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Why people keep comparing Donald Trump to P.T. Barnum, of circus fame

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Saturday, Jan. 14, that it plans to close forever in May after a 146-year run (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The news of the upcoming closure of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus prompted reactions of shock, grief and praise over the weekend, with animal activists applauding the conclusion of what they say was inhumane entertainment.

For others, the announcement was ironically timely.

“Here’s some shocking news, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey is officially shutting down,” Stephen Colbert said Monday night. “Apparently the circus doesn’t think they could compete against a Trump presidency.”

Although merely a late-night quip, it was not the first parallel drawn involving the 146-year-old circus and the incoming president. The official end of the “Greatest Show on Earth” also represents the demise of one of the last vestiges of its great showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum, who partnered with ringmaster James A. Bailey in the 1800s to create an exhibition of animals and human oddities.

For years, Barnum, the fabled huckster and impresario, has been compared to the highest-ranking showman of our era, president-elect Donald Trump. As early as 1989, a story in the New York Times included a reference to Barnum as “the Donald Trump of Bridgeport at one time,” citing Barnum’s adopted home town in Connecticut. In September 2015, Salon called him “the second coming of P.T. Barnum,” and in January of last year, Samuel L. Jackson called Trump “more P.T. Barnum than politician.” A Lexis search found 234 articles in which they are mentioned in the same breath.

One of them came off a Trump appearance in January, 2016, on Meet the Press:

Chuck Todd: As you know, people call you a lot of names. Some of it’s positive, some of it’s negative. I want to throw some by you. Let’s see. Some people are calling you the Music Man of this race. Kim Kardashian. Biff, from Back to the Future. George Costanza. P.T. Barnum. What’s – any of those do you consider a compliment? Or do you–
Donald Trump:
P.T. Barnum.
Chuck Todd:
You’ll take the P.T. Barnum?
Donald Trump:
P.T. Barnum. Look, people call you names. We need P.T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country.

About a century before Trump was born, Barnum was drawing crowds and headlines with his large personality and ego, skilled dealmaking and shameless hoaxes. Both men are known for skirting around the truth, using exaggeration and in some cases, downright lies to garner attention (and in Barnum’s case, ticket sales). Their careers, in some ways, followed similar paths — both entrepreneurs dealt in land development and entered politics, and both used their entrepreneurial pursuits to become household names appealing to the common man. Both suffered the financial blows of bankruptcies and court fights.

” ‘Easy come easy go,’ was too true in my case,” Barnum wrote in his autobiography. “I had learned that I could make money rapidly, and in large sums, whenever I set about it with a will, and I did not hesitate to expend it in various extravagances as freely as I gained it.”

The “social media” Barnum employed were sensational newspaper ads, which he relied on for the same reason Trump relies on Twitter:  “These are the cheapest and best medium through which” a man “can speak to the public, where he is to find his customers,” Barnum wrote. “Put on the appearance of business, and generally the reality will follow.”

Like Trump, he made no apologies for the fact, that as he wrote, “my prime object has been to put money in my purse.” And like Trump, he proclaimed himself “a public benefactor, to an extent seldom paralleled” in the history of philanthropy, a questionable claim for sure.

There was at least one big difference between Barnum and Trump, though: Barnum ‘fessed up to what he called his “humbugging,” proclaiming himself the “Prince of Humbugs.”

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“Barnum was loud, brassy, full of bombast, vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked — the ultimate, delightful phony from a delightfully phony era,” wrote David McCullough in a 1973 review of a biography of the man. “If Barnum’s game was a shell game, nobody minded — so long as he was inventive about it, so long as he had a sense of humor.”

Barnum launched his fame with a hoax. In 1835, he purchased Joice Heth, a blind slave who claimed she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Crowds lined up in New York and other parts of New England to see the woman, whom Barnum advertised as “one of the greatest natural curiosities ever witnessed,” according to an obituary of Barnum in the New York Times. After the woman’s death the following year, the truth came out in a public autopsy that she probably was no older than 80. But even then, Barnum reaped the benefits, staging the public autopsy and charging 50 cents for admission.

