#Donald Trump’s boundless buffoonery seems tailored to today’s boundary-less and clownish culture, wherein real estate riches and celebrity fame ooze seamlessly into political popularity—at least in sleepy summertime polls. But The Donald is not America’s first showman turned politician.
One Trump role model, the nineteenth-century entrepreneurial egotist P.T. Barnum, parlayed his fame as a bigmouth impresario into actual political power, serving two terms in the Connecticut legislature and one term as the mayor of Bridgeport. Having labeled himself “a bit of a P.T. Barnum, I make stars out of everyone,” Trump should learn from his self-promoting predecessor. For all his shenanigans as the ultimate flimflam man, Phineas T. Barnum was one classy, downright idealistic, politician.
Barnum, born on July 5, 1810, is most famous today for the circus he only began in his sixties and a phrase he never coined. The man incorrectly credited with having said “there is a sucker born every minute,” built his reputation as America’s greatest promoter, welcoming thousands into “Barnum’s American Museum” in the 1840s, stuffed with more than half a million oddities, and earning half a million dollars in the 1850s by making the soprano Jenny Lind a popular sensation.
The Great American Shtickmeister, Barnum entertained the masses spectacularly while manipulating them lovingly. He turned an articulate, two-foot-tall, 16-pound five-year-old (and distant relative) Charles Stratton into an international celebrity, “General” Tom Thumb. He wowed crowds with faked genetic anomalies including Joice Heth, an elderly African-American woman he claimed was George Washington’s 161-year-old former nurse. There was “the Feejee Mermaid,” half-monkey, half-fish, all faux mummified. Barnum delighted our usually thrifty, sober, and sour forebears with his money-making chutzpah, moving lingering museum goers out by luring them with signs proclaiming “This Way to the Egress,” a fancy word for exit.
Surprisingly, this money-hungry “showman by profession” was an abolitionist reformer who helped establish the Republican Party as America’s leading liberal party.