Everyone has, at some point, been fooled into thinking something fake was real. Maybe it was a post on social media that you shared before realizing it was a spoof or satire. Maybe it was a bargain you saw that turned out not to be a bargain or that left you with some broken or falsely advertised product. Or maybe it was a grand conspiracy about rampant election fraud that spurred you to spend millions of dollars declaring that you alone knew the truth about what had happened — only to be told, over and over, that you were entirely and obviously wrong.

That is the unfortunate position in which MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell appears to find himself. He has, by his own admission, spent vast sums of money trying to prove what can’t be proved: that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, which it wasn’t. He has promoted theories about how that alleged theft occurred that have repeatedly proved meritless. But by now he is so far into his bet and has earned so much celebrity by making it that he keeps pressing forward, using his money to convince himself that he is right and to buy attention from people who tell him the same thing.

A few weeks ago, Dartmouth University sociology professor Brooke Harrington wrote about the psychology of being conned. The context was vaccine skepticism, but the lessons she identifies very much apply to those who deny the actual results of the election, and to Lindell in particular.

She points to a 1952 study from Erving Goffman that explored how those who have been conned might be eased out of the fraud. Every con ends at some point, after all, and the target of the con is left suddenly standing in the harsh spotlight of reality.

“When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defense for not being a shrewd man,” Goffman wrote. “He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them. This is a process of self‑destruction of the self.”

Lindell presents this self-confidence repeatedly. On Thursday, CNN aired a report completely dismantling Lindell’s various claims. Notably, it pointed out that the places where he said elections were hacked by China did not have any parts of their election infrastructure connected to the Internet, and that the high-tech-sounding data packets Lindell’s “cyberexperts” have said prove fraud were, in fact, just random data. But as the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum put it after interviewing him last month, Lindell remains “utterly impervious to any argument of any kind.”

Dominion Voting Systems on Feb. 22 filed a defamation lawsuit against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for promoting baseless theories about its voting machines. (Reuters)

“I’m not wrong,” Lindell insisted to CNN’s Drew Griffin after Griffin presented abundant evidence that Lindell’s claims were false. “I’ve checked it out. I’ve spent millions. You need to trust me and come there” — “there” being a “symposium” Lindell is hosting this month at which he will reportedly present his data packets for public consumption.

Do you know what data packets are? Here, Lindell is referring to information transmitted over the Internet that was reportedly captured by some unidentified person in the days after the election. You’re reading this online; the words I’ve written were plunked into a webpage, and that webpage was chopped into little bits of data that were sent to your computer or your phone. Lindell is saying that he has some packets capturing that sort of information transmission and, further, that those packets show vote-stealing.

I ask whether you know what data packets are because I feel pretty confident that Mike Lindell did not on Nov. 2, 2020. I feel pretty confident that he is still not entirely sure about it, based on how he credulously accepted claims about the packets in the first video in which this “evidence” was presented and based on his reaction to Griffin’s questions.

And that’s the point: If you’re a very rich person who is very interested in proving something to be true who then meets someone who tells you that this thing can be proved using some technological analysis that you admittedly don’t entirely understand, you might just pull out your checkbook. Am I saying that the “experts” Lindell is hiring are feeding him nonsense in exchange for a paycheck? No, I am saying that I can certainly see how a Naive and Credulous Millionaire might be viewed as a lucrative mark for a Theoretical Unscrupulous Hustler. That’s all.

Lindell, data-packet printouts in hand, considers himself very shrewd.

(An aside: If Lindell provided CNN with printouts of data to bolster his claims, as appears to be the case, this is indisputably evidence that Lindell doesn’t know anything about validating data and very likely evidence that whoever provided him with those printouts was not particularly interested in having the data validated. It’s like telling someone to figure out what’s wrong with your car’s engine and then showing them a photo of the vehicle.)

For a certain type of unpleasant person — like myself — parsing and dismantling dubious claims provide some fun. But this particular deception in which Lindell is enmeshed is incredibly fraught.

The acute risk of claiming that the election was stolen is that people might act in dangerous ways in response to that belief. The obvious example is what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6, a violent riot spurred by the incorrect belief that the election had been stolen. Lindell (and former president Donald Trump, of course) continue to stoke the idea that rampant fraud occurred, fostering a sense that some extreme action might need to be taken to reverse the world-historic theft that this implies. That threat lingers with Lindell’s claims that Trump will somehow be reinstated as president (he absolutely will not) and with ongoing efforts to undercut the election results, as remain underway in Arizona.

The long-term danger is that Lindell is contributing to a sense that election results aren’t reliable, which is also false. There is no evidence that rampant fraud occurs at all in American elections, much less that it occurred in 2020 without yet being proved — despite all of the looking. But even if the agitation over 2020 passes, Lindell and Trump are making it very easy for people (or partisan officials) to respond to the 2022 or 2024 elections by simply assuming that results they don’t like were invalid, an assumption that has no merit based on recent elections.

The American experiment hinges on trust in elections to a very real extent. And Lindell is actively trying to undermine that trust, pretty clearly because he actually incorrectly believes that trust isn’t warranted.

CNN’s Griffin pointed out the downside risk to the businessman.

“The people who have watched your video believe what you say,” Griffin said. “If you’re wrong, isn’t that very dangerous?”

That’s what prompted Lindell’s “I’m not wrong” response — and his defensive insistence that he had “spent millions” in support of his position. This is essentially the sunk-cost fallacy, the idea that he has invested so much that he is just going to keep pressing forward instead of cutting bait. But it also shows how Lindell equates level of investment with level of confidence, a conflation that would have any Theoretical Unscrupulous Hustler rubbing his hands giddily.

It’s important to again reiterate that Lindell has no credible evidence of fraud. His claims that there are “packets” showing votes being stolen itself doesn’t make any sense. What is the data — text snippets saying “move 14,000 votes from Trump to Joe Biden”? Is it simply updates on counted votes reported by news organizations, as was the case with the “proof” of fraud presented by one conspiracy website? Is it just garbage, packaged as a big conspiracy at the Election Fraud Store for its best customer?

It’s all pathetic, in the classic, pitiful sense of the term. But it’s also convincing a lot of people who also want to believe that it’s true. The process of helping people recover from such a hustle is complicated enough that it has been the subject of sociological analysis for 70 years. There’s no easy answer.