We get the word “mesmerize” from a doctor named Franz Anton Mesmer, who in Paris in the late 18th century posited the existence of an invisible natural force connecting all living things — a force you could manipulate to physically affect another person.
Mesmer’s work inspired the stage hypnotists of mid-19th-century America. Before rapt audiences, these “mesmerists” used carefully choreographed gestures to lull their subjects into a state of credulous obedience. As the practitioner John Bovee Dods wrote in the 1850s, a mesmerist could make an entranced volunteer see “that a hat is a halibut or flounder; a handkerchief is a bird, child or rabbit; or that the moon or a star falls on a person in the audience, and sets him on fire.”
In our historical moment, the mesmerists are worth considering, for they were frequently debunked but the debunkings rarely had much of an effect. Just as the repeated corrections of President Trump’s falsehoods have failed to discourage him or his supporters, so too the mesmerists escaped their exposés unharmed.
A critic named J. Stanley Grimes, for example, challenged the mesmerist J. R. Buchanan’s claim that he could alter people’s behavior by targeting an invisible substance toward organs of personality in their brains. Grimes showed that the same effects could be produced by what we today would call the power of suggestion, simply by intoning, “You cannot open your eyes.”
But mesmerists had a knack for turning such accusations of fraudulence into strength. Practitioners got some of their best material by embracing the debunkers’ theories as their own. Dods, for example, derived his stage show from Grimes, plagiarizing Grimes’s technique (“You cannot open your eyes”). And even Grimes himself became a mesmerist of sorts, in that he produced Buchanan’s mind-altering stunts on stage through suggestion.
To the charge that they were deceiving their audiences, mesmerists responded that they were expert demonstrators and analysts of deception. Yes, Dods did trick his subjects — but only in order to illustrate how dangerous other tricksters could be.
Mesmerism, as the stage hypnotists presented it, was the hidden basis of all deceptive arts. Other deceivers mesmerized, too, whether or not they admitted it. When Dods offered to teach mesmerism to his audiences, he was offering to let them in on a powerful secret. Instead of being one of the dupes, you could be one of the mesmerists. All you had to do was sign up for his private class — for a hefty fee.
Imagine trying to take the wind out of Dods’s sails by calling him an impostor, as people did. Far from deflating Dods’s prestige, such accusations would only add to it. Control over the powers of deception was precisely what Dods was selling.
Or imagine trying to defeat mesmerism by calling it a ridiculous fad that a credulous public deserved. This argument, too, suited mesmerists just fine. The more fetid the swamp of public life, the more important it became to understand the mesmeric techniques of deception. How about signing up for that private class?
In the same way, exposing Mr. Trump’s lies seems to play right into his hands. We rarely consider the possibility that the president’s supporters want a scoundrel, as long as he’s their scoundrel. Great con men feed off accusations of dishonesty. They mesmerize us because we suspect them of deception, not in spite of that fact.
Like the mesmerists, what Mr. Trump is actually selling is anti-mesmerism. The mesmerists were offering a fantasy of turning the tables on con men by exposing their tricks. Mr. Trump, while constantly lying, denounces liars all around him. He tells us the game is rigged. The fake news media can’t out-fake him. This is how he gets away with making myriad demonstrably inaccurate claims, as he did at a rally with adoring supporters in Pennsylvania on Thursday, while in the same breath attacking the news media as “fake, fake disgusting news.”
Even if Mr. Trump’s audience retains a suspicion that he himself might be a swindler, that doesn’t necessarily work to his disadvantage. The attacks on his truthfulness have an alarming tendency to reinforce his message that he’s a master of the deceptive arts. In a treacherous world, you need a treacherous ally — treacherous, at least, to your mutual enemies. So become Mr. Trump’s apprentice! Sign up, as Dods urged, for the private class!
When no one is trustworthy, you might as well trust a con artist. There’s a strange logic to the idea. Innocent lambs may be admirable, but they’re not the defenders you want in a dog-eat-dog world. Better to have a sly fox at your side.