If 2018 was “grifter season,” and 2019 the year of the grifts that never ended, 2020 was the year that grift became so ubiquitous that it folded itself into our daily lives, much like flour into a loaf of lockdown sourdough. We live now in a universe packaged and maintained by grift, with dishonesty and self-promotion propping up every big-box store, every apartment building, and just about every single one of our jobs. With the coming vaccines and the Biden administration, some may think the age of grift will end, that honesty and decency will return to the public sphere, that the mega-billionaires who thoroughly enjoyed 2020 are not in fact pandemic profiteers but just really smart guys who deserve their wealth (which will undoubtedly trickle down to all of us). Grifts work because people choose to believe them; the good people of Springfield fell for monorail hustler Lyle Lanley because he sang a catchy song. The next time one of Elon Musk’s rockets explodes or a U.S. senator quietly makes millions on insurance stocks during a national crisis, remember that we have been sung a catchy song, and the disaster is upon us.
As always, Griftie winners are chosen by the distinguished Academy of Confidence Arts and Scammer Sciences. Attempts this year to introduce a meta-grift category—for the grift that grifts itself—resulted in mass hallucinations and a temporary halt to proceedings. In addition, we regret to announce that once again, Current Affairs and Editor-in-Chief Nathan J. Robinson have been declared ineligible for the Grifties. As one member of the Academy put it, “surely if Current Affairs was a grift-based enterprise, they would join the cancel culture beat already and make some fucking money.”
CORONAVIRUS CON ARTISTS
- Alex Berenson, COVID denialist
For a quick and easy grift, take a public health disaster or other tragedy and declare it the true grift, a conspiracy, a grand lie pulled over the eyes of the unsuspecting public. What’s REALLY going on? What is the government up to? What should the wised-up reader do, if they want to be truly informed? Why, they must read your books, available now on Amazon.com, able to be downloaded or shipped in a blink by exhausted wage slaves. While these same Amazon workers go on strike to protest the superspreader conditions of their work environments, the public may rest assured, based on the deliberately misleading writing of Alex Berenson and others like him, that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. The millions of recorded deaths are inflated, or maybe people would have died anyway, or maybe they died because of the lockdown, or whatever other excuse is suitable for the moment. That these assertions are false and heinous doesn’t matter; what matters is that Berenson moves those book units and gets engagement on those concern-troll tweets, gaining more and more followers every day. Line goes up.
- Andrew Cuomo, Presidential Aspirant
Pound-of-flesh for pound-of-flesh, it’s hard to think of anyone who benefited more from coronavirus while simultaneously being responsible for so many deaths. Mismanaging the early crisis, the governor failed to shut down the state of New York in a timely manner, condemned people in nursing homes to the plague, and let scheduled hospital cuts go ahead in the city’s darkest hour. But he was on TV. Americans love a guy on TV so much that many people even convinced themselves that Andrew Cuomo was a handsome and cool guy. After all, he was saying bad things about the other guy who got famous for being on TV! Now, Cuomo has written a successful book that’s stuffed full of lies, has managed to spin a series of disasters as expert leadership, and has been outed as a notorious sexual harasser, but nobody cares. He’s presidential material.
- Joni Ernst, Senator and Vaccine Appreciator
Many, many Republican politicians have denied or downplayed the coronavirus, labelling it a secret neo-Marxist plot or an infringement on the freedom of richer Americans to torment and infect every service worker they see. But no one is more galling than Senator Ernst, who claimed that the numbers of coronavirus cases had been overstated for the purposes of Medicare fraud. This is relatively minor on the scale of COVID crimes: Ernst, however, didn’t just cash in on the pride and anxiety of her state’s residents in order to boost her profile and her campaign donations. She did all that, and then she got the fucking vaccine. In fact, many of the Republicans who called the coronavirus a hoax have meekly submitted to the vaccine, long before grocery store workers have received their first dose. This, we’re told, is a good photo op and helps build public trust. A more lasting impression, however, might be their heads on spikes.
- Kelly Loeffler, Senator and Possible Greed Demon
Loeffler is so venal it’s almost comic; change her name to Lady Gorge and she would be a villain worthy of Dickens. The richest U.S. senator, Loeffler proudly brags that she is also the most conservative, touting her record of voting in lockstep with Trump’s entire agenda. But her true passion isn’t locking children in cages or denying women access to reproductive health care (though she’s very into that as well): it’s being corrupt as shit. Loeffler is so corrupt that prosecuting her is quite difficult. Like Trump, she’s done so many crimes it’s hard to know where to start. Her financial conflicts of interest are long-running and complex to the point where it seems she may have spent every single moment of her year-long senate career involved in malfeasance. Her most famous grift, of course, occurred when she and other senators sat in on a top-secret coronavirus briefing in January and promptly sold off stocks that might be affected. Loeffler managed to escape consequences, or any sense of shame; in March, her husband just so happened to buy stock in industries that were about to benefit from the CARES act, even though the full details of the bill hadn’t yet been announced to the public. It’s unlikely that Loeffler will ever get in trouble for this; senators make sketchy insider trades all the time with few consequences. Also, Loeffler lives in a $10.5 million dollar house while many Americans starve. This too is not considered a crime.
