’ll be.

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