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Batavick: Ceaselessly entertaining, aware ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity,’ Trump is this generation’s P.T. Barnum

The family’s summer vacation had finally arrived — a much-needed respite from work, household chores, and the angry, tribal choruses of contemporary America, or so I thought. Laden with suitcases and groceries, my wife and I climbed the outside stairs of our second floor, Jersey Shore rental. As soon as we entered the kitchen and exchanged embraces with family, my son nodded toward the window and asked, “Did you see the flag?” I switched my gaze and there, fluttering from the neighbor’s balcony, was a large “Trump 2020” banner. It remained a nagging presence all week.

I respected the neighbor’s First Amendment rights. How could I not? However, I pondered his decision to showcase his political sympathies in an environment designed for leisure and family fun. Why was this so necessary, and what accounts for the mesmerizing nature of our reality show-star-turned-president?

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It couldn’t be Trump’s record as a businessman, or mastery of foreign and domestic affairs, or eloquence once off teleprompter, or accomplishments in the Oval Office. The historic and current national records are indisputable if you’ve been paying attention and not allowing your reality to be filtered by his pep rally media. So what exactly is the attraction for 40 percent of Americans?

I did a lot of reading at the shore. The New Yorker discussed a new biography, “Barnum: An American Life” by Robert Wilson. Reviewer Elizabeth Kolbert lists the exploits of the mid-19th century master showman whose American Museum in New York City featured the dried carcass of the Fejee Mermaid; the living, 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington (she was at most 80); and the 2-foot, 11-inch little person, “General Tom Thumb.”

Barnum exhaustively promoted these mostly fraudulent attractions and is credited with the quote, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” He also said, regarding Washington’s so-called nursemaid, “Newspaper and social controversy on the subject (and seldom have vastly more important matters been so largely discussed) served my purpose as a ‘showman’ by keeping my name before the public.”

Kolbert notes Barnum often staged disputes to generate press coverage and that, “Better than anyone who’d come before, the Prince of Humbugs understood that the public was willing — even eager — to be conned, provided there was enough entertainment to be had in the process.” He became known as one who “lied easily and often,” always sought opportunities “afforded for rapidly making money,” and exaggerated his wealth and success.

The book review provided a “Bingo!” moment for me and helped explain the flag next door. Trump’s genius for self-promotion and for sucking the air out of any room he enters is the key to his attraction. And, in an age where we are all amusing ourselves to death via ubiquitous digital screens, a president or candidate who ceaselessly entertains will have the edge, even when he is running an obvious con game.

Trump’s tools are his mastery of the cable news interview, Twitter, and his unscripted rally rants. They’ve become the main drivers of the news cycle. No matter the issue (Trump was “buds” with Jeffrey Epstein and flew on the Lolita Express; Trump used his influence to get his family top security clearances; the Trump corporation still employs illegal aliens; ad nauseum), Trump blows it off the front page by saying or tweeting something incredulous and incorrigible. Suggesting we purchase Greenland certainly dampened the recession stories. Forty percent of us are entertained.

Of course, social media then amplifies the message. Trump’s official Facebook page and Facebook ads pick up on the latest trope, and his supporters scatter it via myriad accounts. Labeling the influx of immigrants at the southern border as an “invasion” becomes common parlance and even appears in the white supremacist manifesto of the El Paso mass shooter.

The P.T. Barnum and Trump parallels are many. Barnum wrote letters to New York newspapers under various names to promote his attractions. Trump was known to call newspapers posing as P.R. agents “John Miller” and “John Barron” to promote his image and business empire. Barnum started or invested in various failed enterprises (a real estate company, a newspaper, a fire extinguisher firm) and eventually went bankrupt. Remember Trump University, Trump Plaza and Casino, Trump Vodka, Trump Airlines, Trump Magazine, etc. and Trump’s six corporate bankruptcies? Barnum also wrote a self-aggrandizing book and gave talks on “the art of money-getting.”

The kicker for me in this comparison was that Barnum, a lifelong Democrat, switched to the Republican Party. He later teased the public about running for president. His choice for vice president? Someone from Indiana. What are the odds?

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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