THE POLITICAL PROCESS RESPECTERS
- Sarah Eaglesfield, Data Scientist
In America, no con is too small, no attention-grab too pathetic. In the attempt to prove that Trump was bested not by voters but by a coordinated, multi-state conspiracy to elect notorious radical Joe Biden, many low-level grifters threw their personal brands in the ring. Citing a need to crunch 100 GB of voter data, Eaglesfield asked for followers to buy her a maxed-out $50k Mac Pro. Otherwise, she explained, auditing the data would take a long time. Eaglesfield’s nomination is not for the quality of her grift but for the charm of it; her fraud is as sweet and homespun as apple pie.
- The Lincoln Project
The bloated corporate version of the mom-and-pop apple pie grift, the folks at the Lincoln Project—a coalition of “Never Trump” Republicans and other professional dorks—have managed to separate quite a number of #Resistance fools from their money. While ostensibly funding Democratic campaigns, the Lincoln Project has funneled a large chunk of the donations into ensuring its cadre of “consultants” gets paid very, very well. This could be viewed as some kind of sinister Republican plot to target innocent Democratic voters, but it’s simultaneously more banal and more depraved. This is “non-ideological” centrism at work in its purest state: Washington business-as-usual, where the purpose of any action is to make sure more milquetoast centrists get elected, who will proceed only to ensure more milquetoast centrists get elected, as they are the only “electable” candidates. In the process, everyone gets rich as Croesus, spending it all on bland suits and American flag pins and prim D.C. mansions full of beige, interchangeable corridors through which their own empty minds echo in the middle of the night.
- The DNC and the Shadow app
How do we know the Democrats didn’t steal the presidency? Because they would have botched the shit out of it. A good grift takes a certain finesse; as much as we may despise those who profit off others, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching someone get away with a truly elegant con. The DNC’s Shadow app was the opposite of a “good” grift: the executives of Acronym, the company that designed the app, may have gotten away with extorting a solid chunk of change from the DNC, but the app itself spectacularly combusted on the night of the Iowa caucuses. It remains possible, in theory, that the app was designed to blow up, and deny Bernie Sanders his probable victory; I think it more likely—based on the DNC’s involvement and subsequent denial of their role—that if Shadow was built to misrecord numbers, it was meant to do so quietly. Don’t worry: despite their public humiliation, the good people at Acronym and the DNC will continue to fail up.
- The Michael Bloomberg campaign
Maybe the most fun kind of grift is the grift-within-a-grift, such as when employees decide to eat their hollow employer from the inside out. This was the state of the Michael Bloomberg campaign. The stated purpose of Bloomberg’s short expensive run was not to win, but to prevent Sanders from taking the presidency; because no one believed in Bloomberg as a candidate, his staff freely slacked off, pocketed their impressive salaries, and did a few desultory social media posts. One staffer confessed to canvassing for Bernie while they were supposed to be knocking doors for Bloomberg. “‘Most people knew this was a grift,’” said an anonymous campaign official quoted in the Nation. Fun fact: just about all work in this country can safely be classified as a grift, so you should grift your employer while you can.
- Jared Kushner and the Trump campaign
You have to be a really special kind of Kendall Roy to grift your own father-in-law out of a coup. For months, the Trump campaign raked in huge numbers of donations that appeared to evaporate almost immediately. It was clear there was a massive gap between the amount of money the campaign was earning and the amount it spent on advertising—where on Earth did it go? Right into the pockets of Jared Kushner and other Trump family members. A shell company created by Kushner “secretly paid the president’s family members and spent almost half of the campaign’s $1.26 billion war chest,” Business Insider reported. At the same time, Kushner was supposed to be planning the legal effort to contest the election if necessary, a responsibility which he delegated down to other people, who thought he was on top of it; omg group projects right??? Maybe the key difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans tend to trip over their own incompetence, whereas for Democrats incompetence is both a way of life and a convenient excuse. Either way, these people never, ever suffer the consequences of their actions.
