Why they clapped for Sam Bankman-Fried

Last night’s interview between the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin and Sam Bankman-Fried ended with the host thanking the accused criminal mastermind for coming, despite the protestations of his lawyers. The audience applauded as the screen went black. They had just witnessed more than an hour of lies, obfuscations, ass-coverings and subject-changings as delivered by one of the most talented con artists in American history. And there they were, clapping like the studio audience at a daytime talkshow. Like Rachel Ray just pulled the nine-layer Mexican bean dip of a lifetime right out of her own ass and slapped it down on the counter. I was watching the livestream on the train. A lot of other people were too. When it ended just after 6pm I looked around to see if anyone else thought it was weird that they clapped for him. I couldn’t tell.

But I thought it was weird. Bernie Madoff confessed his crime to his sons and he was in handcuffs before the end of the day. And that shit was like fifty times more complex than wiring customer funds into a hedge fund or using collateral to buy properties in the Bahamas in your parents’ names. Madoff had an entire floor of an office building in Manhattan dedicated to creating fake account statements, staffed with multiple accomplices, over the course of decades. Sam looks like an amateur in comparison. A dabbler. Still walking free, weeks later. It’s inexplicable. As inexplicable as the round of applause he received after an hour of accidentally sorta confessing to multiple financial crimes.

So I thought about why that applause happened. I came up with some potential reasons for it…

They were clapping for Andrew

I’ll start with the least disturbing possibility – they weren’t clapping for SBF at all, they were applauding Andrew for pulling the interview off. It was scheduled from a time before any of the fraud allegations were made, at a time when Sam was crypto’s golden boy, endlessly fascinating to an audience that doesn’t understand the first thing about crypto but very much tries to pretend it does.

They were clapping for themselves

I’ve been to the DealBook Summit in person – the audience is mostly comprised of people who have absolutely no doubt that they themselves will someday be on stage with Andrew. They are movers and shakers in waiting. Or former movers and shakers. The New York Times is their bible and being mentioned in it is their currency. The DealBook Summit is their Sunday Service and Andrew Ross Sorkin is their high priest. Being in the room during one of the Summit’s most notable interviews ever had to have had an ecstatic effect on this audience. They would have clapped at anything in that moment. It’s quite possible they were clapping for themselves just for having gotten into the room. Just imagine how many people at how many cocktail parties will be regaled with this story over the next twenty five years. Hundreds of versions. Thousands of retellings. Millions of embellishments. I was there. I am part of this world, after all. 

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They were clapping for their Jewish grandson who screwed up (who among us hasn’t screwed up?), what are you gonna do? It happens! 

Sam looks, acts and dresses like everyone’s nebbishy little Jewish grandson. I know from this stuff, you have to take my word for it – this is a factor! It produces a certain effect on an audience of cosmopolitan New Yorkers. He’s a type. A type they’re familiar with. An archetype. They know other Sams. Not as smart or as accomplished or as jittery but the same sort of thing. Shows up to his first job wearing his father’s suit, two sizes too big. Precocious at holiday dinners. Was reading the Wall Street Journal in elementary school. Floppy hair and shorts. Non-threatening while also relentlessly ambitious. Think Josh Baskin, who grows up overnight to be Tom Hanks in the movie Big. Dancing across a giant piano and right into our hearts, fumbling his way through a business meeting or a make-out session on his bunk bed. It’s hard not to clap when you’re gaslit into believing that this whole thing is a giant misunderstanding. If he was guilty, after all, why would he be out in the public eye and not in hiding? Why would he be attending a conference? For this particular audience, it’s plausible. Sam’s grandson-who-got-in-over-his-head schtick would not have been applauded had the Dealbook Summit been held in Alabama or New Mexico or South Carolina. Only in New York, kids. Maybe in Boca.

They were clapping for notoriety

John Dillinger was a bank robbing, jail breaking, gun toting murderer who terrorized the midwest a hundred years ago, zig-zagging from heist to heist, always one step ahead of the local authorities who couldn’t follow his getaway car across state lines. He became a national sensation. A folk hero. It was the Great Depression and here was a guy who daringly took what he wanted to survive. The newspapers loved him. The public did too. This happens all the time. It’s a Robin Hood thing. A Pancho Villa thing. Jordan Belfort has fans. Martin Shkreli has fans. Sam Bankman-Fried has not even been officially charged with a crime yet and he’s already notorious. You can’t look away. This is America and America’s Dad is Tony Soprano. Of course they clapped as he confessed his crimes. He didn’t mean to commit them, he said. He doesn’t know how it happened. We watched Tony kill someone while touring colleges with his teenage daughter. We rooted for him to not get caught.

Sam is fun

Sam’s story will eventually be a Netflix series. They’ll be clapping for that shit too. Unlike Elizabeth Holmes, Sam didn’t go into hiding. He’s still thrilling the audience with his exploits. The tweets are insane. Sam is still creating content to get us through our day. The most grievous sin you can commit in America is to cease entertaining us. How dare you lawyer up! Matt Levine is having the time of his life writing about Sam this month. It’s a welcome respite from publishing the Elon Musk fanzine his column has become lately (it’s not Matt’s fault, what else would you write about!). If Sam were to get less entertaining, the tone of Matt’s writing would almost certainly shift from mirthful incredulity to, well, the sort of vengeful, sardonic drollery we’ve all come to love.

Sam pretends to believe in the right things

Even though he had to tap dance around some text messages that leaked out where he mocked a lot of the charitable and liberal image-building stuff he’d done, Sam still has the patina of being on the right side of the things that matter. He says all the right stuff about racial issues and rainforests. He’s thrown around a lot of money, stolen or not, and that has bought him the breathing room this month that most financial fraudsters never get. Some politicians have given back his checks. Some haven’t – on both sides. He publicly paid off the Democrats. He privately paid off the conservatives. He bought access with dollars. He got meetings by crafting the perfect public persona. Spend enough money and the costume sticks to you for awhile, regardless of what comes out in the aftermath.

Crypto victims are assholes

I don’t think the DealBook Summit audience cares one whit for the victims of Sam’s fraudulent money movement. They’re suspicious of the entire crypto concept. They didn’t make any money from it. They hate the people who did because those people mostly didn’t bust their asses to go to Ivy League schools. They didn’t pay their dues working as celebrity publicists or doing drudgery clerking for a judge or interning at William Morris or making midnight power points at Goldman Sachs or any of the things you are supposed to do before you attain success. To the establishment wealthy, these are all weird nerds, international criminals and pseudonymous Twitter monsters who have become accidentally, obnoxiously rich overnight by pressing a few buttons on their phones. They didn’t earn it. They don’t deserve it. They’re glad the money evaporated. They’re rooting for the crashes and cheering on the Dimon-Munger contingent of open disgust. F*** ’em and f*** their bullshit NFTs too. Sam Bankman-Fried is an Angel of Death putting an end to five years of non sequitur wealth-generating ridiculousness that normal people are sick and tired of hearing about. Steal it all you magnificent sonofabitch. RememberMadoff stole from New York Times readers. Bankman-Fried’s victims get their news from Twitch. It’s a different demo.

We don’t necessarily have to pick just one of the above explanations. Maybe a little bit of all of them can be applied. Or maybe it’s something I’m missing. Regardless of what you think was at work here, the important thing to remember is that it happened. Perhaps the biggest crook of our era (that we know of) was given an ovation at the event last night. That happened.

I’m not sure how to feel about it.

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