Robert Becker’s comparison of Donald Trump to P.T. Barnum is one I have made myself in far less detail and with far less eloquence or specificity. Trump is definitely the P.T. Barnum of our time, though; he is a huckster, a fraud, and what in Barnum’s day would be called a “humbug,” a “mountebank,” a “bunko artist.” But Barnum had the singular advantage of being far more socially conscious and self-aware and, it seems from most accounts, of being a very good person.
For all his self-aggrandizement and fakery, Barnum was a genuinely generous and philanthropic. He was also so self-aware, understanding the difference between public image and personal assessment. Trump makes no such distinction. With Trump, what you see is what you get. He is so clearly a crook, that people somehow overlook the crookedness of him. He is guileless in presenting his schemes, wrapping them in open packages of worthlessness for happy customers who tirelessly dole out their hard-earned cash to be taken in. He is, moreover, a man with no sense of personal loyalty, no ability to commit to either idea or individual, and no moral compass. Moreover, he’s an individual with no originality, no genuineness, no creativity; pretty much, he’s an inadequate and sad imitation of something that he seems to have been told he should be. In sum, he’s a counterfeit, a phony, a liar and a cheat. He should never be left alone with a child—or a pet.
Trump is more than a charlatan, though. He’s a sign of our times. At least every couple of weeks or so, the news reports on some fraud being visited on unsuspecting people who make no other mistake other than to answer the telephone and listen and respond civilly. Schemes to bilk money out of innocent and trusting people are, these days, as common as Starbucks’ signs. Sometimes, it’s incredible that victims could be so naive as to believe that something that sounds too good to be true is not true at all, but on the whole, honest people are trusting, and, of course, they’re human. Fundamentally, this plays to the old gambit that “you can’t cheat an honest man.” Greed, desperation, and fear all feed into this, and today’s con artists are excellent at exploiting it. Fake threats from the IRS or Social Security office, warranty departments, credit card companies, even banks clutter answering machines. Pyramid schemes and get-rich-quick gambits vie with fake contractors and promises of home repairs and fixes that never are done, even after hefty front-money is paid. Phony insurance companies, fake loan companies, fake roofing companies, fake yard services, carpet cleaners, and dream vacation companies. It used to be that these kinds of things were associated with strings of cheap used car lots (“No Credit? No Problem! We tote the note!”), mobile home dealers, and quickie loan outfits. Nowadays, they’re likely to be in glass-and-steel high-rise offices, and their corporate reps are wearing $1000 suits and Gucci loafers, driving Teslas and eating sushi at The Executive Grill. No one gives a damn about that. The spirit of P. T. Barnum lives.
Trump is a con artist’s con artist, though, a man after everyone’s wallet. The difference, between Trump and Barnum, though, was that Barnum never actually lied to people. He was a master at telling people that what they were paying for was a fraud, and then he would charge them money to see it, anyway. My favorite example was the mummified mermaid that carried a sign that clearly said, “Fake.” But people paid hard cash to see it. I also liked his posting of a large sign that said, “Egressus,” and led patrons of his museum to a door that led to the outside and locked behind them. He explained that it was the only way he could get them to leave the museum and make room for more people to come in. Oddly, no one complained about that. They understood that the joke was on them.
Trump’s joke is on us. We have allowed this to happen. We stood by watched as he rode to an effortless win. His calculus was absolutely on target. He realized he only had “to fool some of the people most of the time” to persuade them to vote for him, or at least to vote against Clinton. But Hillary wasn’t really the problem. He would have done the same thing to Bernie Sanders. Or to anyone. His tactics would have remained the same–attack, humiliate, denigrate, castigate, mischaracterize, insult. Then come out and say, “Only kidding.”
The problem the Democrats have with Trump and with the Republicans who blindly follow him, in general, boils down to one thing: They take them seriously. They should take a page from Trump’s own playbook. They should laugh at them. Openly make fun of them, ridicule their idiotic intransigence, make fun of their extremism, paint them as caricatures, reduce them to cartoons rather than people. It may seem like schoolyard meanness, and many would say such tactics are “beneath them.” And so they are. So they should be. But nobody got rid of Barnum’s museum or his circus by calling it a sham and a fraud. Hell, they even tried to burn him out at one point. Trump is ripe for ridicule. But only late-night pundits do that, and they’re preaching to the converted. Where the hell is Jon Stewart when you need him, where is today’s Edward R. Murrow?
The main-stream media is no help. Top reporters sit blithely and nod with understanding as Trump openly contradicts himself, reverses himself, denies facts that are right in front of him. They never laugh derisively and refuse to accept such dreck at face value. They never say, “Oh, come on. What kind of fool do you take me for?” That, unfortunately, is usually obvious.
