Van Ens: P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump: A sucker born every minute? (column) |

Van Ens: P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump: A sucker born every minute? (column)

Jack Van Ens

Who does President Donald Trump remind you of?

He has taken great pride in being compared to Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (1810-1891). Barnum called himself the “Prince of Humbug” because many Americans regarded him as a lovable con man.

Before becoming a circus impresario, Barnum operated a popular Manhattan museum. He promised ticket-holders they’d see the “Great Model of Niagara Falls with Real Water.” Visitors got hosed when they saw an 18-inch miniature through which water trickled. A museum sign directed them, announcing, “This Way to the Egress.” An exotic animal, perhaps? The museum’s egress led to an outside door. Tourists had to pay admission again to re-enter.

Playing on the public’s gullibility, Barnum hyped Joice Heth, the alleged 161-year-old nurse to Gen. George Washington. Although he didn’t coin the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Barnum relished cashing in on it.

On “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd noted Trump’s unflattering comparisons on the campaign trail: “Kim Kardashian, Biff from ‘Back to the Future,’ George Costanza (whose self-promotion backfired on “Seinfeld”) and P.T. Barnum.”

“Any of those you consider a compliment?” Todd asked. Trump shot back with glee, “P.T. Barnum. We have to build up the image of our country” (“Meet the Press,” Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016).

Trump habitually exaggerates, as did Barnum. Superlatives are their verbal friends. If stretching what’s true helps sell themselves, then the more ballyhoo, the better.

While campaigning, Trump told tales that delighted supporters. He intimated Ted Cruz’ father might have been part of the team who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Then he inferred in some way Hillary Clinton may have pulled the proverbial trigger leading to aide Vince Foster’s assassination. Trump wondered if unnamed liberals hastened Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death.

Barack Obama is one of President Trump’s favorite targets because he had “a fraudulent birth certificate.” And, to cover-up his lack of citizenship, perhaps Obama had a hand in murdering a Hawaiian state official. “How amazing the state health director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in a plane crash today. All others lived,” tweeted the Donald (

Trump accused the Obama Administration of illegal electronic surveillance, targeting Trump Tower, which was more damaging than election sabotage by Russian operatives. On Monday, Aug. 7, 2017, Trump tweeted that the “fake news Russian collusion story” was just that simple. Made up.

Trump’s base feeds on such extravagant claims. Supporters acknowledge he’s a con man, but he’s their con man.

What’s wrong with using verbal deception to fleece people? It destroys credibility. Jesus complimented Nathaniel “in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47). What you hear is what you get from Nathaniel. He didn’t deceive or verbally trick others, unlike Barnum and Trump.

At a campaign rally in Youngtown, Ohio, in July 2017, President Trump talked about the difficulty of “sounding presidential,” wondering why presidents should strive for accuracy in what they declare. “It’s easy to act presidential but that’s not gonna get it done,” blustered Trump.

Conservative commentator Peggy Noonan doesn’t regard con man as part of the presidential job description. “(What Trump said in Youngstown) is the opposite of the truth,” wrote Noonan. “The truth, six months in, is that he is not getting it done. His mad, blubbery petulance isn’t working for him but against him. If he were presidential, he’d be getting it done — building momentum, gaining support. He’d be over 50 percent, not under 40 percent. He’d have health care and more” (The Wall Street Journal, “Trump is Woody Allen without the humor,” July 29-30, 2017, p. A-11).

Is honing the art of conning citizens part of the presidential job description?

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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