Reporter's Notebook

How We Used to Talk About Trump
Show Description +

Reflections from James Fallows and others about how people commonly referred to Donald Trump in the pages of The Atlantic in the ‘90s and ‘00s, before Trump got involved in national politics and was just a celebrity tycoon.

Show None Newer Notes

Back When Trump Had a Shot at 'Person of the Century'

Trump and Warhol in 1983. That horse captures my mood this week.  (Mario Suriani / AP)

In the previous installment of our archive series, Fallows featured a popularity poll of Donald Trump in 1990 that one his wealthy supporters fixed to give the false impression that 81 percent of those surveyed believed that Trump “symbolized what was right with the United States.” (Let’s hope that kind of ballot-box stuffing doesn’t happen in November.) That incident makes me think of another Atlantic piece we came across in our archives: “Vote of the Century,” written by Barbara Wallraff for our November 1992 issue (unavailable online). It’s a dispatch from Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where Walt Disney World is headquartered, and Wallraff reports on what then-CEO Michael Eisner in the following video calls “one of the most significant projects in which the Walt Disney Company has ever embarked”—a decade-long survey to determine the “Person of the Century”:

Here’s Wallraff with more on the ambitious project:

The Electronic Forum is a couple of rooms full of ATM-like kiosks in Epcot Center’s Communicore East building. I walked in out of the sun to find a computer screen inviting me to take a stand, or stands, on the Person of the Century question by choosing up to three contenders from a list of eighty-nine names and a write-in blank. Only thirty names, or twenty-nine and the blank, appeared on the screen at once, but the list is in alphabetical order, and so it was pretty clear from the outset that I could call up more names at the touch of a button. Bill Cosby, Marie Curie...Mao Zedong, George C. Marshall, Maria Montessori...Jim Thorpe, Harry Truman, Donald Trump, Andy Warhol...I spoiled my first ballot trying to flip through the whole list again and again, and had to start over.

She adds, “Obviously, this poll is not scientific. For one thing, anyone can hang around the Electronic Forum all day voting for his or her favorite candidate.” Which is exactly what happened—though not for Trump this time. Here’s the story from Jim Hill at The Orlando Weekly:

If you typed in anyone’s name -- and I mean anyone’s -- the computer registered that entry as a legitimate vote. So, as a gag, Epcot cast members began dropping by on their lunch breaks and typing in the name of a particular employee. At first, it was just a few people doing this. But the gag snowballed. Which is how this cast member ended up on the tote board as one of the top 10 candidates for “Person of the Century.”

Management was furious. But there was no way they could delete the employee’s name without corrupting the results of the whole poll. Plus, there seemed to be no way to stop Epcot employees from typing this guy’s name in.

When Communicore closed in July 1994 to make way for Innoventions, Disney quietly pulled the plug on its poll and pretended the whole thing never happened.

If only we could do the same with the Trump candidacy.

As Nicholas Lemann observed in our January 1999 issue: “Donald Trump became a tycoon by making himself a celebrity first.” To take that formulation a step further: Trump became a politician—the most influential one in the U.S. right now—based on that tycoon status and thus celebrity status. And celebrities love cameos:

Other celebrity politicians with mass cultural appeal, such as Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan, at least held some elected office before bursting on the national scene. But Trump’s celeb-centric ascension is unique. Only four U.S. presidential nominees in the 20th and 21st centuries had no experience in elected office, though three of them—Taft, Hoover, and Eisenhower—did serve in appointed roles within government. The fourth nominee—Wendell Willkie, a utility executive—had never served in government, but Willkie was nowhere near the level of celebrity as Trump’s. And Willkie became famous because he was a tycoon, not the other way around, a la Trump. (William D. Cohan has an excellent piece in our April 2013 issue detailing how Trump’s business clout is based on his celebrity brand; the mere perception of his exaggerated wealth is what gets Trump so many business deals. Cohan’s piece is basically an extrapolation of Lemann’s “celebrity before tycoon” and well worth a read.)

