Donald Trump, you're no Phineas Taylor Barnum. Those who dare to compare you to P.T. Barnum—and there is some such chatter—are insulting the memory of a monumental American.
The consummate 19th century circus creator and showman really cheered up the country after the Civil War. P.T. Barnum had a magnificent ability to divert and delight the American public with names that still feel like household names: Tiny Tim, the Siamese Twins, Jenny Lind, the Swedish singer who sounded like a nightingale. He founded the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. To this day, a thrill goes through you when that magical circus comes to town or to Madison Square Garden.
And, by the way, there's no evidence that Barnum actually said that a sucker is born every minute. That sounds more like the coarse street talk of "Mr. Trump," don't it? I liked him much better on his reality show than in real life. The character he plays on that show is a sham, since he seems halfway decent under the curt demeanor. All an act. [Vote now: Will Trump seriously run for president?]
What we know about Trump now after his "birther" performance on President Obama's origins reveal him as a shameless huckster with a sordid (read racist) streak. The White House is apparently just one more piece of real estate to be acquired for his gaudy empire. Can you imagine cabinet meetings conducted by this charlatan?
Make no mistake, he's not a harmless vulgarian in the public square. Trump brings out the worst in people. This much we know: He makes the star House Republicans Paul Ryan, Speaker John Boehner, and even Michelle Bachmann look halfway rational. [Vote now: Will Obama’s long-form birth certificate end the birther movement?]
Barnum enchanted the eye and dazzled the imagination with his acts (some of which were elaborate hoaxes) in his larger-than-life carnivals. But he stayed squarely in the ring of show business. He helped the public mind think big, laugh hard, and bury the tears and ashes of the Civil War in the 1870s. He, too, was fabulously rich, but that's not what he is remembered for. He's remembered for contributing to the mythical American character as well as his capitalist enterprises—in a good way. Remember the boy or girl who ran away with the circus?
H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore ages ago, loved the noise of American democracy, which he called the greatest show on earth. Now, my fellow politicos, the circus is the place to go for elegant, elevated acts.