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 1 Newer Notes

When Trump Was Shorthand for Celebrity

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”:

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.


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.