Cheaters Always Win

The Story of America


By J. M. Fenster

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A social history of cheating and how American history — through real estate, sports, finance, academics, and of course politics — has had its unfair share of rigged results and widened the margins on its gray areas.

Drawing from the intriguing (and sometimes unbelievable) true stories of the lives of everyday Americans, historian Julie M. Fenster traces the history of the weakening of our national ethics through the practice of cheating. From marital infidelity to financial fraud; rigged sports competitions to corruption in politics and the American education system; nuclear weaponry to beauty pageants; hospitals, TV gameshows, and charities; nothing and no one is exempt.

And far from being ostracized, cheaters in every sphere continue to survive and even thrive, casting their influence over the rest of our society. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the recent tectonic shift in politics, where a revolution in our collective attitude toward fraudsters has ushered in a new kind of leadership.

Part history of an all-American tradition, part dissection of an ongoing national crisis, Cheaters Always Win is irresistible reading — a smart, sardonic, and scintillating look into the practice that made America what it is today.


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George Washington





Charlie Bruckhauser


What Is Cheating?

When I set out to study cheating, I naturally told everyone I met about my new project and soon found that some people blushed red at the very sound of the word. Then I would blush, it being obvious that the other person had just inadvertently confessed something very intimate. Being a polite American first and an ace investigator second, I’d change the subject as quickly as possible. One colleague to whom I mentioned cheating in the course of conversation still averts her eyes when we meet. It’s all part of the uncomfortable excitement that surrounds cheating.

Acquaintances who took the news of my research in a smoother stride would typically ask why I had chosen that particular topic. “Dogs don’t cheat!” was my reply. I was so emphatic about this kernel of life experience that I’d repeat it, adding cats and horses: They don’t cheat. My idea at the start was that humans are the only species that cheats, and because the possibility of it enters into their every endeavor, it’s central to the daily trial of being human: whether to cheat or not to cheat. Dogs, however, don’t occupy the narrow space between those twin guide rails; only humans go through life ricocheting back and forth between the two, or else clutching one, while eyeing the other. That’s the human lot. And dogs don’t cheat.

That was before I learned that I was entirely wrong. While still in the talking stage of this book, I played Fetch with my dog, Bisbee, one evening, just as always. He is a creature so pure-hearted that my big joke is that Jesus has a bumper sticker on his car that says, “What would Bisbee do?” I learned all at once that among other things, Bisbee would cheat. On the day in question, he stole the ball and suddenly turned Fetch into a different game, one called Let’s-Make-the-Lethargic-Human-Chase-the-Dog-All-Over-the-House. The look on his face was the happiest I’d ever seen. His eyes alive, his tail nearly slapping his sides. He had just realized that he was calling the shots. He didn’t have to play Fetch; he had possession of the ball. His face shone with the bright rays of discovery. The first few times Bisbee changed the game, I went along, ever good-natured, and played Chase. On the day that I didn’t, staying put and bellowing that he was a goddamned cheater, he ate the ball.

Bisbee’s point, which was incisive, was that he hadn’t agreed to any particular game or any prevailing rules. My counterargument was that simply by participating in the first gameFetchhe had tacitly committed to that game, as well as its rules. Between our two views lay the aspect of cheating that is peculiarly human: the expressed acceptance of rules.

In the natural world, the one that embraces all species, including Bisbee’s, rules are only implied. Testing them to push for greater comfort or happiness isn’t cheating; it’s behavioral evolution, a certain sign of life.

Humans may not be the only creatures to make up rules, but they are unquestionably the only ones who expect someone else to commit voluntarily and in advance to following them, preferably in writing. People take wedding vowsnobody makes them do that. They sign honor codes, though they will not starve to death if they don’t. They enter into contracts to play sports, but only if they choose to. Some commitments may be slightly less explicit, but they are no less definite.

