Trump and P.T. Barnum

PT Barnum 1851-crop.jpg
P.T. Barnum: prominent anti-racist, progressive Republican politician, pictured here in 1851.[Wikimedia]

Carnival barkers have a certain “reputation” for truth and honesty. One famous carnival barker: the alleged source of the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute“. Because of this, I’ve grown more curious about P.T. Barnum over the past four years. It seems many folks have been fond of making comparisons between Donald Trump and other historic figures (including me). Did Barnum share a lot in common with Donald Trump?

I still don’t know much about Barnum, but this past weekend, I finally read the Wikipedia article about him: I found some similarities, but it turns out that Barnum was staunchly anti-slavery, and considered himself a proud Progressive Republican. While being a gifted salesman who helped establish the carnival-barker style, he seemed to use his political prowess for good.

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut (just outside of New York City) on July 5, 1810. That date is almost exactly 16 years before John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. Barnum hopefully enjoyed his 16th birthday despite the death of two American founding fathers the day before. Barnum may have had bigger problems that year; his father also died that year. Philo Barnum was reportedly an innkeeper, tailor, and store-keeper. Presumably, 16-year-old Phineas had to take over for the elder Philo. I’m guessing it wasn’t three large businesses like you would find today but rather, the innkeeper and his family lived at the inn, and had a small store in the lobby. It was probably a family business, and young Phineas’s mother (Irena Taylor Barnum) contributed mightily to the family business. That’s not what the Wikipedia article (currently) says; I’m extrapolating on the article, and the what I know about the 1820s.

But let’s fast forward to a much older P.T. Barnum. The year is 1866; the North had defeated the South in the Great Civil War, which wasn’t so great. Some estimates claim that over 1 million people were killed. Then, shortly after the South had surrendered to the Republican-controlled North, the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was murdered by a southern dissident. His Vice President was Andrew Johnson. Johnson was a former Tennessee senator who had ascended to the Vice Presidency just a few weeks prior. Now, instead of being a Democratic senator representing Confederate-heavy Tennessee, he was suddenly the primary occupant of the Oval Office. Johnson wasn’t as “progressive” as Lincoln was.

The good news: Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was dominant in electoral politics. Many Progressive Republicans were eager to make big changes in the country. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed over Johnson’s veto. The 13th Amendment (banning slavery) had been quickly ratified the prior year, and 14th Amendment had been ratified by the Connecticut legislature.

During ratification of that amendment, P.T. Barnum was a Republican member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, serving the city of Fairfield. Barnum was a popular politician, who became mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and helped gas lighting to the streets. He also worked on the water supply, and helped enforce sin laws (regarding alcohol and prostitution)

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“Winter Quarters of the Great Barnum-London Show”, 1886[wikimedia]

But Barnum, in his eventual partnership with James Anthony Bailey, took his circus all over America (and elsewhere). Barnum & Bailey circuses had all sorts of good, wholesome fun, but had seedier elements, too.

They charged people for things they never should have spent money on, and got them to spend real money. They spent real pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollar coins which were worth something back then. Back in the 1880s, those coins were made out of real copper, real nickel, real silver, and real gold. The things that Barnum was telling people? Well, at times, probably fraudulent, and illegal by today’s standards. But everyone knows that circuses are for fun! It was for eating cotton candy, and gambling away a few pennies trying to make a bullseye with a rigged BB gun. Sometimes it was possible to get a bucket of caramel-covered popcorn with peanuts in it.

I believe Trump was trying to replicate some of Barnum & Bailey’s success. I’ve gotten the sense that the circus/carnival atmosphere was what Trump was pushing for at his frequent rallies, and his whole electoral strategy was being able to take the the Trump/Tea-Party show on the road. I’m guessing (from the few videos that I’ve seen) that Trump’s campaign rallies were also intended as an opportunity to sell. I’m sure that it was possible to get a lot of Trump-branded merchandise from tents set up in the parking lots around the venue where the rally was being held. For example, I’m sure that it was possible to get Ivanka-Trump-branded jewelry and perfume.

The comparison between Barnum and Trump is probably unfair. But here’s my question: who is it unfair to?

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