With that in mind, here are three mentions of Trump in our archives that underscore his iconic status prior to running for president:

In an October 1997 interview with American storyteller Garrison Keillor, it’s revealing that Trump is the first name that comes to mind when Keillor is asked about American archetypes:

Oct ‘97 issue

The story of your rise to fame—from being a midwestern boy with big dreams to becoming a national icon—is terrifically American. What's it like to be an archetype? Is it all it's cracked up to be?

Every Arbor Day I get together with some of my fellow archetypes—Donald Trump and Sally Ride and Willard Scott and Martha Stewart—and we talk about what it's like. Frankly, it’s okay. None of us minds, particularly. It’s not a dignified life, the archetypal life, but we seem to serve a useful function as landmarks, like the Chrysler Building or the pier at Santa Monica.

Twelve years later, in our November 2009 issue, here’s how James Parker opened his piece “Retching With the Stars” (about the “addictive appeal” of Dr. Drew Pinsky’s reality show Celebrity Rehab):

AT THE MONUMENT to the Last Postmodern Philosopher, who was assumed into heaven after watching Season One of Laguna Beach, the celebrities are gathering to pay tribute: lumbering Donald Trump, with his volume always set wrong; tiny-footed Tila Tequila. There’s Paris Hilton, sleek as a seal; and a cartwheeling Flavor Flav! Applause greets them all, and shouted questions, the usual brouhaha.

Speaking of Trump’s volume, two years later for our July 2011 issue, Walter Kirn wrote the following entry (“The Maniac Will Be Televised”) for our list of “The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”:

Joe Cavaretta / AP

The winning entry of our reader contest for the best walk-on song for Trump, “You’re So Vain,” reminded me of a literary reference to vanity dropped by the conservative writer David Brooks in our March 2002 issue:

Pretty soon the hedonist will be sitting at the baccarat table in a low-cut pec-neck sweater and alligator loafers, failing to observe the distinction between witty banter with the cocktail waitress and sexual harassment. His skin will have that effervescent glow that Donald Trump’s takes on in the presence of gilded metal and ceiling mirrors.

In a similar vein, Trump biographer Gwenda Blair—via a book review by Jack Beatty for our October 2000 issue—had a pretty damning label for Trump:

“The Donald is fantastic in the golf and very good in the tennis,” Ivana Trump once observed, imperishably, of that “national symbol of luxury and sybaritic [self-indulgent] excess” Donald Trump, whom Gwenda Blair depicts as a Gatsby of self-infatuation transfixed by the green light at the end of his own dock.

William Powers similarly called out Trump in his November 2005 essay on the narcissism of aging Baby Boomers.

But if there’s one theme that most characterized Trump in our culture prior to his presidential run, it’s flashy wealth. Of the 25 print pieces of The Atlantic that referenced Trump between 1992 (our earliest mention of Trump) and early 2011 (when Trump burst on the scene of presidential politics with Birtherism, notwithstanding his flirtation with a Reform Party run in 2000), most of the Trump mentions are off-hand references to luxury.

Compiled here are many such examples, from writers across the political spectrum. From our September 2002 issue, libertarian P.J. O’Rourke:

Peering into bright living rooms, I could see another emblematic Cairo item—the astonishingly ugly sofa. An ideal Egyptian davenport has two Fontainebleaus’ (the one in France and the one in Miami) worth of carving and gilt and is upholstered in plush, petit point, plaid, and paisley, as if Donald Trump and Madame de Pompadour and Queen Victoria and The Doors had gotten together to start a decorating firm.

From our April 2004 issue, Joshua Green profiled Ralph Reed “born again as a political strategist”:

[Reed’s] position as a political consultant to [George W.] Bush is a subordinate one, however, and demands that he never outshine his client. Here Reed struggles a bit. His double-breasted navy suit, impeccably knotted silk tie, and matching gold cufflinks and wristwatch are more Donald Trump than Organization Man.

In stark contrast to Trump and Reed is the Midwestern magnate Warren Buffett, whom Walter Kirn profiled for our November 2004 issue: