(The following is an article written by pop culture historian and author, LeRoy Ashby. You can hear our discussion about how Donald Trump used the same hustles P.T. Barnum employed over 170 years ago to win the White House on this episode of the Business of Story podcast: How Popular Culture Affects the Way We Tell Stories.)
Donald Trump in many ways has forged himself from American popular culture. He has participated in and sponsored various entertainment forms: beauty pageants, casinos, reality TV, and professional sports such as football and wrestling.
He has also intuitively tapped into a number of long-developing entertainment themes concerning, for example, the self-made individual, the power of positive thinking, celebrity, identity, the American dream, patriotism, consumerism, loners who challenge the system, the gospel of wealth, winners and losers.
Trump has roamed pop culture venues from roulette tables to tabloid news, Twitter, advertising, and the carnival sideshow barker. He exemplifies how amusements have shaped what has become “The Age of Show Business,” as the cultural analyst Neil Postman has dubbed it. The merger of politics and entertainment has been developing for some time, but Trump, always proclaiming his talents, has sealed the deal.
The problem with politics, according to Trump, has been that it is “boring.” Or, in the words of his friend Roger Stone: “Politics is show business for ugly people” — a situation that Trump, “never boring,” can change.
In that regard, Trump has pointed to P. T. Barnum (1810-1891), America’s foremost pioneer of popular entertainment. Starting out in the 1830s as one of many “hawkers and walkers” who trudged the country with various exhibits and acts, Barnum soon purchased a dime museum in New York City, turning it into the nineteenth-century equivalent of Disney Land or Disney World.
Then, with James Bailey, he transformed what had been lowly traveling circuses into “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Many years later, Trump hailed Barnum as a model: “We need P. T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our culture.”Indeed, “Donald Trump is the New P. T. Barnum,” as the historian Janet M. Davis has written. Like Barnum, Trump has ingeniously promoted his businesses and himself. Hucksterism, bravado, spectacle, exaggeration, and a slippery handling of facts have characterized both men’s careers.
Barnum described himself as the “Prince of Humbug,” the era’s popular term for flimflam, chicanery, duplicity, and swindle.
In that spirit, he urged customers to pay to see a “man-eating chicken” who turned out to be a man eating chicken. “Vive la humbug,” Barnum chuckled, admitting that such “blarney” filled his pockets with money.
In that spirit, he wrote The Art of Money Getting, a book that presaged Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.
Both Trump and Barnum have excelled in “the arts of deception,” the title of James Cook’s book about “playing with fraud in the age of Barnum.”
Moreover, like Barnum, Trump seems to perceive such arts as constituting a playful game in which truth is a relatively harmless casualty. Skillful implementation of hokum can translate into smart business, financial success, and popular amusement.
Barnum took pride in his deceptions, as Trump does in his.
Humbug, for Barnum, was a crucial aspect of merchandising. He practiced it with an implicit nudge and wink, assuming that his customers were eager participants in the joke and enjoyed being fooled. Such a perspective was, of course, itself deceptive, making it easier to ignore bunkum’s harmful effects on the customer (or mark).
Barnum’s inflated sense of importance – he published three versions of his autobiography – muted his feelings for others. Although he thought he treated well the “human curiosities” and “freaks” in his museum and sideshows, he nevertheless displayed them for profit.
Perhaps even more than Barnum, according to some observers, Trump’s obsession with himself and his brand reaches the level of unbridled narcissism. Certainly both men craved the center stage. Barnum could ride around a circus arena, shouting: “I suppose you all come to see Barnum. Wa-al, I’m Barnum.” Trump, in turn, relishes his reputation as “The Donald.”
But the stakes have become substantially higher for President-elect Trump than they were for Barnum. When customers left Barnum’s circus tent, side show, or museum, they could praise him for entertaining them or curse him for having duped or fleeced them.
Trump’s newly won venue is much larger. As he assumes the leadership of an entire nation, he must re-make himself profoundly. The President cannot settle for the role of wealthy entertainment impresario.
A nation – let alone the larger world — is not a palace of amusements. Matters of social policy and international relations will require far more than self-promotion, ostentatious display, bravado, and sensationalism.
In that context, the art of the hustle can all too quickly lose any playful innocence. On the world stage, rhetorical grandstanding can exact terrible results. Fun and games can become downright dangerous, inflicting irrevocable harm on victims who are not simply disappointed customers.
Years later, in that vein, Donald Trump would write: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and greatest and the most spectacular.”
Trump’s words would have made Barnum proud. “I call it truthful hyperbole,” Trump said of his merchandising style. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
Humbuggery and “truthful hyperbole”: two sides of the same coin — or con.
LeRoy Ashby was a history professor at Washington State University from 1972 – 2008. I had the good fortune of being in his class.
His book, With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830, was released in paperback, with a new introduction, in 2012.
He was the guest editor of a special edition on Popular Culture in the Organization of American Historians Magazine of History (April 2010). His essay, “The Church Committee’s History and Relevance,” was published in Russell Miller (ed.), U. S. National Security, Intelligence and Democracy: From the Church Committee to the War on Terror (Routledge, 2008).
Ashby now resides in Spokane, WA.