Ironically enough, agreeing to be bound constitutes the ultimate proof that a human is free. Consenting to follow a certain set of rulesvoluntarilyis an act of self-determination. When enslaved or bound in fiefdom, forced into an arranged marriage or strong-armed into a religious sect, a person cannot cheat. It isn’t possible. They might “behaviorally evolve,” but they can’t betray rules to which they didn’t agree. They cannot cheat in the sense of interest to this book. Looking on the positive side of miserable circumstances, one cannot be a slimy, rotten hypocrite without first having a will of one’s own.

Americans have that freedom. For their own benefit or that of the group, perhaps even that of the whole nation, an individual enters into covenants of various stripes. The covenants describe the individual. A Southern Baptist, for example. A point guard in college basketball. A marathon runner, a bass fisherman, a sophomore at college. A member of the Saturday night bridge gang. A spouse. In the natural world, happiness may be something slowly won. In the human world, each covenant taken in advance brings comfort and happiness likewise in advance, from an arrangement warmly accepted.

Looking on the negative side of civilized circumstances, however, people who have a will of their own can be slimy, rotten hypocrites. Perhaps that is not news to you.

Individuals commonly have to decide what they absolutely swear they will do and what they promise with equal sincerity they will never do. Whatever activity it covers, that covenant beckons to hypocrisy. And then cheating.

The cheating to be dragged out of the shadows in this book covers a range of examples: from marital infidelity to business fraud, to school cribbing to sports deception. While some of the cheaters ended up in jail, laws are not the rules that underlie everyday cheating. The fear of getting arrested by the police is very different from the unthinkable cataclysm of getting caught by someone one knows personally. Tax cheating, for example, is not emphasized in the book as much as flower-show cheating. Both emanate from the same priority on self-interest. The finer point is that native-born Americans never specifically agree to abide by laws. Just as in the South before the Civil War, people in certain pockets of the backcountry today contend that they don’t have to follow laws they don’t like. This “nullification,” as it was once called, gives zealots an out, at least where their sense of honor is concerned. They may be crooks, moonshiners, and tax holdoutsbut they aren’t cheats. Neatly sidestepping a discussion of the individual in democracy (and whether representation itself conveys a covenant), I hold that breaking the law is not necessarily cheating.

Academic observers have expressed the opinion that everybody cheats. Lowlifes and barflies have made the same point. All men cheat. All women cheat. All lawyers cheat. All pitchers cheat. Everybody. That conclusion glistens with the cynicism that serves to protect academics as well as lowlifes. It so happens that I’m cynical, too. My credentials are irrefutable: I think the world stinks; I think we insult rats when we use their name to describe people; I am blissfully at home with early-1930s movies, the ones in which all the characters are corrupt. I know the score, as they used to say, circa 1933. Yet I’m unable to make the statement that everybody cheats, being that I’m tinged with the same sentimentality that causes many people to point to their parents as the two individuals on earth who absolutely, resolutely never could have cheated on each other or anyone else. If we can all agree that we each have a touchstone, knowledge of one or two people who are incapable of cheating, then we can make the calculation that there must be, empirically, some number of human beings who simply are not cheaters. That is the supposition of this book. And if you who are cynical don’t bring me evidence that my selected paragons were cheating out loud every day and twice on Fridays, then I’ll leave yours alone, too. It’s an important point, because this study is as much about those who absolutely will not cheat as about those who can and then do.

Victims are also to be considered. If there are people who shirk rules that they once embraced, then there are necessarily those left behind, holding firm to the same covenant. The cheater and the cheated. The sole exception to the duality is cheating at solitairewhich is as baffling as it is surprisingly rampant. In solitaire, no one will be the wiser. Go ahead. Dig through for the last king. In every other instance, though, cheating leaves a gash in someone else’s life. The popular pap that “cheaters only cheat themselves” is so untrue that it is cruel to repeat itexcept in quotes, as though held out with tongs.

“Cheaters only cheat themselves,” so satisfying as a phrase, leads to nowhere. The one covenant that is in no way implicit, the deal that individuals have with themselves, is an impression left by their sense of morality. Being so deeply personal, it occupies a wide plain, impossible to see or to map. For that reason, the great religions leave it to someone more qualified, someone ethereal, to judge whether a person has cheated him- or herself. If Mr. X’s sole desire on this mortal span is to pile up money and he manages it by nefarious means, observers would be presumptuous in the extreme to suggest in a weak and yet hopeful voice that he had only cheated himself. In the flintier world of this study, we can’t say if Mr. X cheated himself, but we can certainly accuse him of being blithely aware that he was going to rook others, even before he did so.

