When historians look back on 2016, they should study a man with cartoonishly fake yellow hair, a penchant for lying and a ridiculous Twitter account for clues about the country’s mood. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump: I mean Joanne the Scammer, an internet creation in a blond wig and fur coat who seems to sum up the entire absurd free-for-all that is our current moment.
Joanne is a drag character created by Branden Miller, a 25-year-old former amateur porn star from Florida. In scripted videos, tweets and Instagram posts, Joanne is shown shoplifting, falsifying her identity and using other people’s PayPal accounts to buy things — general criminal behavior carried out under a cheaply glamorous facade, a “messy bitch who lives for the drama” (in her own words). Joanne was something of a serialized meme all year as well as a spiritual leader for strange times — an ironic play on the modern self-help guru who, instead of urging us to be a better person, indulged the worst in all of us. “I don’t try to be perfect, I try to be petty,” “Lying has improved my skin complexion,” and “Who needs a man’s dick when you’ve got his bank account” were just a few of the popular mantras she posted on her Twitter, which has around 700,000 followers.
Joanne’s popularity was not random: She ascended at and epitomizes a cultural moment of scams both big and small.
What exactly defines a scam? It is a heist made personal, in which the targets are actual people — often the vulnerable, the trusting or the blind. It is a most noxious brand of larceny that took center stage this year, as small breaks in the dam of the social contract (and common decency) turned into a flood. Just look at 2016 and the long list of odd scams, both silly and serious, that broke through the news cycle all year. Jeremih, the R&B singer, sent a body double to perform for him in Houston, Texas in December so that he could collect a check without having to show up. An employee at The Verge, a Vox-owned tech site, was discovered in September to be simultaneously working at Apple, receiving, it would seem, paychecks from each place and compromising the integrity of both. And then there was Theranos — a company granted a billion-dollar valuation in 2015 — whose CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, promised to change the future of blood testing and health services. By 2016, the company was under criminal investigation for misleading investors and government about its technology.
But the real source of the scam’s success in 2016 was its embrace by those at the top. Think of Brexit, which was labeled a “working-class revolt” but was led by right-wing politicians who spent their entire careers “giv[ing] more power to employers and less to workers,” according to The Guardian. The Brexit propaganda campaign vowed to redirect EU funding to the hurting National Health Service — a promise that was walked back the very morning after the vote. Mere months after its passing, the Leave vote is now regrettedby as least as many voters as made up its margin of victory, as people realize they’ve been scammed.
But no one scammed harder this year than Donald Trump, who will go down as the most consequential scammer of the year and possibly in history — the scammer-in-chief, if you will. “Look at who the president can be! The fact that Donald Trump could win?” Joanne presciently told The Fader in an interview about her fellow scammer this spring. “He doesn’t even want to be president. It’s really just about popularity at this point.” Trump’s entire life has been a scam, resting on a smoke-and-mirrors identity as a capable captain of industry (his suit and tie as much a costume as Joanne’s furs) that was mostly forged through decades of fluffy publicity about how he’d do anything to make a buck. The campaign to get him elected was built on lies and promises that he could never keep but that somehow made a working man’s hero out of a Manhattanite who lives in a gilded penthouse.
Trump’s net worth is likely a scam — we don’t know if he even is a billionaire, as he says he is, because he’s declined to offer proof. Like most “reality” television, his show, The Apprentice, which made him a broadly popular figure in American households, was a scam. He didn’t write the scripts — or even come up with the iconic “You’re fired!” slogan — and the image of him as a steady, smart businessman is a calculated TV fiction, all the more a scam considering many of his actual businesses are glorified scams themselves: the for-profit Trump “University’s” false promises; the Trump casinos, temples to scamming; the Trump properties built by laborers who were scammed out of paychecks.
Like Joanne’s wig, even Trump’s uncanny hair is a scam, some embroidered mess meant to hide what’s underneath. Trump has claimed that climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese, but that ludicrous idea is the real scam, since it’s many of Trump’s supporters in the South who will be affected most by its ravages. Though Trump won the electoral college, he lost the popular vote by a historic margin, sneaking his way into the White House via some 80,000 swing voters in Rust Belt states who may or may not have been persuaded by the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s email server by the spies of another top scammer, Vladimir Putin. Most painfully, Trump built his campaign on the ultimate scam, the scam of whiteness, a fiction of genetic superiority that was originally affirmed by American slave-owners to provide biological justification for their deeds, and which has now been reignited into a sense of white victimhood, scapegoating immigrants for the economic pain of job-displacing globalization and technology.