2 SCRAPPY 2 SHAMELESS
The Academy considered disqualifying this entry, on the grounds that surely a grift attempt this obvious and over-the-top breaks all the hallowed customs of con artistry. After much debate, they chose to include it, on the grounds that it may be a form of meta-grift (as stated above, discussion on this matter devolved as multiple members of the Academy began to hallucinate and run from the conference room). In brief: Christie Smythe was a successful, married journalist who met notorious dillweed Martin Shkreli. Unable to sell a book deal on the subject of Shkreli, she left her husband and appears to be attempting to re-angle her book proposal as the tale of a scorned woman who fell in love with a charming sociopath. The grift falls apart to some degree, as Shkreli has all the sex appeal of a chewed-up wad of gum that’s also short and whines at you, but beyond that it’s unclear who is grifting who. Was Shkreli using Smythe for attention and sympathy? Did Smythe, in attempting to grift a grifter, get grifted herself, or is she fully aware of the con? Are they both trying to sell us on the idea of them as interesting people? We’ll see when the inevitable Hulu miniseries comes out.
- Neal Katyal, #Resistance hero and child slavery apologist
Author of Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump, Katyal has successfully parlayed himself into a lucrative career as a guy you may see on MSNBC while you accidentally walk by the television at your parents’ place. As a lawyer and an impassioned anti-Trumper, Katyal is against child separation at the border. He’s also for child slavery. Arguing in court on behalf of Nestle and Cargill—American companies which rely on the trafficked and unpaid labor of African children—Katyal said that corporations should not be held liable for just a lil’ bit of slavery that happens under their watch. With a remarkable lack of irony, he cited the fact that the Nuremberg prosecutors did not hold the makers of Zyklon B liable for the fact that their product was used as a weapon of mass murder. Later, Katyal took to the airwaves to complain that it was unfair that he should be held accountable simply for doing his job. If I were reliant on the Nuremberg trials for precedent, I might not make that particular argument.
- Joe and Hunter Biden, father and son grifter duo
Under different circumstances, Joe and Hunter Biden’s corruption would be remarkable, even notorious. But our political process is so wildly out of pocket that the Bidens’ individual or separate grifts are barely worth a shrug, or the inevitable fierce accusation of secret Republicanism for even daring to bring it up. There’s really no doubt whatsoever that Joe Biden has helped his son land well-paying gigs that he’s entirely unsuited for; this is, of course, ordinary practice among the rich and well-connected. The only thing duller than Hunter’s obvious bog-standard corruption are those grifting off “exposing” it to an audience that already knows the rich get ahead and stay ahead by giving sinecures to their clumsy, lazy children (see the Trump family entry, above). Joe Biden’s own corruption goes far beyond Hunter; between 2017-2019, UPenn paid him nearly a million dollars to do essentially nothing. Joe Biden didn’t teach classes, though he did make “a dozen or so” speeches. “The school was likely paying him for something else,” suggests the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the prestige of associating with a former vice president and global figure.” Once again, this is tedious, bog-standard corruption, so why should we care? Our own Finance Editor Sparky Abraham put it best: “In a sane world this would be seen as a Trump University-level grift. People are paying student loans thanks to Joe Biden’s sinecure.”
- Symone Sanders, currently a senior advisor and chief spokesperson for Kamala Harris
In last year’s Grifties ceremony, former Bernie Sanders national press secretary and then-current Biden senior advisor Symone Sanders was awarded the title of “Saddest” grift. It seemed plain to the Academy that Symone Sanders had abandoned whatever principles she’d once possessed and was milking the tottering Biden campaign for all it had. The joke, however, is clearly on the Academy. Symone Sanders not only successfully made a cool bundle of cash working for Joe Biden, she also managed to make him president despite the fact that he could be legally dead and nobody would notice. After Biden won, Symone Sanders successfully transitioned over to the Harris team, which is the likely center of real power in the Democratic Party for the next four years and possibly beyond. This is an astonishingly successful grift, and the Academy would like to salute Symone Sanders. She set back the progressive agenda for years and possibly doomed the entire planet in the process, but she sold her guy, and she’s doing great.
A new category specially created for 2020, Identity Thieves showcases the phenomenon of academic/extremely online people who have claimed a race that is not their own. Unlike many grifts, the purpose is rarely money or fame: for the most part, the reward appears to be attention, and in a few cases career advancement at the expense of real people of color. These rewards are generally minimal—mostly, and to the Academy’s great shock, these grifts are performed for Twitter likes. This has forced a recalibration of the Academy’s entire approach to Scammer Sciences. Rest assured, they are studying the matter thoroughly.
