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‘Phelps vs. Shark’ could explain a lot about this country

Funny that in this age of growing skepticism, some people actually believed that swimmer Michael Phelps was going to race a real shark, side by side, mano a mako — like the shark was going to be somehow balancing on the starter’s block with a specially fitted cap and goggles waiting for the buzzer to sound.

Fake News be damned, this was going to be our generation’s defining hour, our Jesse Owens-defeats-horse moment. Instead, it fell flat like Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump, leaving viewers feeling as empty as Al Capone’s vault.

If you’re one of the 4.8 million viewers that didn’t tune into the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” promotion, we’ll recap: Phelps, wearing a monofin and custom body suit, raced a computer generated image of a great white shark. [Spoiler alert: Phelps lost the 100-meter race by two seconds.]

C’mon, people, hucksterism is as old as the circus itself. As P.T. Barnum always preached: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

On a grander scale, though, maybe “Phelps vs. Shark” points to a greater societal weakness. Maybe the naiveté surrounding the event is a microcosm for the country’s political divide.

In March, a fake news website was created to troll Donald Trump followers. The site had more than 1 million page views in two weeks.

Most people watch, listen and read things with preconceived notions and expectations of the outcome. They believe what they want to believe and nothing will change their mind. If those expectations aren’t met, they become bitter and disenfranchised.

In a 100-meter swimming race, the outcome comes swiftly. During a presidential term, results can take months or even years — believers can be strung along.

Almost two-thirds of the 140,000 respondents in a Buzzfeed poll thought they were going to see an actual shark race Phelps.

As the event unfolded and the ruse was unmasked, tweet after tweet expressed disappointment about the “race.”

Even Phelps had to come out and defend his reputation and brand during an hourlong Facebook video: “Everybody wants to pick on something or say something or complain about something… I had fun racing a shark and seeing those animals up close and personal. If somebody actually wants to get in the water and race side by side with a Great White, go ahead. You’re not going to get the shark to swim in a straight line.”

Phelps added: “Some people just decide not to listen to some of the things that we do and that’s not my fault that you don’t do that. It’s pretty easy to open up your ears and listen to either what the TV is saying, what announcers are saying, or what I’m saying in interviews.”

The hubbub over “Phelps vs. Shark” will soon die down, if it already hasn’t. The circus will fold its tent and leave town in search of other suckers. It always does. The only remnant will be the smell from what the elephants left behind. Let that be a reminder.