When the musical "The Greatest Showman" opens in German cinemas on Jan. 4, audiences can experience the American dream once more. The film shows Hugh Jackman conning his way through 19th century America as circus pioneer P.T. Barnum. With the help of a strange group of characters, including a bearded lady, people with dwarfism, Siamese twins, and a group of acrobats, he not only succeeds, but also invents modern show business in the process.
But nowadays, even Americans consider this sung glorification bizarre. On the one hand, the movie glosses over the fact that Barnum created racist, primitivist myths and that he brutally exploited his employees.Traveling around the country with the almost completely paralyzed slave Joice Heath, he presented her to audiences as George Washington's 161-year-old nurse. Heath, then 80 years old, suffered the ordeal for two years and then died.
On the other hand, the country has now produced Donald Trump, a character who has made it all the way to the White House using the ploy of the "entertaining fraudster.” His near complete lack of useful characteristics (aside from his entertainment value) has led to a presidency which punctuates the country's decline more tangibly every day.
The rise of the battle cry "fake news,” used by politicians and activists to indicate that their followers should completely ignore unpleasant views, has added to the mystery American intellectuals are trying to solve: Is this country particularly vulnerable to frauds, fake news and impostors?
Religion and Sensationalism
The poetry editor of The New Yorker, Kevin Young, has recently submitted the most detailed exposition on this topic. In his book "Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News," he delivers the definitive chronicle of American charlatanism.
It leads us to believe that fabrications, con men and racist myths are not just an American phenomenon, as Europe's nearly 100-year history of the "Mechanical Turk" hoax, the rise of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi or the development of anti-Semitism demonstrate.* But in the U.S., fraud plays an extraordinary role, feeding on an obsession with myths, the tradition of religious evangelists and a respect for business acumen.
Young demonstrates conclusively how 19th century America, a young nation without a history, craved myths and often found them in sensationalism, especially when they confirmed clichés about African-Americans or Native Americans. According to Young, "[…] the hoax is racism's native tongue.”
Moreover, the culture of settlers and preachers opened up a large line of business, creating not only churches and sects, but also con artists. In Germany, the cliché of the Old West quack in a covered wagon is probably the most well-known meme of this gullibility. It is not by accident that western New York not only spawned churches such as Mormonism, but also American spiritism within a relatively small geographic area and time frame.
But hoax as news also became a business model for tabloids. In 1835, The New York Sun was able to increase circulation by 20,000 copies with a fictitious story about the discovery of life on the moon. The "Moon Hoax" was a key event in the emergence of the modern American press.
Age of Euphemism
This illustrates the extent to which the conflict involving the current debate around "fake news," lies and charlatans owes to American history. Young diagnosed an "age of euphemism" starting in the Nixon era, where lies and hypocrisy were an integral part of American culture. From the trivialization of the napalm bombs dropped on Vietnam to the false reality of the Kardashians, from Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction to neoliberal newspeak with words such as "downsizing,” media serve a double function: They enlighten the public and spread lies. Think of the inglorious role of The New York Times before the Iraq War or the last 25 years of conservative propaganda on Fox News and in "Talk Radio.”
Similarly, Trump's rise to power would have been unthinkable without media attention. A few days ago, the president announced, "[…] another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there, because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes." His conclusion: "So they basically have to let me win."
In an age of communicative interconnectedness, where everyone can be their own New York Sun, the way back into a common reality appears to be obstructed. The American market, with its 300 million people, the English language and its fierce political ideologizing, has become attractive even beyond U.S. borders. The U.S. election demonstrated that trolls and fake news machines can now be found in St. Petersburg and Macedonia.
Psychology Does Not Offer Much Hope
The psychology of lying and deception does not offer much hope. American debate over the past 12 months has been sobering because it demonstrates that for many people, two factors transform truth into a question of faith. On the one hand, there is the understandable desire for the confirmation of personal prejudices, and on the other, an evolutionary function of rationalism, causing us to adjust to the behavior of other people rather than consider the logic of their positions or verify their claims.
At this point, we have to realize that although the belief in fake news and impostors has a particularly colorful history in the U.S, it is rooted in human nature, something we in Europe have known for a long time and which is once again confronting our society on a daily basis.
*Editor’s note: The Mechanical Turk was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century that was, in fact, a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine.