Tune in to news coverage of the presidential election and you’re bound to hear someone comparing the Republican Party’s current attempt to pick a presidential nominee to the circus.
Trump has embraced the mayhem, comparing himself to the man who built “The Greatest Show on Earth,” claiming, “We need P.T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country.”
As historians, we think Trump’s invocation of Barnum tells us more about the intersection between entertainment and the history of US politics than Trump realizes.
As a savvy impresario of the 19th century’s most popular entertainments, Barnum sold novelty and spectacle: a constellation of beauty pageants, white elephants and elastic-skin men.
Trump also has used entertainment to garner wealth and fame, most notably on television, posing with contestants on his Miss USA pageant, or snarling, “You’re fired,” on “The Apprentice.”
P.T. Barnum and his circus partners infused the “The Greatest Show on Earth” with patriotic pageantry and nationalistic paeans to US progress and industry. Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” through economic nationalism and immigration restriction.
Trump, like Barnum, has skillfully channeled current cultural, political and social zeitgeists into self-promotion.
Whereas Trump’s primary victories may presage the end of the current party, Barnum’s ascendance paralleled the birth of the Republican Party in 1854. That year, Barnum, who had already made a fortune as a museum impresario in New York City, published his autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself. The book eventually sold over a million copies.
Many reviewers were horrified by Barnum’s brutally honest narrative of frauds committed, including his display of an artfully sewn baboon head, orangutan torso and fish body that he lucratively billed as the “Feejee Mermaid” in 1842-43.
In 1882, Barnum offered financial advice in The Art of Money Getting. The title of Trump’s own autobiography, The Art of the Deal, suggests that the “Casino King” has long been familiar with Barnum, popularly known as the “Prince of Humbugs” for his profitable hoaxes and clever wordplay.
These attention-loving showmen craved respectability, a need that drove both into politics. Barnum originally was a Jacksonian Democrat, dedicated to the populist notion that his audiences were in on his jokes. But he became increasingly uneasy with his party during the violence in “Bleeding Kansas” and the growing sectional crisis.
By 1860, Barnum was an ardent Lincoln Republican. From 1865 to 1867, he served ably in the Connecticut House of Representatives, where he helped his state ratify the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. In 1875, he was elected mayor of Bridgeport.
While Trump has never held elected office, he boasts that he will be a pragmatic leader, a “dealmaker” able to negotiate a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. His own business behavior makes that seem unlikely, as does his hotel’s slogan: “Live life without boundaries, limits, or compromise.”
Trump’s blunt bravado in winning an angry, dispossessed segment of the electorate provides a doppelgänger to Barnum and his audiences, who, as historian James Cook suggests, acknowledged the humbuggery of a market economy riddled with financial panics and depressions.
Trump openly recognizes that Wall Street bankers and offshore corporations have profited in the speculative global marketplace, while ordinary Americans have lost their homes, jobs and sense of dignity. Yet a recent essay in the conservative National Review blames the white working class for its supposed “culture of dependency” on welfare and drugs, which underscores the disconnection of a political party that has abandoned its base for its donor class. Trump is taking a different tack altogether. Unlike “establishment Republicans,” Trump promises to protect entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. But his populism depends on exclusion.
To energize his supporters, Trump promises to build a huge wall — paid for by the Mexican government — and will ban Muslim immigration and deport more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. His relentless demand for President Obama’s birth certificate in 2011 and 2012 appears to be a warm-up act for a presidential run based, in large part, on xenophobic race-baiting.
In so doing, Trump, like Barnum, has skillfully channeled current cultural, political and social zeitgeists into self-promotion.
Barnum, too, profited from the nation’s explosive racial politics. On the eve of the Civil War, he hired a Black performer, William Henry Johnson, to play a mute, spear-carrying “Missing Link” dressed in fur, billed as “Zip … What Is It?,” based on the popular blackface minstrel character, Zip Coon.
In 1863, Barnum played upon the nation’s fear of Native Americans while “exhibiting” a delegation of Indigenous leaders under false pretenses. He had promised the delegation a respectful audience. Instead, Barnum told museumgoers that one delegate, Yellow Bear, was “the meanest, black-hearted rascal that lives in the far West … If the blood thirsty little villain understood what I’m saying, he would kill me in a moment.”
In this combustible racial climate, crowds easily became mobs. After the First Battle of Bull Run, Barnum gave a rousing speech in defense of the Union in Fairfield County, Connecticut, a local hotbed of secessionist Democratic sentiment. On August 21, 1861, Barnum and fellow Unionists interrupted a local secessionist “peace rally.” Emboldened, the crowd physically carried him to the stage, where he denounced the secessionist flag.
Amid the fracas, pro-Barnum Unionists marched to Bridgeport, home of the Copperhead newspaper, The Farmer. Barnum pleaded for peace, but a mob destroyed the newspaper building.
As Trump does today, Barnum embraced bombast and spectacle as a business model in a racially divided society. Yet here the similarities end.
While Barnum eventually left politics and was content to create an entertainment empire, Trump is reaching for the highest office in the land. In so doing, he imperils recent efforts to rebuild the Republican Party as the “big tent” party.
At Trump’s rallies, there is little space for dissent. Aggressive name-calling and racial incidents are common. While Barnum played fast and loose with crowd-pleasing racial stereotypes in the marketplace, he was more cautious in the political sphere.
At the circus, Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” is only played when catastrophe is imminent, alerting personnel to evacuate the tent. Trump has warned party leaders that riots might occur if he wins the primary season but is denied the nomination, thus providing an eerie reminder of disunion in Barnum’s United States.
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