The Long Con

Hoaxes, fake news, and phonies are nothing new in America. But has it ever been this bad?

Trump Hershey Pennsylvania
Donald Trump arrives to speak during a USA Thank You Tour event in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 15.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It’s easy enough to believe that this is an especially awful moment for truth—in part because it is. But in a new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Kevin Young shows that the concepts listed in his title have been around in America for a very long time. His narrative extends from the 17th century to our own, and from lying journalists and fake memoirists to politicians who win over voters with disinformation. One of Young’s aims is to show that hoaxes are not random and have been known to play upon our worst fears and prejudices.

To discuss “bunk” and its relevance to our own age, I recently spoke by phone with Young, who is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and also the new poetry editor of the New Yorker. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what inspired his book idea (it wasn’t Trump), whether con men ever believe their own nonsense, and why people are willing to believe some hoaxes more than others.

Isaac Chotiner: How long have you been working on this book?

Kevin Young: Six years.

So basically you’re the luckiest man alive, timing-wise.

Yeah. I do think the one thing that is true is that I was sort of saying that these things were getting worse and were happening more and more. When it came true, I felt like I was definitely on the right track.

What exactly did you think was happening more and more?

Maybe it’s the poet’s instinct, but there were signs in the sense that when James Frey was discovered, that same week something like three other huge hoaxes were discovered. It seemed to be happening more and more. I think CNN declared one year the “Year of the Hoax,” and then the next year was even worse. These things just were building, but I was already writing by that time. I just was noticing around us this proliferation of a certain kind of fakery, and then I started to understand the ways in which these things go in waves, and we were in a particularly bad one.

It has to be more than a poet’s instinct. Ezra Pound was a poet.

I trace it in the book back a couple decades to what I call the Age of Euphemism. At least since Watergate, let’s say, there’s been this real unmooring of the stories we tell ourselves and that are used to provide consistency and solace, whether it’s about opportunity or the American dream, or about our broadest selves. I feel like those have been both contested and also been eroded. Add that to technology changing rapidly, and you can sort of see some of the mix that makes up the hoax. What’s interesting to me, once I started reading the historical stuff, is it’s not dissimilar to the 1830s or the 1890s.

Why those decades?

Well, in the 1830s, for instance, there was the advent of the penny press. I talk about it a little bit as one of the things that helped transmit hoaxes. I make it analogous to the internet and the change where the internet promised sort of democratic access, promised information, but also entertainment, and the two sort of started to get mixed with each other, and also relied on advertisements in ways that aren’t dissimilar. I think you saw in the 1830s, in a weird way, people read papers not necessarily looking for objectivity, which wasn’t even a thing that papers were meant to provide, necessarily. They were looking for a lot of different things, and some of them were tall tales and things like that. At the same time, they took a kind of pleasure, I think, in being fooled in ways that we don’t. But also the hoaxes changed. The hoax is no longer a pleasant ploy, but rather it’s filled with trauma and really preys on our deepest divisions.

That brings to mind the present day. One way of thinking about Trump voters is as victims of a hoax, or as victims of a con man. Do you see them in that light?

I definitely think that Trump was a literal showman. He literally was the center of a reality show. I think reality shows are very much kind of playing into a kind of consistent need that we see in the 19th  century, to see things that you know are kind of fake but kind of real, and sort of play with both. I love reality shows. I watch them like many other people. I think they provide this kind of notion that you see in P.T. Barnum, where people go and participate in the process of evaluating or voting off or making judgments, which is what I think people liked in Barnum’s day. The thing that troubles me is that, in Barnum’s day there was a notion that you too could be an expert, the audience got made into experts by Barnum. I feel like right now there’s a kind of notion that no one is an expert. There is no expertise. Expertise is to be diminished and sort of ridiculed. It becomes supercynical, and I think, in a weird way, that cynicism leads to this notion that fake news is both an accusation and a real thing that’s affecting us all with the bots or disinformation that’s being put out there. We start to lose sight of how we can distinguish between the fake and real.

So does that make you feel differently about the people who have fallen for it?

I don’t think so. I don’t think I was thinking of that. I was thinking about audiences, but I was also thinking about the ways the hoax plays with these deep divisions of race, of class. That really is more troubling to me: that these things could be weaponized [and] we could be divided further.

How have things like race and class been connected with hoaxes and hucksters over history?

When I started out, I had a hunch that the hoaxes weren’t about what people said they were about, which was sort of like the thin line between fact and fiction or aren’t we all silly and goofy together, and instead that they were really about race. Quite often they, from the 19th century to now, played with race. This is true from fake memoirs like James Frey’s or Margaret Seltzer, who pretended to be a gang member, to journalistic hoaxes, which often sort of stoked race. Stephen Glass’ hoaxes were often race-based. Seeing that connection over and over again once I started researching was really … It was nice to be sort of proved right, but it was also dispiriting.

When you’re researching these people like P.T. Barnum, or whoever else, did you ever find yourself having sort of sympathy for them as showmen, even if they were preying on people?

I think Barnum, as a showman, is remarkable. He really was able to tap the pulse or tap into the kind of cultural memes of the moment. He would exploit them, he would expose them. He’s not, by any means, a simple figure. I start with him, in part, because I think he tells us a lot about American wishes and desires.

One of things that’s interesting to me about Trump as hoaxer or con man, which is obviously a huge part of his character, is he doesn’t 100 percent of the time seem to be in on it. I assume that most of the time he’s conning people, but there are also times where he seems to be a legitimate conspiracy theorist and this is also a real part of his personality. I was wondering if you saw that with other hoaxers, where they were using people, but they were also not 100 percent in on the joke.

Yeah. I do say at one point that the hoax’s first victim is the hoaxer. There is a way in which people, I think, whether they double-down or you start to almost feel like they believe their bunk. I do think there’s a risk of that. They sort of take us down with them, in that sense. I also think that I’m not just interested in how people deceive us, but also why we believe and what is it that makes us believe.

One of the things that’s interesting to me in the current political climate is the degree to which people believe, but maybe don’t really believe. There was a period where, if you polled people, 20 percent of Americans said that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. You could say, OK, this hoax, or whatever you want to call it, became so widespread that 1 in 5 Americans would tell pollsters that. I was never sure whether to believe that that was true. As in, if these people all had a gun to their head, they would really give that answer, or whether they were kind of engaging in this hoax because part of them wanted to believe it, and it was a way of expressing their political or cultural identity.

It’s a good question. It’s hard to say sometimes. People ask me that about the moon hoax, which is a famous hoax from 1835. How much did people believe it? I think it would yield a similar kind of answer, that people often believed it. Some people argued over it and liked to think about it or imagine it, some people rejected it, but it became supercentral and part of the story that we told ourselves. I think that’s really the troubling thing about something like, say, birtherism. It becomes almost hard to shake, because there’s a level of, “Is the hoax about being fooled, or is it a kind of wish expressed aloud?” and then when it’s revealed, it reveals much more. It reveals what we really think in a weird way, because it’s not true, so why do we seek this out? My book is asking that question. It isn’t really answering it. It’s really trying to explore the different ways that we’ve done that over history, and trying to understand how we, as Americans specifically, think about hoaxing and is hoaxing something American? Is it something that we engage in more than others? I think the answer is leaning towards yes.