The corollary is less often heard, perhaps because everyone already knows it, probably from experience. It tends to remain in the system a long, long time. It’s terribly un-catchy. The corollary: “Cheaters are fully aware in advance that they are going to stomp on someone else and they do it anyway.” That epithet is the second defining factor of cheating.

If cheaters don’t all have the same basal values, neither do people who are cheated. In a whole sector of betrayal, blaming the victim is absolutely the right thing to do, because a great many cheaters are drawn by an invisible force to their own kind. Outright hypocrisy and abject hurt: the cheating in this book covers the bright ideas behind a variety of adventures. Embracing people much smarter than I and those even dumber, the goal was to look at them all on eye level.

In this particular field, famous stars are not as interesting as humans who are drawn to scale, despite the fact that celebrity scandals are a mainstay of modern life. A deluge, in fact. They don’t count herein, though, because their lives are not merely exaggerated but also skewed. In certain celebrity circles, an extramarital affair isn’t an act of betrayalit’s a good career move. The stubborn shadow of a happy marriage, on the other hand, has to be overcome by a team of agents and a clever publicist. In the world of finance, even the U.S. Treasury Department can barely trace what multinational companies are doing below-board. Or more specifically, what they are doing on those island nations with unending dunes and one office building. As to the intrinsic cheating found in super-rich families, it is far better described by America’s great novelists; start with Fitzgerald and then consult Wharton, Dreiser, and James. In most sports, uniquely, cheating doesn’t even existnot until a player has been caught three times first.

In one bastion, politics, the ramifications were exactly the opposite of those in the celebrity world. Attitudes toward cheating were once super-normalthat is, the starchiest of standards applied to politicians, abruptly ending careers, except in rare cases when voters daintily forgave an indiscretion. That shifted in 2016, when voters who were confronted by a reflex of cheating on the part of Donald Trump admired it as a mark of strength. The new development came upon America so bluntly, it brought with it a revelation about just exactly who is the driving force behind America and cheating, an accord that has become a kinship of acceptance, embrace, and even dependence.

But don’t blame Trump. He brought no particular innovation to cheating. Anyone might have filled his place as the first admitted cheater to be elected president, because that place had already been so thoroughly prepared by others: many millionsin fact, all of us, the passersby in American life. Whether we voted for him or not, we wanted cheating to be part of the national character. We must have.

Section One

You Who Are Cheated

Chapter 1

Your Own Kind

Why cheating is so hard to confront

In the movie Scent of a Woman (1992), a teenaged boy struggling for social acceptance at a prep school knows which of his fellow students dumped a bucket of paint on the headmaster’s new Jaguar XJS coupe, a crime of vandalism. And an act of desecration in the eyes of automobile fans in the audience. Throw paint on the headmaster, throw it on the scrambled eggs at breakfast, throw it on each other, but not on a great-looking car. Viewers able to move past that point saw the plot build to a speech by the boy’s erstwhile mentor, a cocksure Army veteran who exhorted him to neverever, ever, evertattle on his friends. My personal loyalties in this matter may or may not be relevant, but I’ve been waiting since 1992 to make the rousing counter-assertion that when it comes to mistreatment of helpless Jaguar cars, I will tattle the bejesus out of my friends. Every time. Thank you.

In the broader world, denouncing a cheater can’t be simplified as easily. The cards, as it were, are stacked against the person who has been wronged, as well as those nearby. By design, every stage of response is or seems to be fraught with risk, starting with the expressions used for the very act of calling out a cheater: snitching, squealing, blowing somebody in, ratting somebody out. And the names for that person: a weasel, a square, a stoolie, a toady, a stick-in-the-mud, a fink. On the list of neutral terms, there is “whistle-blower.” If, however, one wants to express admiration for a victim of cheating who pushes back, the words dry up. English, the richest of all human languagesits universe rippling with idiomsis at a loss. “Self-righteous jerk” is the closest we have to an honorific for those who speak up.

