In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series documenting life on the moon. Astronomers at a South African observatory had discovered that it was home to giant shellfish and beavers that walked on two legs, the paper claimed, to blue unicorns and a blue stone temple, tiny bison and winged men.
Though fanciful and absurd, readers believed this story, and many persisted in their defense of its veracity even after it was debunked. Why did they cling to such an obvious fiction?
“The story was believed not just because Americans were predisposed to believe exciting untruths, but because it contained shards of plausibility,” Kurt Andersen argues in “Fantasyland,” his rather glib but informative examination of magical thinking as a cornerstone of American culture. “The articles were intelligently written and filled with detail. A new Royal Observatory did exist on the Cape of Good Hope; there was an amazing 40-foot telescope in England; Mars had just been mapped.”
Evidence sometimes is fabricated. So why not exploit this disturbing truth to buttress your own lies?
Six years later, P.T. Barnum opened the American Museum, a big entertainment complex in Manhattan that housed the Feejee Mermaid (constructed by an artful taxidermist who joined the mummified torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish), a loom run by a dog and the trunk of a tree that shaded Jesus’s disciples. But the museum also housed the 25-inch tall “General Tom Thumb,” the “Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng, and an aquarium containing a beluga whale. And the presence of these real anomalies — people and animals who exemplified the extremes of natural variation — made the fabrications more credible.
Now, 180 years later, we’re seeing Donald Trump and Project Veritas run similar plays based on the same principle.
When the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape was released in 2016 — the one in which Trump boasts of grabbing women’s genitalia and kissing them without warning, let alone permission — the then-candidate initially claimed that he never said such a thing. According to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, “Trump vehemently denied the tape was him when it first came out before hearing it, and only acknowledged it was him when he was able to listen to it.” He quickly followed his admission with an unrepentant apology for what he dismissed as simple “locker room talk.”
But even the most jaded of Trump watchers couldn’t help but be stunned when earlier this week, the New York Times reported that on multiple occasions since then, Trump has challenged the authenticity of the 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape.
"How do you apologize for something and renege on it?” Arianne Zucker, one of the actresses featured in the tape, rather plaintively asked.
Because if you are Donald Trump, a man intoxicated with your own history of impunity, you rightly believe you can. After all, some conspiracies are real. (See Iran-Contra.) Images and audio and video recordings can be and are selectively edited, dubbed and doctored. Evidence sometimes is fabricated. So why not exploit this disturbing truth to buttress your own lies?
And who should know this better than Project Veritas, whose sting-based campaigns to drive voter registration organization ACORN out of business, disgrace Planned Parenthood, and discredit the Democratic Party, earned them a $10,000 donation from Candidate Trump?
Of course their latest scam didn’t go so well.
On Monday, The Washington Post exposed the repeated attempts of a woman named Jaime T. Phillips to get the paper to publish her allegations that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her when she a teenager, then forced her to have an abortion. Given how many other women have made similar accusations, hers seemed like a credible claim. But rather than take the allegation at face value, reporters did what real journalists are trained to do. They investigated and discovered that Phillips lied about her employment, had launched a Kickstarter campaign to help her move to New York so she could help to “combat the lies and deceipt [sic] of the liberal MSM,” and appeared to be in the employ of Project Veritas.
Wow. Plant a false story in the hope that the mainstream media will run it, then expose the fake news that you yourself have generated. Give Project Veritas an A for Audacity.
Except that alas, their tactics are neither bold nor discredited. Just as P.T. Barnum placed fabrications and real wonders side by side, just as the New York Sun leavened its fantasies with facts, today’s masters of manipulation have no qualms about co-mingling truth and falsehood.
Despite, or perhaps because of our technical sophistication, we’re no less susceptible to this form of deception than were our 19th century ancestors. The plethora of digital content and the technology of personalization make it easy to create individual worlds that may only partially overlap with objective facts. “We are freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever or to pretend to be whomever we wish,” Andersen writes. “Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, a matter of personal preference.”
It’s true. We’ve been at risk of becoming a nation of ear-budded, iTranced dreamers. But the bombardment of ever-more flagrant and vicious lies is waking many of us up, and we’re finding that we like the heat generated by clear-eyed scrutiny. It turns out that even now, many of us prefer a more rigid truth, one built from facts, not wishes.