I’ve been mystified by the success of the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, a movie based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame. How does someone make a “feel good” musical about a man who preyed upon people’s basest instincts to make money?
P.T. Barnum literally rented an elderly black slave and peddled the fiction that she was George Washington’s nursemaid. He exploited people of other races, such as the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. People came to see his freak show of humans with physical characteristics outside the mainstream of society. (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017) All of this is whitewashed by rousing musical numbers and anthems, ironically, of tolerance for people’s differences (Academy-award nominated song “This Is Me”).
I guess the popularity of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we live in an America that elected Donald Trump. Like Barnum, Trump exploited people’s prejudices and fears to win votes. He peddled the fiction that he was a man of great business acumen despite numerous business failures and the exploitation of many who worked for him.
Both Barnum’s and Trump’s greatest gifts have been for self-promotion. Barnum even titled his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Similarly, Trump travels around the country like a religious tent revivalist, whipping up crowds and congratulating himself for his greatness and popularity. Trump is fond of phrases such as “we have the best …” and “like no one’s ever seen.”
Donald Trump has created his own three-ring circus to dazzle, obfuscate, and distract the media and the American people from his lies and the backroom dealings that keep coming to light through the Mueller investigation. He has managed to convince Republican legislators and conservative media pundits that the true chicanery lies elsewhere, with the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Justice Department, and American intelligence services. Unlike the offensive but entertaining smoke and mirrors of P.T. Barnum, Trump’s con artistry is bent on destroying American institutions.
Americans who so want to invest their hopes and dreams in a man like Trump are the perfect audience for a sugarcoated movie about a man who conned and exploited his way to fame and fortune, a man who was wiling to abuse both humans and animals to make a buck.
As historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, “Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017)
If anything explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that does.