Donald Trump: P.T. Barnum With Bad Hair

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Either the phoniness in American politics has reached record levels or I’ve grown irremediably cynical in my old age. I am reminded these days of a notorious 19th century hoax as I observe from a safe distance the weird descent of the 2016 presidential contest into a cringe-inducing reality show, which happens to feature a veteran of embarrassing entertainment.

I’m referring, of course, to Donald Trump. 

In 1869, two men digging a well on the farm of William Newell in Cardiff, N.Y., unearthed what were purported to be the petrified remains of a 10-foot-tall man. The find was believed (by the especially gullible) to be the corpse of a prehistoric Goliath. But the “Cardiff Giant” was actually a statue that George Hull, an enterprising tobacco farmer and Newell’s cousin, had commissioned stonecutters in Iowa to carve from a block of gypsum. He then conspired with Newell to pay the well-diggers to exhume it.

Hordes flocked to the Newell farm and paid 50 cents per person to see the giant. Hull subsequently sold it for $23,000 (over $400,000 today) to a group of investors led by David Hannum, a minor rival to legendary impresario, Phineas Taylor Barnum. Hannum put the giant on display in Syracuse, where it continued to draw large crowds of the credulous and curious, despite it having been pronounced a fake by an eminent paleontologist and other scholars who had, among other things, noticed the fresh chisel marks that scarred the stone man.

Enter P.T. Barnum himself, a sort of 19th century entrepreneurial precursor to Donald Trump, only with a less ridiculous hairdo, better taste and more tact. Hannum rebuffed Barnum’s offer to purchase the giant for $60,000, an immense sum at the time. So, Barnum simply had a plaster copy of it made and displayed in his museum in New York City, marketing it as the real Cardiff Giant and dismissing Hannum’s as the fake.

Barnum was the more experienced huckster by far, and his giant packed them in while the crowds in Syracuse predictably disappeared. Hannum sued Barnum, but as he could not prove his giant was any more authentic than Barnum’s plaster copy, the lawsuit was dismissed. Both giants were declared to be fakes in 1870, which didn’t bother Barnum a bit. His giant is still on display today in a Detroit museum.

If The Donald is a 21st century plaster replica of Barnum and his curio, Sen. Ted Cruz is a political version of Hannum. That’s what I thought anyway, as I watched Cruz refuse to criticize Trump’s latest nonsense in the hope of eventually inheriting the billionaire huckster’s supporters. Cruz demurred, he claimed, because he will not be goaded by the liberal press into criticizing a fellow Republican. Fidelity to Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th Commandment is something Cruz conspicuously ignored last week when he denounced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a liar and when he routinely castigates his fellow Senate Republicans as cowardly and unprincipled.

Like Hannum, Cruz is sure to be outdone by the one candidate in the race who has longer and more successful experience with shameless self-promotion and political flimflammery. Were Trump in some epic misfortune to become the GOP nominee with his toxic favorable-unfavorable ratings and general repulsiveness, he could be the first candidate to lose all 50 states. Although his outsized ego may prevent him from realizing that, Republican leaders and the other 2016 candidates certainly do.

But Trump is not playing to win an election or to promote certain political priorities or policies. He is by far the most left-leaning Republican frontrunner of the post-World War Two era. No definition of conservative is elastic enough to include Trump’s past views -- high taxes, big government, massive debt, single payer healthcare, protectionism, and an aversion to conservative social values. His demagogic appeals to people’s sense of resentment and victimhood are intended to promote his brand -- the boorish billionaire version of a Kardashian.

Trump’s cosmetically enhanced politics and ridiculous persona will hog the media’s interest and, thus, voters’ attention, for as long as he remains the Cardiff Giant candidate. Were he to wage a third party bid as he has threatened to do, his supporters are likely to continue deceiving themselves that Trump is a conservative folk hero and applaud his narcissistic leap for the sun. Hillary Clinton will be elected president. And one can imagine a disappointed Ted Cruz, his political career over as quickly as it began because his demagoguery didn’t quite equal Trump’s know-nothing hucksterism, despairing as David Hannum is rumored to have told P.T. Barnum during their court case: “There’s a sucker born every minute."

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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