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The rise of P.T. Trump

Like him or hate him, Donald Trump is the heir apparent to P.T. Barnum’s peculiar brand of genius.

The legendary huckster of the 1800s, P.T. Barnum once hired a man to walk around with an armload of bricks, stopping now and then to mysteriously stack them on street corners.

Today, maybe no one would notice. But back in pre-Jerry Springer times, crazy people were still interesting, so folks chased along to ask what he was up to. He refused to answer. Each time his flock grew large enough, he would veer into Barnum’s museum with the crowd fishing out dimes to follow him, and Barnum grew steadily richer on their mindless curiosity.

Like him or hate him, Donald Trump is the heir apparent to Barnum’s peculiar brand of genius. This week he hijacked the 2012 presidential race, with a Barnum-like series of claims, assertions and indignant retorts. And, mind you, he did all this without even declaring his candidacy.

Many serious political analysts, at least privately, dismiss Trump as a clown. President Obama seemed to have him in mind when he referred to the so-called “Birther Movement” as a parade of “sideshows and carnival barkers.” And yet, in releasing copies of his original long-form birth certificate after all these months, the president also gave Trump an easy victory. “I got him to do something that nobody else could get him to do, and I’ve been given great credit for that!” Trump trumpeted.

Maybe Trump will be what the punditocracy expects — a comedic juggler to whip up the voters before the real circus stars appear. But he has already displayed that powerful populist skill of reducing complex policy arguments to a “Why can’t they see how simple this is?” approach. The angrier voters are with Washington, the more such polemics resonate.

Barnum, like Trump, was a New York businessman with a big mouth, bad hair and no shame. If a competing showman came up with an unbeatable attraction, Barnum would copy it and proclaim the original a fraud.

The only thing he seemed to fear was losing his grip on the American imagination because he knew then what Trump knows now: Success begins by just getting people to tag along, saying “I wonder where that guy is going?”

–CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360°”/www.ac360.com and “The Situation Room.”

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