P.T. Barnum is widely credited with coining the adage, "There's a sucker born every minute.” Whether he actually made the statement or not, its an apt observation today in the Trump era and a time when we scamvangelists raking in fortunes from the gullible and intellectually lazy and Fox News provides the equivalent of a lobotomy on its viewers. Trump and the scamvangelists, of course, offer the same ploy to their supporters: simple answers to complex circumstances which in both cases offer their audiences (i) an opportunity of not having to think for themselves, and (ii) a re-enforcement of their bigotries and biases. This likely explains why evangelicals are Trump's most loyal base. Thinking for themselves and reaching independent moral decisions terrifies them and, sadly, most are racists who eat up Trump's calls to bigotry and discrimination. A column in the New York Times looks at the vulnerability of Americans, especially today's far right to charlatans. Here are excerpts:
I think one plausible name for our era will be the Age of the Charlatan. Everywhere you turn there seems to be some kind of quack or confidence man catering to an eager audience: Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity have moved from pushing ill-informed opinion to flat-out conspiracy mongering; pickup artists sell “tried and true” methods for isolated young men to seduce women; and sophists pass off stale pedantries as dark and radical thought, selling millions of books in the process. In politics, too, our highest office is occupied by a man who was once aptly called a “carnival barker.”
What makes us so vulnerable to charlatans today? In part it’s the complexity of the modern world and the rate of technological and social change: Quackery provides what Saul Bellow once called a “five-cent synthesis,” boiling down the chaotic tangle of the age into simple nostrums.
A largely forgotten book from an earlier and similarly discontented era offers insight. In 1937, a journalist named Grete De Francesco published a volume called “Die Macht des Charlatans,” or “The Power of the Charlatan,” a history of the quacks and mountebanks that roamed Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern period. She was Austrian and had been a writer for the Frankfurter Zeitung, but with the Nazis in power, it makes sense that her book about demagogues’ manipulating crowds was published in Switzerland.
Ms. De Francesco explains that the word “charlatan” comes from the Italian “ciarlatano,” itself probably related to the verb “ciarlare,” which means to babble or to go on incessantly without reflection. The original charlatans would babble on and on to mesmerize their audiences.
Crucially, the charlatan provides palliatives for a confused public. These nostrums can be either literal pills or phony ideas, for as Ms. De Francesco notes, “a quack is a quack — whether he sells opinions or elixirs.” Frequently they sell both. See for example Alex Jones, one of the most popular charlatans of the present age. He peddles bizarre conspiracy theories, including that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, but also his own line of snake oil in the form of dubious dietary supplements.
Charlatans, Ms. De Francesco tells us, become especially prevalent in ages of “rapid development of the sciences, or quickened progress in technology” when “minds are overburdened with the effort to keep up with these accumulations of facts.”
In these periods, conspiracy theories and simplistic reductions of social ills function the same way as quack medicine: They seem to provide a cure, but since they only further inflame the underlying fears, they are just driving their own demand.
The most sophisticated mountebanks employed a hodgepodge drawn from science, alchemy, astrology, myth and philosophy. As Ms. De Francesco wrote: Through his mysterious and appealing lectures, they were guided away from the cold sobriety of genuine knowledge into the picturesque realms of pseudoscience. … These fake scientific talks were indeed excitingly mystical, yet to all appearances they could be understood by the common man.
The danger arises, she explains, when the serious-minded journalist strives to be “open minded,” finds something “interesting” in the charlatan’s discourses and ends up being just another puffer. Particularly if a person thinks of himself as clever, he will often have a hard time admitting his own ignorance.
“If the opinionated person belongs to the ranks of the quack’s predisposed victims, he will sublimate his doubts by magnifying the person or the occurrence about which he is dubious. … To silence his own conscience, he will refuse to swallow the insinuations of the skeptics; and to soothe himself invents stories which attract ever more throngs to the impostor.”
It’s also clear that Ms. De Francesco saw a parallel between the totalitarian movements of her own time and the charlatans in her book. She believed they both reduced people to the lowest common denominator: “They viewed mankind as a totality, seeing persons only in their special functions as buyers — purchasers of nostrums or theories.”
How can we avoid the snares of the charlatan? Fortunately, we live in a literate society: The compiled judgments and experiences of the past are still available to us, and we have really seen this all before.
Ms. De Francesco says some people just won’t fall for it, but some people always will: “They want to believe, and would only hate the argumentative expert who tried to injure the object of their faith.” So, remonstrating at length might not always be worth it.
[A]gainst the pretension to understand every single social ill according to some simple formula or another, some humility might help. When someone offers a too-easy explanation, we might choose instead the less satisfying but far healthier, “I don’t know.”
Nothing, of course, terrifies evangelicals more than saying "I don't know." They require a lists of boxes they can check off and despise those who are different and, therefore, prompt the requirement of thinking. Again, it's no coincidence that evangelicals are Trump's most reliable core of support. They certainly are a fulfillment of P.T. Barnum's supposed adage.