- BethAnn McLaughlin, academic and creator of “@Sciencing_Bi” a Hopi professor who never existed
McLaughlin is a slight variant from the usual race grifter in that she didn’t pretend to be a person of color, but merely to be that person’s friend. For years, McLaughlin maintained a fictional account in the name of @Sciencing_Bi, a bisexual Hopi academic at ASU who commented on the social justice news of the day and enthused over her in-person friendship with McLaughlin (which she demonstrated using what turned out to be stock photos.) Last summer, McLaughlin upped the ante by dramatically killing off @Sciencing_Bi, announcing from both @Sciencing_Bi’s account and her own that @Sciencing_Bi first had COVID, and then that she had died. By this point, @Sciencing_Bi had taken on a life (and death) of her own; people who believed @Sciencing_Bi was a real person were outraged that ASU had not taken sufficient coronavirus precautions or publicly mourned her death. This is when the grift fell apart, and McLaughlin finally admitted that @Sciencing_Bi was her invention. McLaughlin had previously founded MeTooSTEM, an organization dedicated to addressing the concerns of women and other marginalized people in STEM, which also fell apart due to McLaughlin’s alleged bigotry, aggressiveness, and lack of transparency (in particular, lack of transparency over the whereabouts of $79,000 raised through a GoFundMe). It doesn’t seem that the @Sciencing_Bi grift resulted in any income; McLaughlin’s impersonation of a Native woman at a time when Native people are being killed in disproportionate numbers by a plague appears to have been just for funsies.
- Elizabeth Warren, still just a senator
Elizabeth Warren is an O.G. race grifter, in that like many white people she claims to have Native American heritage based on a so-called “family story.” What sets Warren apart from the sort of white people who naively repeat a legend about a Cherokee grandmother, or the contemporary crop of the extremely online who pretend to be Native or invent a Native friend for clout, Warren successfully capitalized on her fake Native heritage. At a time when universities were under pressure to hire more people of color, but disinclined to actually do so, Warren claimed to be Native, thereby allowing herself to be listed as a woman of color and fill an unstated quota. Why bring this up now, when it was a 1990s era grift and this is the 2020 Grifties? Because Warren’s failed run for president lasted into 2020, and many of her supporters who normally blather about how much they care about listening to women of color were totally silent, or excused her. Race grifters may have become famous in 2020, but they’ve been around much longer than that, and they’re the only tribe to which Elizabeth Warren belongs.
- Jessica Krug, academic and accent specialist
In a Medium post that absolutely screams “cancel me, daddy,” academic Jessica Krug admitted that she’d been faking an Afro-Caribbean identity for years. While Krug may have leaned on her appropriated identity for career advancement (she was a fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) her grift seems to have been focused on more esoteric and elusive rewards than professional benefit. Certainly, she never intended to admit the truth of her identity as a white Jewish woman from Kansas; she was simply about to be outed, and confessed first. Our fascination with race grifters rests on the essential question of why: the financial rewards and the online attention are rarely that significant, so why pretend to be someone you’re not? Mental illness is often vaguely pointed to as the culprit, and while this may sometimes be the case it could also be a convenient pathologization. An anonymous tipster has informed the Academy that in high school, when Krug was still pretending to be white, she plagiarized The Hacker Manifesto, publishing it in the school’s literary magazine. After being caught she said she had “confused it with something she had written.” Is this “pathological” lying, or a delight in deception coupled with a refusal of responsibility, or is there a difference? After reading the Medium post, Finance Editor Sparky Abraham commented: “this looks to me like a much more primal stretch for attention, not even thinking past the pure performance of it.” What we may have here is simply grift for grift’s sake, perhaps along with the joy of appropriating pain that isn’t one’s own, which allows one to suffer without actually suffering.
- Hilaria Baldwin, “Spanish person”
Properly speaking, Hilaria Baldwin isn’t a “race” grifter, as she’s been pretending to be a white Spaniard, not a person of color. But she let herself be called Latina, and pretended to be unaccountably, dramatically foreign, insisting that her parents could not pronounce her new married surname of “Baldwin.” Her parents were born and raised in the United States; they retired to Spain only in 2011, around which time she evidently started prancing about like an off-Broadway Carmen. She faked a terrible accent, wore a mantilla to her wedding, and pretended on TV to forget the English word for cucumber. Yasmin Nair has called Hilaria Baldwin the definition of a grifter, and she certainly is that, but once again we are left with the question of why. Was it to make herself appear more exotic to her movie star boyfriend? Was it for the purposes of differentiating her personal brand? Is it just kind of fun sometimes to play pretend, and we live in a society that affords very few opportunities for adults to dress up and pretend to be somebody they’re not outside of Halloween and Comic Cons? Are we obsessed with identity grifters because as cruel as the act usually is, there’s something kind of seductive about the idea of living an entirely false life? Most of us have to live our real lives all the time, and they suck. Hilaria Baldwin is rich, influential, fake as hell, and beside this brief wave of public humiliation, she’s going to be just fine.
