The alleged author of the adage “A sucker is born every minute” knew his audience. Barnum gave us the Figi Mermaid, Bearded Lady, and Tom Thumb who were the oddities that attracted hordes to his museums and traveling circuses. But Barnum himself was perhaps the greater oddity. Born in nearby Connecticut, Barnum began his meteoric rise in the entertainment business after moving to New York in 1834 and introducing his "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater" which led to a career as an author, politician, philanthropist, and, yes, showman. Unlike his latter-day New York showman, Phineas T. Barnum was not a character in his own freak show. In a time when the issue of slavery was at the forefront of the nation’s politics, he argued in favor of the thirteenth Amendment which formally abolished slavery:
"A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit"
--P.T. Barnum, 1865
Barnum was, however, a man of his times. Fact-checking his abolitionist bona fides, history tells us that before he argued against it, Barnum owned slaves and worse:
During his successful run for the Connecticut General Assembly in 1865 something changed, however. Suddenly, Cook writes, Barnum “began to express a novel sympathy and regret about the subjugation of African-Americans—or at least to approach civil rights matters at the end of the Civil War with a new, somewhat softer vision of racial paternalism.” During a failed run for Congress, he even “confessed” during a campaign speech that while living in the South he had owned slaves himself, actions he since regretted. “I did more,” he said. “I whipped my slaves. I ought to have been whipped a thousand times for this myself. But by then I was a Democrat—one of those nondescript Democrats, who are Northern men with Southern principles.”
— By Jackie Mansky, in Smithsonianmag.com, December 22, 2017
Barnum was a microcosm of the delusions Americans have of ourselves regarding race, money, and power.
The Artful Tyranny of the Electoral college
What Barnum shares with the Republicans of today is a hypocrisy that is fed by an even deeper misunderstanding of the issues. America isn’t culpable because of its racist policies of the past, rather we are held hostage moreso today by the systemic racism that permeates our founding premise. The nation was established by mainly white men for the purpose of freeing them and their descendants to prosper politically and economically. A case in point is the insistence by the founders to create a safeguard in their constitution to ensure that the succession of power be protected from voters whom they distrusted. The Electoral College despite arguments to the contrary was a confection promoted, in part, by southern leaders who feared the popular vote from the northern states who were at best indifferent, or at worse, opposed to the formation of a union that protected the rights of slaveowners at the expense of the rights of blacks.
Indeed, at the time, the rights of many “others” were either denied or not recognized in the list of grievances that compelled the Founders to declare independence from England. The sentiment that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” was never meant to include slaves….or indigenous Americans, or women, for that matter. And yet, today, we continue to gloss over their intent and pretend they really meant what they wrote---that their principles were aligned with their intent. The cognitive dissonance that allows Republican leaders today to adhere to principles in a document they readily ignore in practice is palpable. Their Constitution is locked in the past and used as a cudgel whenever principle and convenience clash. In a way, it can be attributed to a syndrome named for Barnum and recognized as a psychological trait. The Barnum, or Forer Effect, is a psychic elixir that allows folks to believe that they possess unique qualities that are really quite ordinary and that these qualities allow them license:
Barnum Effect, also called Forer Effect, in psychology, the phenomenon that occurs when individuals believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them (more so than to other people), despite the fact that the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone. The effect means that people are gullible because they think the information is about them only when in fact the information is generic. ...Psychics, horoscopes, magicians, palm readers, and crystal ball gazers make use of the Barnum Effect when they convince people that their description of them is highly special and unique and could never apply to anyone else.
--Kathlenn D, Vohs, Brittanica.com
Who doesn’t relish the self-validation brought on by subtle flattery and manipulation? There is little more validating than being recognized for your own uniqueness! The Barnum Effect is a powerful tool that has been weaponized by charlatans and carnival barkers inviting us into their freak show. Today, it is the tool of advertisers and unseemly politicians who use our vanity to make us their suckers. Think Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Greene, and, yes, Donald Trump. I believe that it explains in part the disconnect many of us feel when we talk to our Republican friends and relatives. Call it the art of the gull as it suggests that a pre-condition to accepting a bias is to personalize it. The GQP frames their racist and nutty policies as grievances we all share. As they flatter us with sympathy and understanding they lure some to join their circus. Unwitting or not, among the “smallest” and the “tallest”, the “bearded” and the “bald”, are the duped.
the Water Valve grievance
The effect explains in part the cult-like followers of Trump who repeatedly heard him say at rallies and in tweets that they were “loved” and that they were “patriots” whose loyalty was generally unrecognized by those with whom they disagreed. Trump’s message was that he recognized their pain as he likened their struggles to the struggles he helped manufactured for America. His American Carnage inaugural gripe laid out the set of grievances that his followers could internalize and make their own. Certainly, his dog whistles were directed at white supremacists whose list of grievances with America were one with Trump. They knew he understood them by the words he used that day. It was their clarion call.
The others, however, our family members, friends, and relatives heard a different message which they massaged and molded out of the everyday trials and tribulations felt by all of us at one time or another. Trump’s ability to elevate the common rhythms we all go through and make them seem unique, made them feel recognized and accepted. He raised mundane and petty resentments to heightened levels of annoyance. At Trump rallies, he could be heard to rail about lightbulbs that no longer were bright enough, or toilettes and showers that dispensed water in a trickle rather than a rush---and raised those rather tepid complaints to scores that had to be settled. All of a sudden newfangled water valves and energy-saving light fixtures separated his worldview from his opponents. They were as bad as the fake news press, a stand-in for liberal democrats. These were small but insidious inconveniences that would portend a Trumpian cataclysmic future that only he---and his followers---understood and were committed to ending. He preyed upon their darker inner insecurities by exploiting their naivete.
the rainbow ruse
By constantly reminding his base that they were really good people who sometimes were forced to act badly, he gave them license to hate. It is a trick associated with the Barnum effect and used by psychics and card readers. It is known as the rainbow ruse and it is the trick at the center of the psychic’s cold reading—the initial observations made by the con artist to separate a gull from his or her money.
The “rainbow ruse” is a cold reading technique in which the reader first assigns the subject a personality trait, and then assigns its opposite. For example, one might say, “You can be a spontaneous person, but in your private life you tend to stick to a routine that works.” Or, “You see yourself as an open-minded person, but you tend to dispense with bad arguments quickly.”
At a Trump rally, his followers often heard that they are the true patriots whose unpatriotic leanings are simply a virtuous corrective. Like Barnum’s apocryphal suckers, the MAGA faithful stumble around in a darkness of their own making, an amalgam of bitter seditionists, intolerant bigots... and the willingly duped who sit alongside us in pews and eat and drink at our tables. Each gives the other cover.
While the distinction leaves us little comfort, it allows us a more generous opinion of Uncle Dim and Aunt Daffy. They are not necessarily evil, just one of the suckers born every minute who bought themselves a ticket to the freak show.