Reporter's Notebook

How We Used to Talk About Trump
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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 3 Newer Notes

Trump Before Trumpism: The Way He First Came Into View


Donald Trump’s successful campaign is genuinely something new. But Trump himself, plus many of the distinctive Trump moves with which people worldwide are now so familiar, come with a surprisingly long record of marks across our public mind. That’s the purpose of the items in this thread: to follow the spoor of this extraordinary figure’s emergence in modern America’s public consciousness.

The earliest known appearance of Donald Trump in The Atlantic’s pages was nearly a quarter of a century ago, in an article by Amitai Etzioni. The October 1992 piece is called “Teledemocracy,” about the ways then-dawning digital technologies might improve democratic processes. Etzioni made the case for “electronic town meetings” that prefigured some of today’s real-time mass-participation events. In exploring the possibilities, he said:

Once we put our minds to it, other shortcomings of the electronic town meeting could be fixed. Take, for example, ballot-box stuffing. Even when much less than national policy is at stake, call-in polls have been grossly manipulated.

Richard Morin, the polling director for The Washington Post, reports two such incidents. In one, USA Today asked its readers in June of 1990 if Donald Trump symbolized what was right or wrong with the United States. Eighty-one percent of the 6,406 people who called in said that he was great, 19 percent a skunk. It turned out that 72 percent of the calls came from two phone numbers.

(Why am I not providing a link to this article? Because it’s from that weird between-two-eras moment in digital-journalistic history, in which the rights for electronic publication had not been fully worked out. A number of our articles from that era, including some of my reports from China and Japan, are not yet online.)

To be clear about this story: Etzioni was discussing an episode in the early 1990s in which, as all evidence suggests, Donald Trump or his allies flooded a phone poll to create a favorable result for himself. Trump was in his early 40s at that time — and it was in exactly this same era that he was calling journalists, posing as his own publicist “John Miller,” to say how kind and generous Mr. Trump was, and how sexually attractive famous actresses and models found him. There are more delicious details about that 1990 rigged poll in a WaPo piece by Philip Bump, after the jump.


People have studied Abraham Lincoln’s self-education for clues about the man he became. The different struggles of Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt with disease and physical challenges. How Margaret Thatcher developed the spine to become the U.K.’s Iron Lady. Having lived so much of his life in public, Donald Trump has also given us clues of how he became the kind of person we’ll see accept the nomination tomorrow night.


Donald with his father Fred and boxing promoter Don King at a press conference in December 1987 in Atlantic City AP

Greetings from Cleveland! Where to start?

Well, here’s one possible starting point. Everything about Donald Trump’s rise suggests a Year Zero, history-begins-this-instant approach to norms, traditions, constraints, you name it.

So in an effort to show the history behind the tabula-rasa of this anti-history, we’ll be highlighting some items from The Atlantic’s archives concerning the way Donald Trump has registered in the national consciousness before he became a supernova over this past year and even before his birtherism burst on the scene in 2011.

Let’s start with a review from our January 1999 issue, written by Nicholas Lemann about Neal Gabler’s Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. (Nick Lemann was then an Atlantic colleague; he subsequently joined The New Yorker and became dean of the Columbia Journalism School. Neal Gabler is the author of our recent cover piece on the Secret Shame of the Middle Class.)

Here is how Lemann referred to Trump’s role as avatar and exemplar of a trend that has only become more pronounced:

Gabler rolls out dozens of examples of the transmogrification of life into stock drama, as entertainment techniques have relentlessly leached into non-entertainment venues. In politics the quadrennial political conventions have changed from real dramas to pageants staged for the purpose of winning the votes of television viewers. Ronald Reagan turned the presidency itself into a procession of scripts and images. The docudrama and the novelistic lead are ubiquitous in journalism. The self-dramatizing memoir has taken over book publishing.

Donald Trump became a tycoon by making himself a celebrity first. Ordinary people have turned from religion to the worship of celebrities (Gabler points out that the Air Jordan logo resembles a crucifix), and have also become the dramaturges of their own lives with the aid of home video cameras, Internet chat rooms, and health clubs joined in the hope of getting to look like a star. Busted farmers stock their land with exotic animals and go into “agritainment.” Even the Pope, Gabler implies, is stealing his moves from James Brown.

More to come from the “Trump in American memory” files. Thanks to The Atlantic’s Chris Bodenner, Caroline Mimbs Nyce, and Graham Starr for spelunking through our archives.