Writing about the saga later on in his life, Barnum said:

“I can say that the least deserving of all my efforts in the show line was the one which introduced me to the business, a scheme in no sense of my own devising, one which had been for some time before the public, and which had so many vouchers for its genuineness that at the time of taking possession of it I honestly believed it to be genuine.”

But “the bogusness of Joice Heth did not matter,” Barnum biographer Irving Wallace wrote. “Barnum gradually came to be more admired than resented, for the people desperately needed what he had to offer.”

Another legendary display of “humbugging” was Barnum’s international spectacle General Tom Thumb. In 1842, Barnum came across a four-year-old boy in Bridgeport who supposedly stopped growing at 25 inches tall. Fascinated by the young boy, Barnum offered the family $3 a week to display him as one of his freak shows, in which he told crowds the boy was much older than 11. He changed the boy’s name to General Tom Thumb, after the English folklore character, and the boy was said to charm audiences around the world.

Like Trump, Barnum’s business ordeals led him to meetings with U.S. leaders and even foreign royalty; after being received by President Abraham Lincoln, Barnum took Tom Thumb on an international tour, during which he gave a command performance before Queen Victoria, who was quite taken by the spectacle.

In the 1860s and 1870s, Barnum entered the political world, originally as a Democrat but later as an anti-slavery Republican, despite having previously owned a slave. He was elected four times to the General Assembly of Connecticut, where he advocated for the rights of individuals against railway monopolies. He was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., where he proved adept at urban management and continued his promotion of temperance and religion.

Barnum swore off alcohol after attending a pro-temperance lecture in the late-1840s and remained a prohibition advocate for the rest of his life, giving speeches on the evils of liquor. Similarly, Donald Trump said he has avoided ever trying alcohol.

Like Trump, Barnum did try to get to Washington on the national political stage, and was widely ridiculed for doing so, Reuters reported. In 1867, he ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress as a Republican, but lost the race.

The two showmen wrote books on similar topics with surprisingly similar titles; Barnum’s “The Art of Money Getting” and Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” Even Barnum’s height — 6 feet two inches tall, according to one biographer — measured just an inch shorter than Trump’s, who claims he is 6-foot-3. (Though some photos suggest he might be shorter).

As Reuters also pointed out, both Trump and Barnum are associated with famous New York City landmarks. Just a few miles south of where Trump Tower now looms, Barnum operated his American Museum — on Broadway,  just south of City Hall — a five-story marble structure filled with attractions such as live “freaks,” dramatic theatricals and beauty contests (not quite at the level of Trump’s Miss Universe extravaganzas.) The museum was twice destroyed by fire.

The museum’s first successful exhibit was the famed Feejee Mermaid, which appeared to have a human head atop the finned body of a fish. It was, of course, later found to be a hoax.

Shifting from a freak-show promoter to a theatrical impresario, Barnum later imported a Swedish soprano named Jenny Lind, dubbed “The Swedish Nightingale” who performed 95 concerts across the nation, including an opening night show in New York City before a crowd of 5,000.

Barnum is most famous for his traveling three-ring circuses – a point Colbert alluded to in his commentary Monday night. Poking at Trump, Colbert added, “what with all the marriages, he does have three rings.”

Barnum did not actually take on the role of circus showman until he was past the age of 60. Through his partnership with Bailey, he is credited with giving the American circus its gigantic size, memorable attractions and widespread popularity, calling it “the greatest show on Earth.” At the peak of his circus career, Barnum purchased a six-and-a-half-ton elephant named Jumbo.

In Bridgeport, Barnum built a series of massive homes with elaborate names, including “Iranistan” a three-story mansion lavishly adorned with balconies and turrets. There he hosted some of era’s most notable men, such as Mark Twain, Horace  Greeley and Matthew Arnold.

The outspoken Barnum, who lived from 1810 to 1891, was described as “the American impresario,” a cultural force who understood — long before the age of Twitter and online “fake news” — that people craved to be “humbugged.”

“And this, above all, seems to have been the heart of his genius,” wrote McCullough in The Post.

In an obituary in the Times of London, one writer called Barnum’s death the removal of a “noteworthy and almost classical figure, typical of the age of transparent puffing through which the modern democracies are passing.”

“His name is a proverb already, and will continue to be a proverb until mankind has ceased to find pleasure in the comedy of a harmless deceiver and the willingly deceived.”

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