Success in presidential politics is now all about outrageous performance. We've been transitioning to this place since the 19th century, when P.T. Barnum captivated the public imagination with oddities and oddballs, many of them fakes and all of them unlikely, expanding what was acceptable to see in the human image. Like Barnum, Donald Trump mixes the fraudulent with the authentic and makes the sideshow the main show.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio plead with voters to turn away from the con man's blustery and trickery, but a lot of voters, like the audiences that crowded into Barnum's circus tent, prefer color, noise and fireworks. Barnum's "Fejee Mermaid" was a fake — a monkey cadaver's head carefully grafted onto a fish's body. But Jenny Lind was the real goods, a Swedish singer with a voice like an angel they called "the Swedish Nightingale." She toured America, drawing enormous crowds, and mature men stood on their seats, clenched their fists and cried at the sheer beauty of her song.
Barnum challenged his audience to figure out which oddities and oddballs were real and which were not. America and then Europe embraced his humbuggery. Queen Victoria was a fan. Barnum's audiences, like the Donald's, couldn't get enough of the flimflammer. He wrote the book on flimflam, and a certain modern politician has studied it well.
"Barnum not only revealed his tricks but also made the audience love them and come back for more — because they had been given the privilege of being let in on the processes by which the illusion of reality had been created," writes Leo Braudy in "The Frenzy of Renown," a study of fame. "He put his audience on their mettle as people of sophistication and insight into what was true and what wasn't — and charged them admission to prove it."
That's the genius of the Donald, too. He makes his supporters feel their "mettle." He doesn't have to be factually correct all the time. So what if he employed undocumented Polish workers to build a skyscraper 36 years ago? That's only proof that he created thousands of jobs, like the thousands of jobs he has created since, in building his office towers, casinos and hotels, with thousands more promised when he brings factories home from Asia.
So what if some of the students at Trump University sued him for failing to give them the education they paid for? Look at them as students of the art of the deal who got their money's worth. If those satisfied students are hard to find, that doesn't mean they're not out there. Doesn't Trump say he loves all his fans, the college-educated and the "poorly educated." Don't people everywhere think he's great? Isn't that proof enough of something?
While "the establishment" of P.T. Barnum's day accused the impresario of exploiting his famous performer General Tom Thumb, the 3-foot-3-inch dwarf reveled in his size, dressing like royalty to mock himself and getting rich doing it. He was "a new democratic midget," exposing the pretensions of his day. Donald Trump's fans lap up his insults of other candidates, claiming that Trump is necessarily exposing pretenses.
If George Washington, a noble officer and gentleman who preserved the breakaway from England to firmly establish democracy, was America's "representative man" of the 18th century, Barnum became the new "representative man" a century later. Two centuries on, Donald Trump now assumes that title, fusing politics with gaudy showmanship to (supposedly) restore American greatness.
We're trying to survive an age saturated with 24/7 cable television, Internet humbloggery and opinions reduced to 140 Twitter characters. Bill Clinton tells The New York Times that the Donald may be the ideal candidate for the era of the Instagram election. Contenders wade to the shallows, avoiding any depth. Marco Rubio wouldn't stoop to Trump's level — until he discovered that he got maximum attention when wrestling the Donald in the mud, trading crude jokes and having a high old time.
As Republicans revel in the flamboyant, the bizarre and the vulgar, Hillary Clinton sticks with a tired and boring script. She appeared to win big Tuesday, but Democratic turnout lagged far behind Republican turnout. She still polls as "untrustworthy." The final dump of her illegal email messages brings the total number of classified documents on her personal email server to 2,080, as of last count.
P.T. Barnum said his formula for success derived not from "less scruple" than others but from "more energy, far more ingenuity." No low-energy guy there. The expanding presidential campaign recalls the famous Bette Davis line in "All About Eve," when she tells the audience to fasten their seat belts: "It's going to be a bumpy night."
Write to Suzanne Fields at [email protected] Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's "Paradise Lost." To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Mike Licht