The only hope I see for defeating Trump is to find the candidate amidst the field of carping Democratic back-stabbers who has a sense of humor, who can make fun of Trump, who can use ridicule and satire to expose him. Going at Trump head-on won’t work. Calling him a crook and a liar won’t work. Trump is a master of deflection, of deceit, and of the Big Lie. But he’s sensitive to ridicule. They should make fun of him. Pundits like Bill Mahr have Trump’s attention all the time; he sued Mahr for comparing him to an orangutan, and he tweets about Mahr all the time. But Mahr has too small an audience to make a difference. The candidates who remain in a still overcrowded race can reach millions, but they need to get the chips off their shoulders and put away the knives and clubs. They need to understand that furiously labeling Trump as a “threat to America” isn’t going to play in Peoria, or in St. Petersburg, or in the places where they need to sell it. Making fun of him will. Reducing him to a spluttering tweeter with the sensibility of a ten-year-old who takes a taunt seriously and is ready to fight at the drop of an insult might reveal who Trump is even to the densest of his followers. They like humor, because they can understand it. If the Democrats would go after Trump with a satiric smile, they will show that he is indeed the son of a bitch that he is, and people will start to think.
I know that the issues matter; the majority of Democratic hopefuls seize on some major point or other–medicare for all, climate change, LGBT Rights, immigration, gun violence, free education–and elevate it to a priority. In truth, none of these things matters. People don’t elect Medicare for All, because no one realistically thinks it will ever happen; people don’t elect Climate Change, because even those who think it’s real don’t think it’s real. People long ago gave up on pie in the sky promises. What they crave is stability; what they want is competent leadership. People elect a person. They vote for who they like. They vote their hearts and their gut. They don’t vote their brains. If that were the case, we’d elect smarter people than we do. The IQs of the past several presidents shows men of intelligence, sure (with one glaring exception, at least); but what you really see are men who knew how to make themselves likable. Hillary was most decidedly unlikable. Trying to imagine a personal conversation with her tightens the colon, sort of like something you might have to endure with an elderly aunt who wants to pinch your cheek and call you “Sweetie.” So, for that matter, was Sanders unlikable; he resembles your crazy uncle at Thanksgiving continuing to complain about the departure of the Dodgers from Brooklyn, especially after he’s had too much wine. Looking at the whole Democratic field, I don’t think I’d want to sit down and have a cup of coffee, much less a beer, with any of them. They’re too damned serious, too earnest, too angry. I’d be bored in five minutes and looking for the “effugium.”
So that’s my advice to the candidates. Loosen up. Relax. Laugh. Poke fun at Trump. Make him mad. You do that by denigrating him, mocking him: make fun of his ties, his belly, his hair, his age, his inability to spell or compose a coherent sentence, his lack of reading comprehension skills, his general ignorance of the world, his bankruptcies, his failed business ventures. He’s ripe for ridicule. Use that.
Barnum and Trump. It’s a fascinating comparison. But it misses more than it meets. Still, there is a lesson here. The key to defeating Trump lies in his own techniques. Start calling him “Fat Donnie.” or “Little Donnie,” “Dottering Donnie,” “Deadbeat Donnie,” “Double-Bogey Donnie,” “Trump the Tripper.” Accuse him of using a “foot wedge to improve his lie,” then compliment him for never having to “improve a lie,” as he’s a “master of lying.” Point out that he believes the last thing he heard, although he can’t recall who he heard it from. Talk about his proclivity for fast food, his lack of taste in furnishings. Ask when he last drove a car or flew commercial. Depict him standing bewildered in front of a vending machine trying to figure out what coins have what denominations, since it’s a safe bet that he’s never handled hard money in his life. Note that he has no idea in the world how to crimp a brim on a baseball cap. Work the toilet-paper joke. “There goes Tripping Trump, with what remains of the economy on his shoe.” Make fun of his lack of knowledge, of history, of music, or whatever. Skewer him for his fraudulent enterprises. Suggest that he’s trying to turn the White House into another failed Trump hotel and casino, wonder if the groundsmen have been paid lately. Ask about the undocumented staff at his resorts.
While you’re at it, don’t let his most supportive minions off the hook. There’s “Millstone Mitch,” who weighs down the Senate; “Lazy Aunt Lindsay,” who always condemns Trump’s actions but does nothing about them. “Stupid Sean Hannity,” a jumped-up radio DJ with no sense whatsoever; “Wide-Awake Kelly-Ann,” who has the moral integrity of a slug but without the intelligence. And the list goes on: Jared, Don Jr., Ivanka. They’re all ripe for crude comedy and derisive satire.
As a tactic, it’s cheap, yeah; it’s banal, yeah; it’s obvious, yeah; it’s crude, yeah. But with Trump, it works. It gets his back up, forces him into more mistakes. A well-placed jibe, properly managed insult, tagging with an insulting label or nickname; these things stick. Trump has proved that time and again. Fight fire with fire, locker-room humor with locker-room humor, mud with mud. Otherwise, at the end, all you’re going to have is clean but empty hands, and four more years (at least) of Donnie the Dancing Demagogue. And you’ll have nothing to blame but your personal sense of integrity.