I worked in traveling carnivals in 10 states, yet it was at the biggest United States state fair, the State Fair of Texas, where I learned the art of politics by running the king of all carnival games, Tubs of Fun. Heads turned as people walked past my booth, and I shouted: “Free try! Free! Free!” When I had gained their attention, I’d claim I could hypnotize them so they’d win the grand prize — appropriately, the prize was a Despicable Me minion the size of a five-year-old.
I’d show customers how to arc the softball into a slanted laundry basket. Every free try was a guaranteed winner. I’d praise the winner, telling them they were now under my hypnotic power. Lofting the ball just right so it’d stay in the basket was called Mike’s Rainbow. Use Mike’s Rainbow and you can’t lose, I’d tell them. Time to ante up and play for real money.
The “carny code” bars me from revealing exactly how I ran my game, but I can spot an alibi game when I see it: the operator need only invent imaginary reasons why the mark lost the game. It’s a fast-talking catch-22 strategy, and leading up to the election, Donald Trump was attempting to run the most transparent alibi flimflam in United States history, a game that doesn’t need to be fixed.
In Tubs of Fun, if the ball somehow does stay in the basket, by some fluke of the bounce, the customer is technically a winner, but not at the alibi store. Any twist of logic or truth will do: the mark was standing too close to the counter, which is cheating, according to the alibi man. The ball took an illegal bounce, which is also cheating. The so-called cheating need not occur — a customer win sets the alibi in motion.
Thus, the mark cannot win: if he wins, that means he cheated, which means he lost. If he lost, of course, he did not cheat, but he did indeed lose. Trump said before the election: “[T]he only way we’re gonna lose this election, is if the election is rigged.” This is carny lingo. It’s the tautological con of the alibi man. If Trump won, the game wasn’t rigged, and he was a winner. If he lost, the game was rigged, and he was still a winner.
Joe Biden’s win triggered the alibi game, which needs no proof — only an accusation of cheating. Trump, anticipating that he might lose, laid the groundwork for the post-election reaction to his loss.
The alibi game isn’t a favorite in carnivals and is only used as a last resort when a huge prize is at stake; carnies want to avoid bringing in the cops or state fair authorities at all costs. But Trump, of course, had appointed many of the authority figures whom he thought would back his con game if challenged. Scores of judges and three Supreme Court Justices owe their appointments to him. As commander-in-chief, he controlled the armed forces. Retired three-star general Michael Flynn publicly called for martial law, and Trump asked then–Attorney General William Barr — whom he had nominated — to investigate voter fraud. Bringing a beef to your handpicked cops is a sweet setup.
Trump’s alibi game didn’t bring him a second term, but it was still a partial success. Even after the January 6 Capitol Hill riot and Biden’s inauguration, about two-thirds of Republicans still believed Biden was illegitimately elected, and nearly three-quarters viewed Trump’s presidency positively, according to a recent poll by the Associated Press–National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. A Gallup poll showed that Trump still topped the list of the “most admired” men in the world. He’s talking about returning “in some form,” possibly another presidential run in 2024. Honest courts and state and local officials foiled Trump’s game, but he’s walking away with tens of millions of Americans who see the world the way he tells them to.
On January 2, 2021, after more than 60 lawsuits and full or partial vote recounts in Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Georgia (twice), Trump made a phone call to the office of Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, with threats and a classic alibi comment: “[U]nder new counts, and under new views, of the election results, we won the election.” The winner of the game isn’t the winner — the winner is the prevailing point of view.
The carnival is an alternate reality where the facts of everyday life no longer apply. Carnivals benefit from a certain subcortical circuitry. Creating that mingled sense of unreality and desire is a winning combo.
American traveling carnivals were born at the end of the 19th century and used a midway model to combine sideshows, foods, games, and rides and take them on the road. They gained popularity in the economic dry spell following the Panic of 1893. Bitter political upheavals gave rise to a populist party, the People’s Party, and helped elect Republican William McKinley in the 1896 United States presidential election (he was fatally shot at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York). The world was coming off what some called the “Asiatic flu” pandemic (1889–’90), which killed an estimated one million people worldwide. Racial tensions ran high as civil rights leaders, among them Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, decried widespread inequalities in a pamphlet titled “The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” distributed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
The 2020 election season and its aftermath were also framed by a backdrop of pandemic and racial tension — it was a national carnival of demented sideshows and games, but here, with real death. A Capitol Hill riot, two impeachments, a crowded Democratic primary field, a farrago of lunatic conspiracies, racialized killings and ensuing protests, Supreme Court musical chairs, and the COVID-19 pandemic raged amid superspreader Trump rallies that featured the most powerful man on earth jerking on the jumbotron as the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” (1978) blasted from the speakers.
