In November, 2016 America elected a reality television star and periodically bankrupt heir to a real estate fortune to the most powerful office in the world, purportedly on the strength of his blunt honesty and business acumen. Yet during the 2016 Presidential campaign, non-partisan fact-checkers determined that Donald Trump lied 75-85% of the time (the average for a politician, including all his rivals in the 2016 primaries and general election, is about 25%). When not lying outright, the remainder of Trump’s discourse tends to live in the realm of the quasi-lie, peppering his speech with boasts, and hyperbolic, easily refutable rebuttals on the order of “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met.”
Trump’s mendacity is palpable, in fact, brazenly unhidden, and yet close to 62 million Americans chose him to be the man who will steer the United States for the next four years. They literally put their lives in his hands. This, in an age when it is unprecedentedly easy to catch a public figure in a dishonest statement; the history of everything up to about five seconds ago is available online. Trump says he respects Mexicans? The footage of him disrespecting Mexicans is a click away for anyone to see.
Many of us were and continue to be astounded by the fact that any adult American, let alone millions of them, would give credence to anything this man says. But perhaps we shouldn’t be.
America’s traditional relationship to such bunkum as Trump routinely spouts hasn’t been exactly critical. In point of fact, “admiring” tends to be the more apt descriptor. For better or worse, ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Indians for a handful of trinkets, the Art of the Swindle has been a beloved American tradition. It’s a national archetype of sorts, one that cuts across nearly every field of human endeavor. We don’t just tolerate but embrace quack doctors, fraudulent preachers, crackpot inventors, patent medicine salesmen, sham artists, tabloid reporters, used car dealers, and cheating politicians.
Not that similar characters haven’t always been present in every nation, particularly in recent years as the globe becomes increasingly Americanized, but perhaps nowhere so pervasively, so cheerfully, as the United States. The question is why? Why here? Why us?
I’ve made a study of such characters, even going so far as to name my theatre company, formed in 1995, “Mountebanks”. A mountebank is a con artist. The term dates to Medieval times when hucksters would “mount the bench” at fairs and open air markets to sell their miracle cures using nothing but the magic of their oratory. He is the ancestor of the television commercial. I believe a combination of factors came together to make America the ideal habitat for this tradition:
PROTESTANTISM: America privileges the subjective over the objective, the individual “testimony” rather than the “official authority”. This has its roots in the invention of the printing press, which lead to widespread literacy, which lead to Protestantism, which lead to a culture of ever-dividing sects. In relatively unpopulated (or depopulated) early America, this process was metastasized. In early America, if you felt differently from your local religious authorities, all you had to do was move away and start a new town or colony or camp or cult where you could worship as you chose. The ultimate culmination of this is the evangelical tradition of “testifyin’”– personal revelations, faith healing, and latter-day miracles. Ironically, in the end, within the subculture there is social pressure to believe the individual who testifies. No testimony can be false. This tradition extends beyond religion. Our scientific heroes are the independent descendants of the heretical Galileo, not the pettifogging bureaucrats of The Academy. We love individuals, eccentrics and mavericks.
DEMOCRACY: A related phenomenon is America’s leveling democratic tendency, again starting with Protestantism. It began with breaking with the Pope, then Kings, then “politicians and fat cats”, and lately, it’s been ALL government or expertise of any sort: scientists, journalists, and the like are all under suspicion. At the same time (on the positive side) we have this social mobility…it is well known that anyone from any walk of life can apply himself and become a scientist, clergyman, lawyer or what have you. Of course, in the past, such people, if not educated, were at least self-educated (such as scientific inventors or lawyers, like, say, Abraham Lincoln). In the Information Age, the leap has been that even THAT is not required. “My opinion is as good as anyone else’s”. The ironic result has been an erosion in the belief in authority. The practical trouble with that is, in our complex society we frequently require the services of people with skill and knowledge we don’t have, people who can do things like draw up a contract or diagnose an illness. Ironically a skeptical disbelief in legitimate authority makes us vulnerable to those who claim to possess the knowledge we need, but actually don’t.
