The word “Geek” has developed cachet. It’s practically a compliment. No longer paired with “computer” — the tech aspect is assumed — it refers to someone proficient in all things digital. Fashion-challenged and socially awkward, yes, but that’ll change once the stock options get cashed. Geek is good. There’s a Canadian web design company called “Geek Power.”

OPINION

Yet “geek” originally had a very different meaning. My trusty Dictionary of American Slang explains:

geek n. 1 . A carnival or circus performer, considered a freak, who performs sensationally disgusting acts that a normal person would not, e.g., eating or swallowing live animals … A ‘half man, half animal’ sideshow performer of gory, cannibalistic feats such as eating live snakes, biting off the heads of chickens…

Sideshows are gone. Or rather, they’ve gone electronic. As the nation recoiled in revulsion this week at children of refugees being torn from their parents, up popped Ann Coulter to put the distressing images into context. She told Fox News:

“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks, 24/7, right now. … These kids are being coached, they’re given scripts to read by liberals.”

Sensationally disgusting indeed. You see why I immediately thought of bored townsfolk lining up outside a greasy, tattered tent, the barker funneling them in as they hand over their nickels. The stooped geek shuffles onto a tiny stage, clutching a struggling bird tightly by the neck. Some kind of introduction, to build suspense. Then the fowl’s head goes into the snaggle-toothed mouth. The jaws come down. The crowd gasps and recoils.

At least in a circus, you know it’s an act. I wish I could say the same regarding Coulter. When challenged, she insists she believes what she says, no matter how patently false. Maybe she likes to stay in character. Maybe she’s that far gone. If so, she has good company. Malicious hallucination is so popular nowadays, I’m expecting to see it on postage stamps, the “American Conspiracy Theory” series.

Ann Coulter

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, discussing children in detention who have been taken from their parents, calls them “child actors” who are “given scripts to read by liberals.” | Associated Press file photo

And why not? The money rolls in: Coulter penned a dozen best-selling books. To paraphrase Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

The immediate question: Why respond to her at all? Why pay attention? That’s easy. Because her untruths aren’t random. She doesn’t just fling out any lie she can imagine, but a particular lie that scratches her audience’s special itch, that tickles the central bias behind the election of Donald Trump: that immigration is bad, that immigrants are bad people and their arrival hurts our country.

How do Republicans maintain that fiction? In the same way Southerners managed slavery, by denying the personhood of those involved. Slaves, being black, couldn’t be full people. Barack Obama, being black, couldn’t be a real American, but some Kenyan imposter. These immigrant children can’t be what they seem: weeping children, torn from their parents by cruel Trump administration policy. A situation, needless to say, that Trump’s executive order will not correct, though we hoped it might for a giddy moment midweek, falling for his ruse once again, Charlie Brown rushing at Lucy’s football.

Like Trump, Coulter is a bigot. She is invited on TV not just because her disgusting remarks are so extreme they have entertainment value, but because she’s peddling what the Right wants to hear. Coulter isn’t alone, but joined — and increasingly eclipsed — by an army of younger clones like Tomi Lahren and Laura Ingraham, who said the detention centers for refugee children “are just like summer camp.”

Talk about actors. They have to be sincere, right? They can’t feign the mendacious malice spewed nightly. They have a platform because Fox viewers like what they have to say. It makes sense to them. Not children. But thespians. Not chain-link cages. But summer camp. A conspiracy that will explain away an unpleasant reality that otherwise might force her audience to think.

If nothing else, it’s worth contemplating a freak like Coulter to remember the connection between lies and bigotry. Lies are mandatory, because the truth is that immigrants help our economy and are no more criminal than native-born citizens — they are, in fact, more law-abiding.

Those pining to remove Trump, as if that will stem our moral decline, must remember Coulter and the infrastructure of deception and realize: Trump didn’t create the problem; the problem created him, and will remain long after he goes away.