For decades, Donald Trump has been compared to the legendary showman P.T. Barnum. Trump himself has publicly embraced being likened to a man described by historians as “vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked.” His willingness to invoke that set of values—quite different from the Horatio Alger-style “luck and pluck” that serve as an unofficial national ethos—may be what his supporters are praising when they say he “tells it like it is.” His base seems to view his readiness to dispense with ideals and ethics (“anyone would have taken that meeting”) as a sign of fitness to deal with the world as it is: a cesspool of corruption and “carnage” in which only suckers still believe that honesty is the best policy.
At this political moment, few books could be more timely than Fraud: An American History From Barnum to Madoff, by the Duke University historian Edward Balleisen. Other academics have documented the ways that the United States has been steeped in fraud and chicanery from the earliest days of the republic—notably, Stephen Mihm’s outstanding A Nation of Counterfeiters. But
Balleisen’s book provides a far more sweeping view than its predecessors, offering a much-needed big-picture perspective. Balleisen never mentions Donald Trump, but effectively contextualizes his ascent by tracing centuries of grift, fraud, and con men in American history.