Equally unsettling was seeing trusted institutions also scamming and being scammed. There were the political media and the polls that lulled us — and likely Hillary Clinton — into a false complacency that Trump would never win. There was the old-guard DNC, plotting behind our backs to anoint Clinton as the candidate of the Democratic Party and undermine the millennial-backed Bernie Sanders. The hacking scam against John Podesta’s email account showed, ironically, that Clinton herself was mostly scam-free — perhaps her biggest deficit in an era when only scams can get you the gold. Still, the constant stream of bad email news contributed to an unearned aura of scamminess around her campaign.
Then there was Jill Stein, who used the platform of the ultra-liberal Green Party to assert that Clinton was just as bad as — if not worse! — than Trump. She is now involved in another possible heist (called a “Stein scam” by someone who knows a scam when he sees one), raising money for a recount of votes in three states, with unclear motivations and damning fine print about what will happen to leftover funds. And of course, there was the scourge of “fake news,” which had incalculable effects on the electorate. This was doubly offensive as it was fostered by Facebook, an organization we have entrusted with the most personal details of our lives. The scam, we found out, was coming from inside the house.
In retrospect, it is obvious that the scam as zeitgeist emerged out of real necessity: College loans are crippling, the job market is iffy and many of us are working part-time or freelancing (which feels, too often, like another scam). Rents are inordinately high, wages have flatlined, home ownership seems near-impossible, and even average life expectancy has, in an unprecedented turn, gone down in this country. Who could blame anyone for sympathizing with a scammer, someone who’d do whatever it takes to get theirs in a post-recession economy that’s split the 1 percent — who scammed the economy and then got hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer bailout as a reward — even farther from the regular folk? Underneath the surface of Donald Trump and Joanne the Scammer’s appeal is the anguish that traditional modes of achieving success are now entirely bankrupt — scamming, it seems, is all we’ve got.
“People have been getting scammed for years and they’re sick of it. Like I said, the fact that I came out and admitted to doing these things, people look at me as powerful. They want to say it. People are doing it in their daily lives and they are using me as their outlet,” Joanne told The Fader. That’s what led to the rise of Trump, a scammer, yes, but one who “told it like it is” by saying that if everybody is always scamming all the time, at least he’s the only one admitting it. He was a scammer willing to call out other people’s scams — the Clintons and even his own Republican party for their decades of scamming voters out of jobs and into wars. At least that made him, in his own terrifying way, appear more honest, more realistic, more meta, more candid than his adversaries. At least his scam was on the surface, voters might have thought.
But, as Trump fans will soon discover, the scam always — always — ends in pain and empty pockets. As anyone who has been truly scammed — by Bernie Madoff, by bad mortgages, by Trump University — will tell you, the entire point of the scam is that it feels wonderful until it doesn’t. Trump has already shown his stacked deck by filling his cabinet with the same sorts of people he promised to banish. The real caper all along was that he played the part of the populist but was really just a conventional plutocrat hoping to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. The only consolation in all this mess is that the vast majority of the country is now united by the scam, and Trump voters, like all of us, might soon wake up in an America that no longer has remotely affordable health care (which poor Republicans rely on as much as poor Democrats) or even Social Security or Medicare; that still doesn’t have a wall along our Southern border but does have much more expensive consumer goods, thanks to trade wars and tariffs; that has no new manufacturing jobs here but plenty of job openings at Trump hotels in Taiwan.
And so I say this with no scorn toward Trump voters or anyone else: Scamming will only get worse in 2017, and it is probably time to bone up on your own plots and machinations to meet an administration that is incredibly prepared to fleece us for everything we’ve got. After all, there is but one cardinal rule in the art of the scam — which Joanne tweeted, and we all should have heeded, and that we’ll all need to get through the next four years and beyond: Scam today, before today scams you.