America’s Biggest Newspaper 70 Years Ago Sounded a Lot Like Trump Today

The New York Daily News helped fashion a brand of right-wing populism that the president eventually rode to power.

New Yorkers stop to glance at the four-star final edition of the New York Daily News in November 1962.
New Yorkers stop to glance at the four-star final edition of the New York Daily News in November 1962. (Matty Zimmerman / AP)

When Donald Trump was growing up in the 1950s, roughly half of the families in the New York metropolitan area read the New York Daily News. The tabloid was at the time the highest-circulation newspaper in America by far, selling more than 2 million copies each weekday and as many as 4 million on Sundays. In fact, no American newspaper has ever surpassed those numbers. But the News’ dominance was greatest in white, non-Jewish outer-borough neighborhoods such as Jamaica Estates, where the Trumps lived. Given that the man of the house, Fred C. Trump, was a major advertiser in the News and frequently appeared in its real-estate columns in the 1940s and ’50s, young Donald might have encountered it regularly—and, though adult Donald may not realize the connection, he sounds eerily like it now.

Indeed, the paper’s current left-wing politics have obscured the fact that it helped fashion a brand of right-wing populism in the years just before the president’s birth in 1946, and during his childhood, that Trump eventually rode to power.

The overlap between Trump’s rhetoric and the mid-century News is especially striking when it comes to United States foreign policy. Between 1946 and 1952, the Daily News editorial page and its politics column said dozens of times that Uncle Sam had turned into “Uncle Sap” or “Uncle Sucker,” because “so-called allies” in NATO were raking in aid money from the U.S. and failing to pay enough for their own defense. Trump has hammered away at the same message since the early days of his campaign; last December he announced, “We’re no longer the suckers, folks.”

The News also shared Trump’s concern that overly generous international deals made the U.S. a subject of ridicule. A 1946 editorial cartoon, for example, showed a jovial Stalin kicking a drunk Uncle Sam in the seat of his pants as Sam buys another round of drinks (aid money) for the Soviet dictator and his comrades. Two decades later, the Communists were still laughing. “The Red Hungarian bosses probably giggled into their cups,” an editorial told readers in 1965, when the State Department didn’t penalize the “bosses” after a mob damaged a U.S. embassy building.

Even though immigration in the 1940s was at historic lows and subject to the strictest laws in American history, the News called for further restriction. Editorials said immigrants posed a danger to Americans, with one warning in 1945 that “foreigners … want to stream here in millions, share our comparative wealth, and pull down our standard of living.” A 1943 editorial arguing against the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act pinpointed what the News saw as the problem: “Official Washington is infested with do-gooders who want to let the rest of the world in on [our] riches” and to “give away our country.” That notion permeated the editorial page throughout the ’40s and ’50s. One editorial in 1957 blasted “do-gooders,” “world savers,” and “bleeding hearts” for their “giveaway convulsions”—their alleged desire to dish out billions of American taxpayers’ dollars to “Socialist, semi-Socialist, or Fascist countries.”

The News had yet another name for those “do-gooders.” It labeled them “globalists,” an obscure term that the News picked up from Representative Clare Boothe Luce (and Trump picked up from Steve Bannon). The News especially liked Luce’s coinage “globaloney,” which was part of the headlines for three separate editorials in 1943. The end goal of globaloney, the last of these editorials said, was for the U.S. to “buy the Presidency of the World by means of a worldwide WPA,” or Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era jobs program, which would eventually bring “some kind of Socialism or Communism to the United States.”

To head off the threat of globalist socialism, the News offered the same prescription as Trump for restoring the country’s greatness: an “America first” policy. The paper’s publisher, Joseph Medill Patterson, was a strong supporter of the isolationist America First Committee prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, and he continued to promote the slogan in the News long after it had become associated with anti-Semites and fascist sympathizers. In 1950, the tabloid’s top political columnist, John O’Donnell, argued that “the America First philosophy was soundly right” all along.

“America first” retained a negative association when Trump adopted it during the 2016 campaign—but the candidate seemingly didn’t care, presumably because he thought it captured a view of foreign relations focused narrowly on what the U.S. stands to gain. The News unapologetically promoted that way of seeing. In a 1946 editorial devoted to “auditing” World War II, the News asked “what we got out of it” and concluded that it was only a string of Pacific islands to use as bases and temporary control of Japan (which the U.S. would use to “teach the Japs Roman letters and Arabic numerals”). In other words, a lousy deal.

Trump may enjoy angering some people with the slogan “America first.” His speech is often politically incorrect, blunt, and mildly profane, which apparently endears him to his base. The News employed the same technique: Its clear, plainspoken prose was a major selling point. The tabloid also used profanity and epithets for humor or titillation. Patterson even sent an internal memo in 1944 ordering the words “bastard” and “son of a bitch (no hyphens)” to be printed in full. In another Trumpian touch, the News gave insulting nicknames to its political opponents: Harry Truman was “High Tax Harry” or “Little Harry”; the Democratic White House adviser David Niles was “Devious Dave.”

Sometimes the News’ rhetoric had darker undertones, as when O’Donnell suggested in 1945 that “Devious Dave” Niles was part of a globalist Jewish conspiracy to bring down General George Patton. Like Trump and his allies, the paper was accused of anti-Semitism. When News cars drove through Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn during World War II, youths hounded them and called them the “Nazi News.” The B’nai B’rith organization in 1946 passed a resolution condemning the paper for trying to “incite religious animosity” and “foment hatreds” with editorials that implied that the Jews were responsible for the United States’ involvement in the war.

In fact, the News occasionally expressed some of the noxious beliefs that white nationalists who view Trump as their champion espouse today. A 1941 editorial endorsed the racist theories of the eugenicist Madison Grant, although they had been widely discredited years earlier. Foreshadowing the concerns of today’s so-called alt-right, the News fretted that white Europeans were committing “racial suicide” in World War II and would make “easy pickings” for the “yellow hordes of Asia.” Articles about Australia during the war noted approvingly that it was “white man’s country” and asked how far the U.S. should go “in trying to save Australia and New Zealand for the white race.”

The letters column of the News—labeled “Voice of the People”—could also be a forum for appalling racism. In 1959, the Voice published several letters about the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Mississippi. One reader, who identified herself as “a Southern lady” living in New Jersey, wrote, “The people gave a dirty, sexed-up nigger just what he deserved,” adding, “I hope … they had to pick up his remains with a shovel.” Such hateful vitriol was rare—it was more common for readers to complain about black people being demanding or lazy, as in these examples from 1963—but the fact that the News printed the letter implies that it thought the letter expressed an acceptable viewpoint.

The overwhelming majority of News readers, like the overwhelming majority of Trump supporters, were not white supremacists. For most, what mattered was the papers claim to advocate for the “common people”—a commitment carved into stone on the facade of the headquarters Patterson built in 1930. Trump adopted a similar posture of fighting for—and, implausibly, even personifying—the “common man” in his 2016 campaign.

Trump and the News each envisioned the same type of common man as their target audience: white, working-class to middle-class, wary of intellectuals and elites. The News nicknamed its everyman Sweeney—they even had a motto, “Tell it to Sweeney!” But by the late 1960s, New York City’s demographics had changed. As the paper’s circulation manager lamented to The Wall Street Journal in 1967, “The trouble is there are fewer Sweeneys around to tell it to.” In response, the editorial page moved toward the center. It moved to the left in the 1990s, and as the News approaches its 100th birthday next month, it is still printing fiery editorials and provocative front-page headlines. Today, its main target, the president, embodies the principles the paper advocated at its height 70 years ago.