Every presidential election year feels like a carnival, but 2020 was a dark carnival. Dark carnivals are colorful, exciting, and disorienting places, where everything is for sale, and people die. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) told the story of the first modern serial killer, Dr. H. H. Holmes, who confessed to having dispatched with 27 victims outside the gates of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Stephen King’s Joyland (2013) has a murdered ghost living in the Horror House at an amusement park in North Carolina. FX’s American Horror Story dedicated a season to a freak show. The dark carnival genre can be found in television, movies, novels, and cable news.
My carnival analogy isn’t a new one. A piece in The Atlantic last August called the entire Republican National Convention “A Carnival of Disinformation.” Los Angeles Times staff writer Eli Stokols wrote about Trump rallies’ sensory overload in a piece headlined “Traveling with Trump is a cognitive dissonance carnival.” Heather Cox Richardson, Boston College historian and author of the wildly popular Letters from an American newsletter, said that Trump uses showmanship to get people’s attention and gets them to root for him whether he’s telling the truth or not. “What he is is a showman,” she said. “I find him a very compelling speaker. I mean, I loathe him, but I actually think he reaches the crowd in really amazing ways.”
People backed Trump like they would root for their favorite wrestling pro, said Richardson in her 2020 book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. “The reality doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re watching a theater presentation where your guy is going to win, and that’s very important if you are living in a country where you feel disenfranchised or culturally insignificant.”
One of the omnipresent sounds of the carnival is the screaming crowd, thrilled by roller coasters and rides selling near-death experiences. Screaming crowds trigger several psychological responses: Trump rallies gave people the feeling of belonging to a movement. Their crowd size and fervor made it all the more inconceivable to Trump supporters that the socially distanced Biden rallies generated any support. And screaming-crowd psychology also took over during the January 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill, primed by a host of Trumpist family and politicians who whipped up the mass into a riotous frenzy. They stood on a platform that looked exactly like a sideshow bally stage, calling on the crowd to march on Capitol Hill and “fight.”
Trump promised to go with them but retreated to watch the spectacle on TV, ignoring frantic calls for help from Capitol Hill and eventually tweeting both encouragement and love to the rioters. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” he wrote. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
This was a carny who had hypnotized his “tip,” or crowd, so when they left empty-handed, they didn’t feel like losers. They had had fun. They were powerful. Early polls showed that a majority of Republicans didn’t think Donald Trump was to blame for the destruction and death on Capitol Hill that cold January day.
The attack on Capitol Hill was the star attraction in a year of demented sideshows. After four years of railing against “fake news,” Trump followers were primed to reject objective facts and listen only to his lies about the stolen election of 2020. The election landslide buried Trump by seven million votes and a decisive electoral college loss, so the master showman responded by appealing to a higher court of make-believe. Polling suggested that roughly half of Americans believed in one baseless conspiracy or another. From satanic pedophiles to COVID-19 hoaxes, fringe theories jumped carriers like the raging virus itself. The White House was a hot spot, even as the ringleader hyped hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug and floated the idea that injecting disinfectant or sunlight might fight the virus. The Clorox Company put out a statement that virus treatment with bleach was not a real thing, in part because many Trump supporters don’t believe the news.
Carnivals are places that manipulate crowd psychology in order to create a fantasy, an escape from the reality of ordinary life. Rides are named “Pirate’s Revenge,” and funhouse themes depict Mardi Gras pandemonium. People get away from the dullness of their lives and try to win a giant stuffed whale. Despite Trump’s six bankruptcies and allegations of massive tax fraud, many voters thought of him as the man with the Midas touch. “Make America Great Again” meant “Make Me Financially Secure Again.”
Even the Capitol Hill riot is recognizable from behind a carnival counter. Carnivals have a history of “suicide missions” and “hey rube” moments. The townies believe they are being cheated and attack the entire carnival. And they almost exclusively happen in rural America, where many of the January 6 rioters came from.
In Ray Bradbury’s classic dark carnival novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), a horrifying question is raised at the end of the story. After the dark carnival has wreaked havoc on their all-American town, Will asks his father: “Dad, will they ever come back?” “No, […] [but] other people like them,” answers the dad, “maybe they’re already here.” A large portion of the United States still buys the Big Lie that President Biden wasn’t elected and believes that Trump was running the magic carousel backward to a fictional better time. Look around. Next to you or lurking in the wings, maybe there is already someone among us. Maybe that person will be the alibi man who will improve on Trump’s game.
Traveling carnivals are an American invention, and I’m proud to have once worked as a carny, despite the larceny of Tubs of Fun. Carnivals, once full of shady practices, are self-correcting. The Biden administration holds out the promise of returning to the normie townie life we once knew, but inside this great national trauma of the election and pandemic is a revolving traveling show that’s still where it always was and where dark carnivals always reside, somewhere deep inside.
Michael Sean Comerford is a journalist and the author of American OZ: An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals at State Fairs & Festivals: Hitchhiking from California to New York, Alaska to Mexico (2020).
Featured image: "Donald Trump" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Banner image: "Sideshow at the Erie County Fair" by Shinerunner is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.