P.T. Barnum‘s legacy is twofold. He founded a circus that lasted 146 years until this week. That’s a long time for any business — older than General Electric. But Barnum’s most enduring legacy is encapsulated in his famous aphorism — that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” It’s a premise upon which legions of American hucksters, carnival barkers, liars and pyramid scheme purveyors have always relied. Barnum’s wisdom lives in the annals of con men right next to H.L. Mencken‘s famous “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Barnum’s circus comes to a timely close just as his nation of “suckers” gets ready to inaugurate President Donald Trump. This is not a knock on either man. Many Americans revere Barnum for his audacity and ambition, his opportunism and shamelessness. (Voters credited Trump with the same, as did the candidate himself.) Barnum remains a great American success story and a legend, one created largely by a fawning media — again like a certain modern-day figure. As Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closes this week — done in by digital age attention spans and animal rights activists — Barnum’s ghost can rest assured that his personal legacy lives on. Barnum, born in 1810, understood that politics was much like the circus. He served as Mayor of Bridgeport, CT and in the Connecticut House of Representatives. But whatever Barnum’s political successes, he always said “I am a showman by profession.” And so it goes.