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That time America was on the verge of electing a two-bit grifter as president

The Trump University documents prove what many of us expected all along -- that The Donald is a low-rent con artist. But why were American voters such easy marks?

Dear Beloved Friend,

I know this message will come to you as surprised but permit me of my desire to go into business relationship with you.

I am Donald John Drumpf, of the Royal Drumpf Family of Bavaria. My father was murdered in the Great Landlord-Tenant War of 1958. Before he died, he deposited $4,200,000 in a secure bank account in Munich...

Today, America is slowly waking up to the fact that our national equivalent of a Nigerian email scammer has about a 48 percent chance of becoming our 45th president. A con man. A scam artist. A grifter. Someone who desperately clung to his billionaire status by trying to squeeze nickels and dimes from retirees and aspiring single moms has somehow managed to win GOP presidential primaries from New Hampshire to New York to Illinois and soon in California.

As I've noted here before, the best stories are often the ones that confirm what you already knew in your gut. It was pretty obvious from Day One that Trump University -- the most high-profile business venture of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the latter 2000s, as the world of finance was crashing down -- was somewhat dodgy. What would you expect from a glorified, get-rich-quick real estate seminar that was somehow  branded as a "university."

The high-pressure tactics to extract the life savings from the elderly or the working class that were exposed on Tuesday when a judge unsealed the so-called "playbook" for Trump University recruiters and other documents in a lawsuit by former Trump U. "alums" who alleged they paid countless thousands for mostly useless courses taught by unqualified instructors, with suggestions that the star of TV's "The Apprentice" would be heavily involved (Spoiler alert: He wasn't).

One sales manager for Trump University, Ronald Schnackenberg, recounted how he was reprimanded for not pushing a financially struggling couple hard enough to sign up for a $35,000 real estate class, despite his conclusion that it would endanger their economic future. He watched with disgust, he said, as a fellow Trump University salesman persuaded the couple to purchase the class anyway.

"I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme," Mr. Schnackenberg wrote in his testimony, "and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money."

Not that there's many changeable minds left out there -- even with the general election some five looong months away -- but it would be wonderful if every American voter would take the time to wade through some of these documents and decide whether Donald J. Trump is an individual who should have a direct phone line to the IRS or the FBI, let alone possession of the nuclear "football".

A good place to start would be the Twitter feed of the Philadelphia-based writer Jason Fagone, who's devoted much of last 24 hours to posting the highlights from the Trump playbook and the other court papers. It's an American tale as old as P.T. Barnum and as colorful as "Glengarry Glen Ross," the art of the subterranean deal that preys on people's emotional fears and deep insecurities to max out the credit cards of the Trumpmen's "marks" when they could least afford it.

"If they complain about the price, remind them that Trump is THE BEST," the sales staff is instructed. "This is the last real estate investment you'll ever need to make." One exercise was to write out a million-dollar yourself. In the meantime, Trump's henchman were zeroing out their actual bank accounts. When prospective students expressed worries about the cost, the sales people were instructed to ask them: "[D]o you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn't make excuses, like what you're doing now."

There's a lot of gut-wrenching material here, but a lot of it is also numbingly familiar, because the truth is that the art of grifting is as American as cherry pie. It's just taken on more urgency in an era where the gulf between the wealth of the haves and the thwarted aspirations of the have-nots is greater than it's ever been. And as for the notion that someone could actually scam his way to the White House, maybe the question is not, how could this happen, but why did it take so long to happen?

So do we hail Trump as our greatest practitioner of this national business pastime, the art of the con? Or do we condemn the short-fingered vulgarian's amoral venality? I would go with...the latter (are you surprised).And while there's no one to blame for Trump's lack of any ethical compass beyond Trump himself, I can't help but look at this mess and also wonder, sadly: Why are Americans so gullible?

And let's be honest: The worst offenders are those of us in the media, because we were so eager to create a narrative about Trump and his "fabulous success" -- a storyline that started out as only half-true and went downhill from there. The true story is that he was born on third base with that $1 million stake from his dad and told everyone that he'd hit a triple. He did do a couple of bold real estate deals in the 1980s when New York was coming out of a two-decades-long funk, and then coasted on the name he made for himself ever since. With his four business bankruptcies and a string of deals gone sour, Trump's other achievement was learning that his gift wasn't business but "branding" his way downhill from reality TV to Trump Steaks to get-rich quick scams. Indeed, Trump's only similarity to Reagan is that politics rescued the Gipper from an acting career that was in ashes; likewise, Trump failed his way up to the scam of a lifetime.

But what about the others...the voting public? When did the electorate become such easy marks? You read these stories about some man who was conned by a total stranger in a parking lot into giving up his life's savings, and you wonder how on earth can such a thing happen? But then you see the presidential race slowly tilting for a man who lies openly dozens of times every week, who's basically sold the nation a fictional story about who he is and what he stands for, and you on earth can such a thing happen, to America?

People need some reason to believe. Americans went from ogling the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" in the 1980s -- the decade that invented Donald Trump -- to the 1990s and day-trading and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in the 1990s, when there simply had to be a way for the average schlub to get-rich quick, to the sordid, bottom feedings scams like Trump U. in the 2000s. Our own paychecks never budged. And when it all crashed, here comes Trump again -- telling us that we can get back those "dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts" -- because "Trump is THE BEST."

Will that be enough? Even if (the apocryphal) Barnum was right and there's a sucker born every minute -- 525,600 a year (yes, I saw "Rent") -- that may not be quite enough to give Trump the keys to the Oval Office. But maybe it's too late already. Just Trump clinching the nomination shows that America can be had in a confidence game.

And how we will ever get that confidence back?