Trump Is Indisputably the P.T. Barnum of American Politics

Donald J. Trump is the undisputed P.T. Barnum of American politics.

Mr. Barnum — who died in 1891 — was an American politician, showman, and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In describing his persona, Mr. Barnum reportedly said: “I am a showman by profession . . . and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” His personal aim was “to put money in my coffers.” He is widely, but erroneously, credited with coining the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Could it be that Trump authored that “sucker born” comment in his widely read and frequently quoted biography, “Trump: The Art of the Deal”?

What earns Trump the “greatest showman” title so proudly worn by Barnum? Start with a lengthy stint as a reality television program star where he got to “fire” folks each week, which brought him millions of followers. Follow that with his rabble-rousing campaign rallies populated with star-struck folks who propelled him into the White House.

Once elected, however, Trump needed to transition into a serious — or at least a non-conformist — president. He looked to create a new reality show to leverage the power of  extensive media exposure focused on his promise to streamline the federal government.

Enter the Executive Order Signing Ceremony. During the first few months of his administration, Trump frequently sat at a desk in the White House (think center ring at any circus) with Republican lawmakers standing sheepishly behind him as he signed dozens of neatly bound documents.

He overly dramatized signing the paperwork and then flashed the document toward TV cameras to prove he had put his John Hancock to the order (Mr. Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 in such a flamboyant manner so the King of England would be able to read his name without his spectacles).

A great showman — such as Barnum and now Trump — is all about the art of pleasing an audience. In Trump’s case, these signing ceremonies were about making certain his supporters — a minority of the popular vote last fall — would believe he was actively toting their baggage.

A few examples include:

An Executive Order (EO) was issued on Inauguration Day (January 20) in an attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare as it was branded by Republicans) through congressional action. Repeal and replace Obamacare was a popular chant at Trump  campaign rallies throughout his run for the White House. To date, however, Congress has failed to enact legislation to kill the ACA. In fact, large numbers of Americans signed up for health care coverage under the ACA this year.

Trump signed an EO on February 9, “Enforcing Federal Law With Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking,” outlining the administration’s approach to cutting down on organized crime by enhancing cooperation with foreign governments and the ways in which federal agencies share information and data. It highlighted human trafficking, drug smuggling, financial crimes, cyber-crime and corruption as a threat to public safety and national security.

The Threat Mitigation National Intelligence [Committee] — of which Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the secretary of Homeland Security co-chair — were charged with reviewing and recommending changes to federal agencies’ practices in a report to be delivered to Trump within 120 days. Some 300 days later, a search of social media failed to find any report provided Trump by the TMNI.

Could be it was delivered by the deadline and not released for public consumption?  Since such a document would require careful reading by Trump before he shares it with voters, there’s a good chance it’s still sitting on his desk or on a nightstand beside his bed.

On February 28, Trump signed an EO “White House Initiative to Promote Excellence and Innovation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” transferring oversight of the program from the Department of Education to the Executive Office of the President.

The program was established by President Ronald Reagan, who placed it under the watchful eye of the Education Department.  Trump’s EO directed the Initiative to work with the private sector to strengthen the fiscal stability of HBCUs, make infrastructure improvements, provide job opportunities for students, collaborate with secondary schools to create a college pipeline and increase access and opportunity for federal grants and contracts. It does not specify how much federal money the colleges should receive.

The program holds a summit during National HBCU Week each year. The initiative and annual summit were created by Reagan — and strongly supported by presidents going forward — to help students served by HBCUs.

Trump, along with many HBCU leaders, did not attend this year’s summit held in September. Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told news media outlets attending the event that his organization did not attend the main portion of the conference because “the way it was planned would not make it worthwhile.”

Black college presidents are currently seeking billions in federal funding for infrastructure, college readiness, financial aid and other priorities. Under President Obama, historically black colleges and universities received $4 billion over seven years.

These EO examples illustrate the skillful showman Trump has become during the past few decades. In his first 100 days in office, Trump signed more paperwork creating laws than all but two presidents in the last 84 years.

He bragged about putting pen to parchment 34 times in 100 days, while GovTrack put the count at 38. But as PolitiFact noted at the time (June 2017), “None of the bills [EOs] Trump has signed into law are particularly significant.”

Of course not. It’s all about “The Show” for Trump. Marketing and public relations folks call it spitballing: throw spit balls (news releases) against a wall (targeted news media outlets) and many will stick and deliver your message to at least a portion of your target audience.

Trump has transformed spitballing into a political art form. In his world he throws an enormous number of damp wads of paper — in this case Executive Orders — out to the public so his version of “The Greatest Show on Earth” will continue to rule the roost in Washington, D.C.

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