While those who have been cheated try on the soubriquets, wondering whether “rat” or “double-crosser” has a better ring, the act of cheating awaits a reaction. In the majority of cases, it never comes. Among modern Americans trying to do the right thing, the desire for integrity leads to two avenues of diametrically opposite behavior. Turn in a cheater, you have character. Protect a cheater, you have character.

History pinpoints the time when Americans slipped into confusion—and comfort. It was when formalized social groups grew from almost nothing to dominate American life in the late 1800safter the Civil War, not surprisingly, it being the ultimate disruption. Clubs became the rage. A new enthusiasm for hobbies brought people together, sports teams drew both players and fans to one side against all comers, while lodges solidified the values of the membership, and even colleges, which had once been educational institutions, nothing more, became cults in which alumni were even more invested than students. Circa 1835, T-shirt royalties didn’t actually contribute much to the University of Alabama’s budget. More recently, licensing of the school’s name, mostly on apparel, brings in $13 million per year. That’s not for shirts. Instead, the money gives millions of people a secure place smack in the middle of the Crimson Tide (unless the wearer shows up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or Clemson, South Carolina, in which case nothing will be secure, but that is part of the excitement). Within most colleges, fraternities rose to full flower in the same decades of the late 1800s, growing from lodging or dining houses into secret societies, where loyalty was the sole necessity, aside from the ability to withhold barf until the lawn was located. They were soon joined by sororities.

The abiding confidence across America was that social alliances would stabilize the country. That confidence long outlasted the post–Civil War days. It’s now central to the image of a trustworthy American.

The philosophy that good members make good citizens trickled into school systems. Like colleges, they changed. Education was one mission and another was transforming the inclination to bond into a jam-packed twelve-hour schedule. Children are described not as who they are, but as who they are with.

“I happen to know for a fact that one of the boys in our class copied a book report word for word from a magazine,” wrote a student in Longview, Texas. “That wouldn’t make me so mad, except that he got an A+ for the assignment, and I only got a C+ for a paper I really worked on. I just happened to see the original browsing through the local library and compared it with the guy’s report, which was on the lit [literary] room bulletin board. He didn’t even change a comma! I don’t know what to do.”

In the very first place, if the literature teacher couldn’t differentiate the work of a professional writer from that of a schoolboy, then either the teacher or the writer was cheating their employer.

More to the point, the Longview student, the one who received a C+, was already well-trained in peer loyalty. As people grow up in America, they’re pressed constantly to ally themselves with others. Much of the school day is devoted to inculcating comradeship: in band and chorus, on sports teams (even individual sports are transformed into group efforts), in numerous clubs and theatrical shows, and in class projects designed to encourage cooperation. School pride encourages students to think of themselves as a part of a bigger group and so does class pride. The oddest aspect of the pressure to bond at a young age is that popularity in the world of public schools doesn’t refer to the students who are well-liked. The popular kids are the ones who won’t talk to anyone but each other. The normies are the ones who are liked, to some degree. The tough guys and the mean girls aren’t liked at all, but they get their way.  So on through a social scale that couldn’t exist without willing adherents, first in homage to the social scale itself and, more important, to an underlying value system that is based in wholehearted acceptance of consensusin all things. A standout, except in sports, has a terrible problem. As a matter of fact, school is the only place where you certainly can be too rich or too thin.

While kids are sporadically told that cheating is wrong, they’re continuously influenced to be loyal to their peers. The two directives are simultaneously at odds and coincident. Those who do cheat blow the bond sky-highand yet they are protected by it. They will be addressed directly in the second section of this book. This section, the first, features the deeper conundrum, which lies with the cheated. They may be the ones smacked with trouble by the cheater, but they are also under pressure to keep mum and be predictable.

