The Circus and the Charlatan

Ringmaster introducing a circus show.A number of commentators seem to have the impression that Donald Trump is a one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen phenomenon without precedent. If there is a primoprogenitor, a cautionary exemplar of the Coming of the Donald, then that forewarning must surely be the American bunco artist P. T. Barnum. If his name seems familiar, it probably is due to his partial ownership of the famed Barnum and Bailey circus.

Many tales about Barnum’s ingenuity have survived him, and a few of them may be true. The version of the story I’m about to share with you is of uncertain provenance, and so we regard the truth of it to be not in the literal details but in the larger, figurative themes. Our interest here is not in the ‘truth’ of the origin of the story but rather in the ‘truth’ of the story’s message. For example, there’s the story of Barnum’s exhibition of a ‘real’ mermaid, direct from the south seas.

It is said that Barnum bought the ‘mermaid’ from some sketchy seaman ‘down at the docks.’ Barnum then began exhibiting the thing, placing it in a coffin-like box set up in the center of a large tent: See the Mermaid, Two Bits.

The tent filled up rapidly, but that didn’t satisfy Barnum. The customers were spending lots of time standing around the display and theorizing. Barnum realized that he didn’t want a tent full of paying customers. He wanted ten tents full. He had to move people through the tent in order to maximize his profit. His problem wasn’t drawing a crowd, his problem was getting rid of it in order to bring more customers in. As he said, “Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

Barnum’s solution? A sign at one end of the tent reading, “This way to the Egress.” People would enter the tent to see the mermaid and after a few minutes someone would notice the sign and say: “Hey, everybody! Let’s go see the egress!” And eveyone would follow.

Not exactly underhanded, but at the least misleading. Egress is another word for exit. Barnum counted on below average vocabulary skills (and an unwillingness to look stupid) to carry off the scheme. All of which lends support to his observation: “No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public.”

We don’t know what the ‘mermaid’ really was. Some say it was a manatee carcass, others claim it was a dead squid with its tentacles arranged to resemble flowing tresses of hair. Whatever it was, it surely reeked to high heaven. Just like Donald Trump.

Barnum had a few other tricks up his sleeve which we’ll examine in future posts.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.