Trump, the modern-day PT Barnum
© Getty Images

He's going to build a wall, he's going to make us great again, he's going to keep us safe, and he's going to — somehow — work well with those "stupid, stupid people" in Washington.


He's a man filled with contradictions who seems apt to say just about anything to anyone. He's a man who says "I love the Muslims" not long before calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country. He said President George W. Bush lied us into a war, then said maybe Bush didn't. He even spent about an hour last week discussing the success of Trump products that were not only not successful, but are often not Trump products, just products with the Trump name. He dared the media to check out his claims, almost like a psychopath daring the police to catch him.

And yet his supporters do not waver. Why is that?

Perhaps it's part of human nature. It's the same reason that P.T. Barnum was able to pack people into his museum year after year: Some of the treasures he possessed and some of the "unusual humans" he presented were real, but there were also many fakes. After starting out in the mid-1830s promoting a former slave by the name of Joice Heth, whom Barnum claimed was over 160 years old and had been George Washington's nursemaid, Barnum discovered a principle that would govern his entire career: People want to believe in things — even, sometimes, the preposterous. Heath's story, of course, was preposterous, but it didn't matter: People paid to see her anyway.

In 1869, a "giant" was discovered in Cardiff, N.Y. on the farm of Stub Newell, who had hired some workers to dig a well on his property. The workers were rather amazed when they uncovered a perfectly petrified figure, over 10 feet in length. Of course, Newell was well aware that the giant was a plant — part of a scheme arranged by his cousin, George Hull, to both rope people in and poke fun at religious beliefs at the same time (Hull had had an argument with a man about things stated in the Bible, including the claim of giants roaming the earth).

They began charging money and wound up selling the fake man for $30,000. Even after acclaimed paleontologist Othniel Marsh declared the specimen to be a fraud, P.T. Barnum still offered to buy it from the new owners and display it. He knew it was a fake, but he also knew that people would still pay to see it. When the new owners refused to sell it to him, Barnum just had his own made, claiming that his was the "real" Cardiff Giant. How could the others complain? It would be like the line in "The Sting," when Doyle Lonnegan says, "What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheatin' better than me?"

Eventually, the case made its way to court, where the entire enterprise was clearly exposed as a fraud. Yet, there were still believers — for years and years. There were even people who claimed to see special meaning in the statue.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE is the P.T. Barnum of our day. He's caught on to the fact that people will believe what they want to believe. In psychology, there is something known as "confirmation bias," wherein people see what they want to see and ignore the rest. Part of confirmation bias is what's known as "belief perseverance." This is the tendency of people to believe what they want, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Once they're hooked in, it's very difficult to get them to change their minds.

No matter how much Trump lies — no matter how clearly he's shown to be a con artist and huckster — his supporters just entrench themselves ever more. If the media publish something negative about him, it must be because they're biased against him, they figure. If a bunch of his products which he says succeeded actually failed, it must be because he's a brilliant entrepreneur who's not afraid to take risks. His wall idea isn't ridiculous, it's "bold." And his proposed ban on Muslims isn't bigotry, "it's necessary to keep us safe." Somehow, even though he's spent the entire campaign telling easily disprovable lies, he's "telling it like it is." He's not an extremist, he's "anti-establishment."

These rationalizations are desirable to people because, as psychologists will tell you, humans seek simplicity. We look for leaders who can condense complex problems into simple solutions. People would like to believe that we can solve our immigration and crime problems by building a wall, and that we can fix economic problems by "making great deals." Trump speaks well to their fears, their angers, and their desire for easy answers. And he's vague enough that people can see what they want to. His supporters, like the rest of us, don't actually know what many of his policies are: They're not buying into his policies so much as buying into him, and that's why, much like with Trump University, he can sell them empty promises and nonsensical solutions.

It's why so many people, angry and feeling disenfranchised, are willing to consider for president a man who is so clearly pathological. It's how every terrible leader in history was able to take power.

Trump is pulling one over on the American people, but he's not the first: We've seen this show before; the Republicans have been displaying it for years. Trump just copied their style, promoted it better, and is now selling his own Cardiff Giant.

Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.