By Thomas Bender/ Reuters/ April 3, 2016
Donald Trump is a phenomenon. What kind? He seems to think that he is “The Greatest Show on Earth.” And many of his supporters likely agree. That slogan, long identified with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, rings true. Trump may be the P.T. Barnum of current U.S. politics.
A century and a half separates these men, but they are equally big personalities for their times. Barnum and Trump both skillfully leveraged their audacious business methods to become “celebrities.” Barnum, a master showman, also went into politics and even tried his hand at land development.
Barnum and Trump each developed reputations as sharp dealers. They assume a world of caveat emptor, or buyer beware, and are boastful yet skillful debaters. They avoid outright lies — but structured misunderstandings stand as their métier.
They both dealt in landmark curiosities: Barnum in his famous American Museum on Broadway, just south of City Hall in New York City; Trump, farther uptown, at his lavish Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, as well as many other exuberant buildings and developments around the globe. Just as Trump Tower is a tourist destination, so was Barnum’s museum and, later, circus. He played to the common folk. Trump’s establishments cater to the rich, yet also evoke the fascination of those without money.
Barnum prided himself in never directly lying. In fact, he made money with ambiguous claims about the truth of his exhibits. He relished controversy about his claims to truth — much as Trump thrives on controversy surrounding his truth claims and verbal abusiveness. (Though a recent Politico report counted five dozen statements deemed “mischaracterizations, exaggerations, or simply false” in one week.)
Both achieved celebrity as masters of “humbug.” Humbug is not a word we hear often today. But “humbugging” was a way of life for Barnum — who thrived on exaggeration and misinformation. It typically fell short of lying, however. People by the thousands patronized his museum, delighting in being tricked.
Barnum, for example, achieved notoriety — and ticket sales — with his widely advertised presentation of a 161 year-old slave named Joice Heth. He claimed she had been George Washington’s nurse. Neil Harris, in his book, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum, captured Barnum’s genius: The showman realized with Heth that “an exhibitor did not have to guarantee truthfulness; all he had to do was possess probability and invite doubt. The public would be more excited by controversy than conclusiveness.”
With that foundational idea and a great deal of advertising, Barnum invited the public to judge for itself. This is similar to the logic of Trump’s appeal. If Barnum used this technique to gather in considerable sums of money, Trump has used it to gather up a variety of partners for his projects. Now he is seeking to gather up many supporters and their votes — just as Barnum drew huge numbers of paying visitors to his museum.
George Templeton Strong, the remarkable 19th century New York City diarist, might as well have been describing Trump when he wrote about Barnum: It is “a pleasure to see humbug so consistently, extensively and cleverly applied.”
Barnum later became a celebrated promoter of talent. As a theatrical impresario, his most successful production was bringing Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale,” to the United States, where she performed 95 concerts across the nation. Only later did Barnum create his circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Trump, however, rather than making other stars, has built a successful career making himself a star with his reality-TV show, The Apprentice.
Both men had their financial ups and downs. Barnum, for example, moved his base of operations to Bridgeport, Conn., at one point, and went into land development. Thirty trains stopped at Bridgeport every day, guaranteeing ready access either south to New York and north to Boston. Alas, the project drove him into bankruptcy and a series of court fights. It turned out that the master deceiver had been deceived — somewhat like Trump’s checkered career in Atlantic City and several other places.
Barnum also built a lavish home in Bridgeport that he called “Iranistan.” It epitomized his views of oriental magnificence. He spent the then-enormous sum of $150,000 building it, but Iranistan burned down and the financial whiz had only $28,000 of insurance coverage. But he then tried capitalizing on his failure, proposing a lecture tour on “The Art of Money-Losing.”
Like Trump, Barnum recovered financially — and some years later linked up with James Bailey to create the Barnum and Bailey Circus that would long outlive him. More to the point, in the 1860s and 1870s he went into politics, and served two terms in the Connecticut legislature as an anti-slavery Republican. He was also elected mayor of Bridgeport, where he proved adept at urban management as well as continuing his promotion of temperance and religion.
Of course, Barnum continued to promote amusements. One of his most spectacular events was the 1863 wedding of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren (both “midgets”) in fashionable Grace Church on Broadway and 10th Street. Five years later, though, his American Museum burned down. Its collections were banished to Coney Island as “curiosities,” just as the meaning of museum was transformed in New York City with the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History.
Though Barnum did well in local elections, the national political stage eluded him. He ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket in 1867. His candidacy was widely ridiculed, however, and he lost that race.
Strong, the New York diarist, was pleased. He thought the Republicans erred in nominating the “prince of humbugs.” He asked: What is happening to the party of Lincoln?