Over the years we’ve born witness to countless public performance where individuals have put themselves at grave risk as a means of making money, while enhancing their personal brand in the process.

Take, for example, the family of high-wire performers known as the Flying Wallendas who rose to fame in the 1920s.  When, after their safety net was lost in transit, they went ahead and did their act without it. One of their most well-known performances, the seven-person chair pyramid, claimed the lives of two Wallendas and paralyzed another. Over the years, two other Wallendas fell to their deaths, and a third lost his life when he made contact with a live electrical wire with his metal rig.  But, as they say, the show must go on, and members of the Wallendas — women an men — are still performing their risky stunts today.

In 1974, Philippe Petit performed “le coup”, in which he walked on a high-wire between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. Well, actually, he walked back and forth between the twin towers. Eight times. He also danced on the wire. He kneeled and saluted onlookers. He even took a break to lay down on the wire. Petit did all of this over a span of 45 minutes. In shifting winds. Without having slept for 36 hours.

The most celebrated of this brand of performer was Harry Houdini. Among his impressive repertoire of risky acts were straitjacket escapes while suspended by a rope from a building’s roof, handcuff escapes while submerged in a water-filled tank, and repeated escapes from the “water torture cell”.  In this one, Houdini was locked at the feet in stocks, and then lower upside-down into a tank overflowing with water.  It would take about three minutes for Houdini to escape, holding his breath all the while.  (And, no, Houdini did not die on stage while performing this stunt.  He died in 1926, as a result ion complications from a ruptured appendix, in Detroit.)

Now, in 2016, we’re watching a different kind of risky public performance.  As with the previous examples, this performance has been growing in its audacity over the past twenty-odd years.  But, unlike the ones that came before it, this act puts the audience — not the performer — at risk.

Some of the most well-known of this new brand of performer includes Pat RobertsonJim Cramer, and Sarah Palin.  But, make no mistake, the Harry Houdini of this group is Donald Trump.  Trump’s run at being the GOP’s 2016 nominee for president is all about enhancing the Trump brand, while sowing the seeds to make even more money for himself.  (My prediction: Trump will actually admit this after the show is over.  It’s exactly the kind of thing a self-promoting showman like Trump would do.)

Other than having the spare cash needed to mount a campaign, Trump is woefully unqualified to run for president, let alone be president.  By his own admission, he has no interest in preparing for the role of nominee because all that studying and preparation gets in the way of a good performance.

Let’s be honest: In the beginning, it was sort of entertaining to watch Trump unleash a reign of terror over the Republican party. It was like watching a long episode of Celebrity Apprentice in which Trump bombastically, and sometimes incoherently, runs roughshod over his potential consorts.  I wasn’t expecting the show to go on this long, though. And now the show is getting really bad.  And scary.

Using the the last time Trump flirted with seeking the Republican party’s nomination as a bellwether, I was waiting for the moment when he would be asked to make public his tax returns so all the lies about his imagined fortune and business acumen could be exposed.  But these days, nobody seems to care about tax returns. In 2016, evidence of being completely disconnected — philosophically or financially — from the people you claim to represent is no longer a disqualifier.

So here we are, just weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, and Donald Trump’s show is still on tour. And, if polls are any indication, he’s enjoying a wildly successful run. But, unlike Petit or the Flying Wallendas or Houdini, Trump’s public performances don’t put himself at risk.  On the contrary, they put the rest of us — his audience, and  those of us trying to avert our eyes — at risk.

On the off chance Trump wins, he’d put America’s reputation around the world at risk with his racism and bigotry, and his nonsense plans to ban immigrants, and build a wall between Mexico and the U.S.  He’d put our financial health at risk because, contrary to his self-made mythology, he’s a terrible business man. And, he’d put our safety at risk because his rhetoric about Islam plays into the hand of ISIS, and because — if his advisors are to be believed — he’s willing to unleash America’s nuclear arsenal to “fix” problems around the world; I mean, why have nuclear weapons if you’re afraid to use them, right?

But, even if he doesn’t win, he’s distracting us — and the most important of democratic political processes: the contest to be the most powerful and influential leader on the planet — from some very real real problems that need solutions. Other than mindless rhetoric played for soundbites and show, Trump (and his GOP rivals) are absent when it comes to mitigating and adapting to the very real threat if climate change. They are absent on improving the quality and affordability of education. They are absent on healthcare. They are absent on the plight of those in poverty in the U.S. and globally. They are absent on how to effectively and realistically address the very real threat of radicalization and terrorism around the world.  I could go on.

And, if he does lose (and, he and his GOP contemporaries probably will), he still wins: Trump is going to make a boatload of money.  No, fear not, this won’t end badly for Trump.  Its only a matter of time before his oversized persona (and toupee) are snapped up, for cartel dollars, to appear in some new reality show train wreck. It’ll probably be on Fox.

It’s for all these reasons that Trump’s show reminds me less of Houdini , and more of the impalement shows of centuries gone by.  These performances featured extreme acts of knife-throwing and archery.  They unfolded with human targets; you know the ones where the damsel in distress was strapped to a large, wooden, spinning wheel?  The job of the  performer was to just miss the human target.  Really death-defying stuff, but only for the human target.

We’re watching the same kind of show in the GOP primary. Only, when it comes to Donald Trump, the human target on spinning wheel is us.

Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

Joseph Árvai
Dr. Joseph Árvai is the Max McGraw Professor of Global Sustainable Enterprise in the School of Natural Resources & Environment, and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He is also the Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. He can be reached on Twitter at @DecisionLab.

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