Ruth: One circus closes and another comes to Washington

Associated Press
Associated Press
Published Jan. 16, 2017

This was probably inevitable.

After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced it will be shutting down operations in May. As a certain political figure might observe — sad. The institution's demise has been attributed to shifting tastes among the public, rising operational costs and growing opposition from groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Fair enough. But you do have to admit watching elephants doing the Hokey Pokey was something to see.

But why do we need a traveling circus when we have C-SPAN, offering the Greatest Shmos on Earth!

It was poetic irony that the circus announced it was leaving town permanently only days before its successor, the administration of President Donald Trump, was due to take over.

Now that's entertainment!

Friday's inauguration will mark the culmination of an almost two-year road show starring a blustering Ronald McDonald ringmaster of hubris the nation could not stop watching.

How could the circus possibly compete with "The Gong Show of the Potomac"?

The New York Times reported the other day that President Barack Obama cut his intellectual chops by devouring the writings of Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, V.S. Naipaul and, yes, William Shakespeare. Always the intellectual showoff, that Barack Obama.

Not Trump. One biographer says he never saw a book anywhere near the future leader of the free world unless the subject matter concerned Donald J. Trump.

Trump's world view was far more shaped by channeling his inner John Ringling and P.T. Barnum. That is not a knock on the president-elect. Far from it.

Both Ringling and Barnum were astute businessmen with a keen understanding of the consumers they served.

It was Barnum, after all, who once observed: "The common man, no matter how sharp or tough, actually enjoys having the wool pulled over his eyes, and makes it easier for the puller."

Could you find a more succinct marketing strategy for Trump University than that?

Until Friday, the nation largely has been led by men who engaged in thoughtful deliberations over the affairs of the day — war and peace, the economy, infrastructure needs, crime, health care, education, taxation and trade.

But now the United States will be led by a reality game show host who rose to fame by way of feuds, petty infighting, faux drama, knee-jerk decisionmaking and undisciplined overreaction to any perceived slight.

Scary governance? Maybe. But the ratings will be — in a word — terrific.

We return to the gospel of Mr. Barnum: "The bigger the humbug, the better the people like it."

You can't argue with that. Would you care for some Trump steaks?

Ringling and Barnum understood their product and their customer. They sold glitz, grandiosity, a whiff of danger and a peek into exotic locales to people in the small towns and humble places who could only dream about a glamorous world beyond their grasp. It was a business model that worked splendidly for nearly a century and a half.

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Trump has done the same thing with fancy personal jets, lavish resorts the average supporter will never set foot in, gilt-edged penthouses and his own prime-time television show. He is more, much more, than a mere politician. He is a three-ring circus of conspicuous consumption and tweeting invective. He is a vicarious fantasy. See: Trump, Melania.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has a closing curtain. The lions go back to their cages. The acrobats climb down from their swings. The clowns remove their makeup until the next performance.

The nation is about to embark on a 24/7 circus. Step right up and watch the incredible Trumpskin build a wall! Repeal and replace Obamacare in one fell swoop! And here at center stage you will be amazed at the thrilling trapeze act of Vladimir the flying hacker! Come one, come all!

You could make a case the Ringling circus isn't fading away. It's simply changing costumes and setting up shop in the biggest tent of all.

That brings us to the last of Mr. Barnum's wisdom: "You can fool most of the people most of the time."