Opinion This all-but-forgotten con man sold America on ‘fake it till you make it’

(Lou Kiss for The Washington Post)
8 min

Glenn W. Turner is now all but forgotten. But this salesman extraordinaire in flashy suits was once all but omnipresent in American life. Turner, the son of a sharecropper, told people they could all be rich and successful like him — if, that is, they made an investment in his multi-level marketing company. They would peddle “mink oil” makeup and his “Dare to Be Great” motivational tapes, and they would collect more money by recruiting others and taking a percentage on their sales.

When newly minted salespeople found it impossible to make a go of it, they were told to “fake it until you make it” by wearing expensive clothes and waving around $100 bills to lure in others, a disillusioned Oregon recruit testified in court in 1972. A few months later, another seller would tell a Florida courtroom that he, too, had been instructed to “fake it till you make it.” When the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Turner’s company, a judge cited the phrase as evidence of malfeasance.

As far as I’ve been able to discover, these are among the first times that this now commonplace phrase received prominent mention in the media. Today, “fake it till you make it” has come to represent the scrappy, optimistic mind-set of American hustle culture. But as Turner’s saga shows, there’s a dark side baked into the “fake it” mentality: the fakers who attempt to win success through fraud, then never make good on their promises.

“It’s inherently manipulative, deceptive, fraudulent, inauthentic,” says Robert L. FitzPatrick, co-author of “False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes.” Yet, he adds, “it’s just entered the culture, and it’s completely normalized.”

As Elizabeth Holmes gives way to Sam Bankman-Fried, who gives way to George Santos, it’s worth pondering why our society has embraced an ethos popularized by a huckster such as Turner. What does it mean for a nation to valorize faking it as a means to an end — and is there any way for Americans to turn back?

How faking it became the norm

It’s not clear who originated the exact wording of “fake it till you make it,” or how Turner and his followers adopted it. But it draws on older strains in American life, marrying psychological concepts on how to change human behavior with the positive-thinking self-help culture that might as well be America’s unofficial state religion.

Psychiatrist Alfred Adler, writing in the early 20th century, argued people could change habits by embracing an “act as if” strategy: assume a behavior and, eventually, it will become real. Self-help culture took that to ludicrous places: “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve,” claimed wealth guru Napoleon Hill in “Think and Grow Rich.”

But the notion that you can fake it until you make it began to spread through multilevel marketing efforts such as Turner’s, where studies show few earn a profit and deception is rife. The saying became so pervasive in Amway that it would be the title of a 1980s exposé by Phil Kerns. “I have often wondered if Amway distributors borrowed this terminology from Turner’s group, or was it Turner who confiscated these words and phrases from some Amway distributors?” Kerns wrote.

Even as Turner attracted increasingly negative attention — in 1972, he was arrested on 86 counts of violating securities laws — the phrase gained popularity in a more earnest context within Alcoholics Anonymous. There, it appeared as a way for people in recovery to project themselves forward into a more sober future. Today, the phrase is also a way to push back on the feelings of self-doubt we call impostor syndrome, or to put forward an advantageous personal or professional confidence we might not entirely feel.

But faking it in matters of money is another matter entirely. Traditionally, businesses have had to state their returns using metrics that can only be faked by lying. Martha Stewart sparked headlines in 2005 when she fired a contestant on “The Apprentice” who embraced the phrase. “In my business, there’s just no faking it,” Stewart said.

Stewart was behind the societal curve. Even as she spoke, the housing bubble — riven with fraud committed (and invited) by banks, ratings agencies, mortgage brokers and appraisers — was growing bigger. And the Wells Fargo C-suite was looking the other way as employees, desperate to meet unrealistic sales quotas, opened millions of fake bank and credit card accounts. (As for the more famous host of “The Apprentice” — Donald Trump, a nepo baby who cosplayed a successful mogul on the show — we all know how that turned out.)

What happened? The election of Ronald Reagan marked the beginning of an era of worshiping wealth, one in which more and more people came to believe that anything that made money was by definition a success. As inequality grew, almost all gains went to those already at the top, leaving many convinced that pretending to be on top already was the best way to make it so. Corporate shareholders began to prioritize quarterly profits over long-term results. At the same time, the federal government became less likely to prosecute obvious malfeasance. As we transitioned from a society that manufactured things to one whose products were intangible, reality was increasingly in the eye of the beholder — or the pitchman.

These circumstances have led us into a society that is both more cynical and more predatory, both more receptive to and encouraging of outright fakers. “The con artist became a business model,” says Micki McGee, author of “Self-Help, Inc.” “It’s only in a market-worshiping economy that you can say defrauding people in the interest of profit would somehow be okay.”

That spirit is everywhere. But nowhere has the ethos of “fake it” found more fertile soil than in Silicon Valley, where the line between optimism and deceit can admittedly be a fine one. In the low-interest-rate environment of the past decade, investors put up money with little diligence, and “fake it till you make it” turned toxic.

Food delivery services such as Grubhub and Postmates included restaurants on their platforms that didn’t have contracts with them. JPMorgan Chase fell for Frank, a college financial planning outfit whose customer base it later (allegedly) discovered was mostly made up of fake email addresses created at the behest of founder Charlie Javice. (Javice has denied the bank’s claims.) Cryptocurrency arrived, basically a “fake it till you make it” form of money. It’s backed by no government, is all but impossible to use and serves no legal need.

No surprise, trust is cratering. According to 2019 surveys done by the Pew Research Center, almost half of us say Americans are not as reliable as in the past. We don’t trust the government, media or big business. We are forever suspicious, convinced someone else wants to profit at our expense.

And all too often, we are right.

The case for being real

Eventually, the truth comes out. Turner himself offers one cautionary tale. After more than a decade of court cases, Turner was convicted in 1987 for running a Ponzi scheme. Even then, he never stopped explaining. As he was led off to jail, he told reporters: “The good that I have done outweighs the bad. A technicality of the law is what got me.” By the time he died in 2020, it took more than a year for a newspaper reporter to stumble across his Legacy.com obituary and make note of his death.

There’s a difference between psyching yourself up and misrepresenting yourself, and the latter is where “fake it” has gone too far. We need a reset — and to find a way to once again prioritize and reward diligent, honest effort over faux success. Government needs to return to enforcing meaningful financial regulation; politicians and entrepreneurs who deceive their supporters need to face consequences. And we need to be less credulous and stop falling for the next shiny thing.

The history of “fake it till you make it” offers a lesson here, if we want to heed it. Yes, the ethos can lead to success, as long as you actually have the goods and the skills. But when the claim has little to no basis in reality, it will almost certainly lead to failure — and, as Turner discovered, to oblivion.