How to Explain the Prince of Humbug to Europeans

Most of the Europeans that I’ve talked politics with over the course of the past five months want to know how I feel about the Trump ascendency. The Romanians typically took a kind of schadenfreude position–slightly gleeful in the face of Americans’ political anxiety which they (rightly) perceived as just a fraction of the kind of suffering they lived under for most of the twentieth century. The Irish are a bit more cautious–they will suss you out before they make any proclamations, and they seem genuinely worried and concerned about the current state of the American republic.

The logic and the rhetoric of Trump’s world view, though, has been a long time coming and is deeply engrained in American thought. America is, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a “land of maskers and jokers” and in this regard, the 45th president is just one of a long line of Americans who have set out to bilk the public.

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe published a short piece in the New York Sun that described a singularly odd occurrence. Poe reported that the famous European balloon artist, Thomas Monck Mason, boarded a gas balloon and floated across the Atlantic Ocean in the space of three days. The descriptive details of the piece as well as the fact that Mason was indeed a famous European balloonist led most readers to take Poe’s account as genuine.  It wasn’t, of course, and in a short period of time, Poe was found out and his story became known as “The Great Balloon Hoax.”


Poe went on to carve a name for himself in the halls of American letters, spinning weird, gothic tales that still scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting school children today. But many other Americans made a professional career of conning the American public and in that regard, P.T. Barnum was the nineteenth century’s prince of hoaxes.

P.T. Barnum

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Barnum stage-managed hoax after hoax on the American people. He sewed the torso of a monkey to the hind end of a fish and called it the Fiji Mermaid. Barnum wrote marketing material alleging the article was genuine, displayed it in his museum and enjoyed handsome profits from the display.


Later in his career, Barnum bought a slave (yep) by the name of Joice Heth and passed her off to the public as George Washington’s nursemaid. This assertion would have made Heth over 160 years old, but that didn’t stop people from paying money to hear stories of how she would sing and take care of Washington when he was a wee baby. When Heth died, an autopsy revealed that she was no more than 80 years old. Barnum, in turn, professed that he was duped by Heth.

Handbill advertising Joice Heth

Most of Barnum’s hoaxes traded on ideas of race, ethnicity and difference to confirm to white Americans that they were separate from, and better than, the black and brown and foreign bodies that he displayed on public stages.  In his American Museum in New York City, Barnum displayed a group of native Americans billed as “The Living Aztecs.” He exhibited a black woman with albino children. He displayed a mentally handicapped black man and called the exhibit “What is it?” inviting patrons to guess the race and origins of the man. In Barnum’s exhibition halls, blacks acted out aboriginal roles, often being represented as ‘missing links’; Native Americans hooted and hollered and performed rituals and dances that confirmed to white America their primordial type and Roma and Bohemians (usually women) were represented as lusty, exotic creatures. If they were deformed, exotic, disproportioned in any way, or simply inclined to be transformed into one of Barnum’s ‘freaks,” Barnum found a way to make money off of them and to remind Americans of an unofficial caste system that separated them from each other.

Barnum’s “Fiji Cannibals” and “What is it?



Hoaxes of this nature were common currency in nineteenth-century America. It seemed that anywhere you turned, a gullible public was being duped by some confidence man in one way or another. And before you condescend to the naiveté of nineteenth-century Americans who fell for the balloon hoax, turn on Fox News.

But, hoaxes are generally based in some kind of reality. The nineteenth-century culture of hoaxes was the by-product of real economic and social forces sweeping through American society; it wasn’t just a case that Americans were stupid and would believe anything. In particular, a burgeoning capitalist economy made nineteenth-century America an upside-down and confusing world: people and goods moved much more freely and much more quickly than humans were used to, and while that brought some excitement and possibility to American life, it also destabilized social relations and opened up opportunities for confidence men (and some women) to play tricks on unsuspecting minds. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the characters of the King and the Duke, for instance, are classic confidence men who play on anonymity and public trust to dupe small-town Arkansans. (They eventually get their comeuppance, though.)

The hoax that is currently being played on Americans is also rooted in real economic forces and it makes sense, to a degree, that the slice of the electorate who have been negatively affected by globalism voted in large numbers for the current president.

The new American hoax is not entirely dissimilar from Barnum’s public exhibitions of black and brown people. Barnum’s patrons were led to believe that non-whites were strange and abnormal and set apart from ‘normal’ Americans. Under the current regime, Americans are being led to believe that brown and black people are violent threats to the republic and are thereby different from white, hetero-normal, law-abiding Americans. Of course, demonizing blacks for their lawlessness, yanking Muslim Americans off of airplanes, denying brown American citizens re-entry to their country and failing to express national remorse and outrage over brown and black people summarily shot or beaten up because of their race is different from exhibiting non-white ‘freaks’ on a public stage. Barnum confined his racism to the exhibition halls. Now, we are watching the apparatus of the State enforce and delineate racial, ethnic and religious lines.

Hoaxes are so deeply engrained in the American mind, that, sometimes, we incorrectly anticipate them. Shortly after the election, I heard some progressives remarking that Trump didn’t actually want to be president and that he’d resign from the post before or shortly after the inauguration. He was just playing a trick on us, in other words. One fine day, he’d appear before us, explain the ruse, doff his cap and then sally off to Mar-a-Largo or the set of The Apprentice.  This kind of wishful thinking is, of course, the product of a mind that is used to and even expectant of the public hoax and it’s just as naive as the idea that a balloonist crossed the Atlantic in three days in the middle of the nineteenth century.

A hoax is funny up to a point and as long as no one gets hurt or excluded. In this regard, Poe’s Balloon Hoax was harmless, Barnum’s hoaxes were nasty and #45s hoax is beyond egregious.

I don’t know what’s better (or worse): understanding that Americans have a large and historical capacity for hoodwinking each other or seeing the current regime as an isolated incident that will magically disappear in four years.

Either way, I hope that you, like me, are doing all you can to reveal the twenty-first century’s Prince of Humbugs for what he really is and for what he really stands for.


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