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 19th-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 60s 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, 2-foot-tall, 16-pound 5-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.
Barnum supplemented his discerning eye for the compelling spectacle with a great ear for enduring aphorisms. America’s self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbug” shamelessly, greedily, said “every crowd has a silver lining.” He admitted: “Without promotion, something terrible happens... Nothing.” Refuting conmen who had long observed how frequently suckers were spawned, Barnum offered the kinder, gentler insight that “there’s a customer born every minute.”
Barnum’s crowning entertainment achievement originated with his launch of “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” in Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1870. What he soon labeled “The Greatest Show on Earth” was also one of the world’s most lucrative. It grossed more than $400,000 its first year. By 1875, this traveling circus was reaching a hundred towns annually with its distinctive three rings. Six years later, Barnum merged his show with James Bailey’s operation. In 1907, yet another merger created “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”
Barnum peddled his story as enthusiastically as he promoted his exhibitions. One hundred and twenty-four years before Donald Trump published How to Get Rich, Barnum published the Art of Money Getting, or, Golden Rules for Making Money in 1880. Then, as now, rather than indulging in European-style class envy, most Americans preferred to try mastering the secret recipe for joining the ranks of the rich and famous (and narcissistic).
Surprisingly, this money-hungry “showman by profession” was an abolitionist reformer who helped establish the Republican Party as America’s leading liberal party.
By 1854, Barnum stopped being a Democrat. The Party’s reactionary racism disgusted him. Eleven years and one Civil War later, he still believed in a Democratic Party that “goes for the greatest good to the greatest number, for equal and exact justice to all men, and for a submission to the will of the majority.”
Barnum supported the unknown one-term Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860. During that charged campaign, torch-bearing Republican “Wide Awakes” paraded in town after town, asking supporters to demonstrate their loyalty by illuminating their homes along main streets. Barnum lit candles in every window in his Bridgeport home. Learning that one Democratic neighbor had sent the servants into the basement to keep the entire house dark at street-level, Barnum dispatched a mutual friend to distract the Democrat and his wife. Barnum then bathed that house in lights, leading the marching Wide Awakes to welcome this new convert. When Barnum’s Democratic dupe heard three cheers for him from his despised rivals, he saw in horror that his home was as illuminated as any Republican’s.
As the war ended in 1865, Barnum ran for the Connecticut Legislature so that he could vote to ratify the 13th Amendment banning slavery. In a moving speech, urging full rights and proper education for newly-freed slaves, Barnum said he fell to his knees in gratitude when the motion passed. He predicted that as “the educated free negro” thrived in “schools and workshops,” paying taxes and voting regularly, “he will put to everlasting shame the champions of modern Democracy, by the overwhelming evidence” that “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit; and, amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to color or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.”
In 1875, the 63-year-old, pro-Suffragette Barnum became Bridgeport’s reforming mayor. He was also a newlywed, having married a 22-year-old, barely 13 weeks after his wife of 44 years died suddenly. Barnum campaigned to close saloons, ban prostitution, give prisoners meaningful work, and modernize utilities, especially the water system.
Clearly—Donald Trump take note—biography is not destiny; previous jobs don’t determine political positions; and egotism need not trump humanism. P.T. Barnum was as self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing as Donald Trump, with an ego as monumental as any of Trump’s towers. But Barnum the pol trumped Trump as a statesman, championing equality and mutual respect. “Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business,” Barnum preached. “The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed upon him.” Whoever in 2016 can make that case for mutuality and graciousness—and sell it to the American people above the blogosphere’s shrill din—would win me over today, even if he—or she—is a celebrity blowhard.