GRIFTER OF THE YEAR
- Elon Musk, pretend genius
Fake ventilators! Exploding rockets! Baby with a bullshit name! Richer than ever before! Elon Musk has had quite a year. The Academy has long been considering awarding Musk with a Lifetime Achievement Griftie, the first of its kind. But Musk’s antics, however astounding, have not earned him Grifter of the Year. 2020 was simply too dramatic. Yes, this year we learned that Tesla is wildly overvalued, the Hyperloop has been named “the world’s crappiest high-speed rail” and compared to the monorail from the Simpsons, Musk has made wild unscientific claims that the tech press has been afraid to challenge—but wasn’t that last year’s news, too? Better luck next year, Elon: if the Tesla Model Ys you’ve sold to the Westchester police manage to explode, and you successfully explain it away as terrorism or whatever while managing to keep the contract, you might earn that Griftie after all.
- Uber, Silicon Valley “company”
Between launching a successful campaign to prevent their California employees from being properly recognized as employees and gaining direct White House access through family connections, Uber has had a fantastic year. Their best grift, however, is an old one on slow boil: the snake oil of self-driving cars. It was always going to be next year, next year: the self-driving cars that would arrive and finally do away with all those pesky contractors who want to be treated as employees just because they work for a company that profits off their labor. Uber, like many Silicon Valley companies, actually has negative money: where, as an individual, having negative dollars means homelessness and destitution, for Uber it in fact meant more money. As journalist M. W. Bowman put it, Uber “raised BILLIONS in VC money by saying ‘sure, we have no path to profitability if we have to keep paying drivers, but soon the cars will drive themselves!’ The only difference between the likes of Uber and the likes of Theranos is the size and length of the grift.” Just like Theranos’ magic blood-testing machines, Uber’s self-driving cars are never, ever going to materialize. But hey, at least Uber has been successfully able to promote themselves as woke and anti-racist while simultaneously grinding down their disproportionately POC employees; that doesn’t bode poorly for the future, right?
- Colleges and Universities (just about all of them!)
Speaking of rentierism, hats off to academia. When faced with the COVID-19 crisis, our institutions of higher learning bent all their brightest minds to a very important task: how to extract the maximum amount of rent and tuition out of their students. Most refused to hold Zoom classes for the fall semester, insisting that students come back to campus despite, you know, the incredibly contagious pandemic. Dramatic headlines blamed the subsequent spike in coronavirus cases on student parties and general irresponsibility; they did not note the irresponsibility of having students back in the first place, and expecting them to stay in their teeny overpriced closet rooms the whole time. The NCAA, ever on the forefront of student exploitation, subjected unpaid college athletes to unsafe conditions in order to collect their all-important TV fees. At least one student has died as the result of their negligence. The Academy would like to give a special shout-out to the University of Michigan, which not only exposed the entire student population as well as the residents of Ann Arbor to a deadly plague, but managed to go 2-4 while doing it.
- Jeff Bezos, The Most Divorced Man Alive
The Academy was initially tempted to award Grifter of the Year to the entire U.S. government. After all, the House, the Senate, and the Pentagon all got paid while regular Americans received less than shit. However, the true king of the 2020 grift scene is the man who grew richest, and effectively owns the U.S. government anyway: Jeff Bezos. While money may not be able to win Bezos’ wife back, or fill the frightening emptiness at the center of his spirit, he’s certainly willing to accumulate as much of it as possible. Bezos’ personal wealth soared to $191 billion this year, as millions of Americans were laid off and as Amazon workers struggled to handle increased demand, hazardous working conditions, and a management completely hostile to any form of labor organizing. Now, with a friendly incoming Biden administration (Amazon has hired the brother of Biden’s White House counselor to lobby the White House on the company’s behalf), Bezos is likely to enjoy a very untroubled and lucrative four years. Nothing, it seems, can hurt Bezos; not even the humiliating revelation that Amazon Prime Video effectively exists to get Bezos invited to glamorous parties in New York and L.A. (as an anonymous employee put it, Amazon Prime is “a loss leader for Jeff Bezos’ sex life.”) The only way to sink the richest man in the world, it seems, would be a worldwide Amazon strike, which is not only possible but increasingly likely thanks to dedicated organizing by Amazon employees and contractors in the supply chain. Lyle Lanley, too, was successful in his grifts—until he was tracked down by the good people from North Haverbrook. No line goes up forever.