According to the testimony of the Longview student, the boy’s blatant copying all by itself “wouldn’t make me so mad.” The generic reasons to resent plagiarismit’s lazy, it’s stealing, it stinks out loud, and so onhad obviously failed to take hold. If the incident were to mean anything at all, the Longview student had to be damaged personally. Even then, with solid evidence in hand, the student paused. Whatever else happened after that, it was the student in the right who froze, as though caught in the act of being honest.

I remember a similar incident when, for extra credit, the sixth graders in our local school were invited to select an ancient Greek temple and build a wooden model of it. On the morning that the temples were displayed on a long table in the back of the classroom, the teacher proudly surveyed about a half-dozen striking replicas made out of hardwood and crafted in such exacting detail that the Greek government could have arrayed them at the embassy in Washington. Little models of ancient Greeks probably would have arrived soon after to worship. Next to those replicas and at the end of the line was a temple taped together out of balsa wood, Elmer’s Glue-All oozing out of the crevices. Its builder had bypassed masterpieces of architecture honoring Apollo and Athenawith colonnades, pediments, and grand steps, straight and truefinding instead a picture of an ancient Greek temple shaped like a car wash. Even so, in miniature at the back of the classroom, it leaned. Once the display was up, dads were on hand to take photos and carefully nudge the other temples to the perfect center of their painted bases. The builder of the last temple didn’t dare touch it. Or breathe on it. Quite obviously, that intrepid little person was up against the fathers of the other students, grown men who had woodworking shops in their basements.

I…was that sloppy little person. Like the Longview student, I received a grade of C (C to be specific) and never once piped up about the cheating displayed along the rest of the tablenot because I was cowed by the other students, but because I was afraid of accusing their fathers.

The Longview student, whose letter to an advice column succinctly repeats the predicament of many others, signed the name “Furious” and yet stalled out when it came to action. Something was more important than fairness; something was more important than grades. Why wouldn’t that student pipe up, being on the side of right? As one of many others in the same category, I will interrogate myself on that question:


Q: Why didn’t you say something about the other temples having been built by ringers?

A: I knew some of the fathers personally. After all, they were just trying to help.

Q: Who made you into Athena, goddess of justice? The fact is, their kids cheated. They cheated.

A: Well, I knew I was a terrible woodworker.

Q: Getting back to the point: they cheated.

A: I wasn’t afraid of losing in an argument with the fathers, had I gone ahead and accused them of cheating. I was afraid of winning.

Q: Your Honor, permission to treat as a hostile witness

A: The other kids already thought I was bossy. I couldn’t court-martial the fathers…I’d never live it down.

Q: The bond. Here we have it. Conformity in our society is not only the mark of the bond, it’s what makes cheaters sleep well at night.

A: This is my book. Could I have it back, please?

So anyway, conformity in our society is not only the mark of the bond, it’s what makes cheaters sleep well at night.

In the case of the Longview student, the columnist answering the letter duly upheld what is widely referred to as the students’ code: “Thou shalt not fink.” Specifically, she substituted “Thou shalt not be caught finking,” which passes for an honorable alternative. The columnist’s advice to the Longview student was this: wait until the classroom is empty and then leave the magazine on the teacher’s desk, opened to the plagiarized book review. The teacher would be bound to notice it there.

In the first place, every teacher in America comes into the classroom with an armful of papers, books, brochures for distant cruises, and a cup of coffee. All of that would be set down immediately on top of that least noticeable of all items: a magazine open to a book review.


On Sale
Dec 3, 2019
Page Count
272 pages

J. M. Fenster

About the Author

J.M. Fenster is the award-winning author of many works of American history and commentary, including Packard: The Pride, which won several national awards; Ether Day, which won the Anesthesia Foundation prize; the New York Times bestseller Parish Priest with Doug Brinkley; the PBS documentary First Freedom; and the book Mavericks, Miracles and Medicine, which was also a documentary on A&E. After writing The Spirit of Invention at the invitation of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, she published two works of presidential biography: The Case of Abraham Lincoln and FDR’s Shadow. Fenster has been called “witty” by The New York Times and compared to Mark Twain by The Wall Street Journal. Her most recent book was Jefferson’s America. A graduate of Colgate University, she lives in upstate New York.

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