THE FRONTIER: This has become less a factor since the mid 20 th century, but it played a crucial role during our culture’s formative years. Geographical isolation, with no long-distance communication was a fact of life for most Americans. This was a condition most of Europe had not known for several centuries, and it resulted in an echo of a phenomenon that had appeared in Europe in ancient and Medieval times: the generation of native “tall tales” and folk tales. The land was Terra Incognita. In fact, often enough true reports would appear far-fetched. There was nothing like the rattlesnake or the grizzly bear or the giant redwood in the Old Country. People would return from their travels and return with incredible sounding stories. If one’s story were not incredible, it was a simple matter to make it so with scant fear of fact checking.
CAPITALISM AND COMMODIFICATION: This factor, too, was an outgrowth of Protestantism, by way of the Calvinist Work Ethic, resulting in the gradual erosion of Christian social prejudice against the profit motive. Social permission to make a buck, and the competitive environment in which that happened resulted in a great leap forward in the art of salesmanship. Grandiose claims on behalf of products were made through a variety of media. The Industrial Revolution increased the scale and pace of this process even further. There was now much unprecedented temptation and incentive to lie, or at least “puff” and exaggerate. The boast on behalf of your product may be thought of as “acquisition by other means”: dreamstuff as literal money in the bank. Further, the constant competition for consumer dollars resulted in incentive to pursue, niche, novelty in order to stand out from competitors. People who got in on the ground floor of innovative new products made fortunes. But it has always been impossible to tell in advance what the Next Big Thing would be. The important thing is the CLAIM. “I’m telling you– put your money in ostrich farms. You can’t lose!”
INVENTION: Another factor is an idea identified by author Neil Harris in his book Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum which he calls “the Operational Aesthetic”. Because of the technological and informational boom in America (made possible by all sorts of factors), there came an ironic tendency to trust jargon-spouting self-made experts. Literal “miracles” seemed to be happening every day: inventions like the hot-air balloon, electricity, etc etc etc. This left room for all manner of crackpots and quacks to exploit the credence of people who’d come to cease being shocked at ANY new discovery that might come along, whether it was psychic healing, or miracle tonics, or a race of people with two heads, or what have you. You wouldn’t even need to be “ignorant” per se to have such a weak spot. Rich people were taken in by charlatans all the time. ALSO: ironically (also from Harris) our cult of truth makes us vulnerable to lies. Americans are junkies for “facts”, not just from journalism, but also (in the 19th century) lectures; self improvement; entertainment that purports to be derive from fact (folk ballads, films, plays, performance art, and the like). Ironically the mania for truth makes it possible to more easily disguise falsehoods by cloaking them in the trusted language of fact. The ultimate fruit of that is Fake News.
THE CONSTITUTION: A certain amount of wiggle room for embellishment is baked right into our law. The First Amendment gives such wide scope, such “permission” in our speech. Not that there weren’t charlatans and false advertisers back in Europe, but never so MANY of them. America has a whole CULTURE of them. One reason why there may be or may not have been fewer of them in Europe may be the chilling effect of their laws. You can’t just get away with “saying things” there. There are ways in which the First Amendment is analogous to the Second Amendment, in how Americans stretch and test and abuse it. To egregiously oversimplify, the former invites us to be a nation of liars just as the latter invites us to be a nation of murderers. Just as America is the first universally armed people, we are the first universally self-expressive people (whether its testifying in church, writing letters to the editor and politicians, or composing handbills and posters for your business).
And so we come to the 21 st century, which seems to have increased these formerly manageable tendencies to a potentially fatal degree. It’s one thing to lose a single paycheck to a shell game operator at the county fair once a year. It’s quite another to hand over the earth to a guy who promises the moon, has no intention or means of delivering it, and really only wants to plunder the earth anyway. That this crime against humanity is happening with cooperation of countless men and women who really ought to know better is no less appalling. Our only hope lies on the old Latin legal aphorism Caveat Emptor: “Let the Buyer Beware.” Believe nothing Trump or his minions tell you. Try to get the real facts to as many people as you can in an effort to remove him from office. And start shopping for a replacement.