Before Year Zero: Trump and Trumpism, in the Archives

Donald with his father Fred and boxing promoter Don King at a press conference in December 1987 in Atlantic City (AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.


What is this Year Zero of which we old timers speak? It seems a useful touchstone given the tone of politics these days.

Obviously it’s not fair to say that what we’re hearing from Donald Trump has no historical precedent. As discussed often in this space, from the days of the Know-Nothing Party onward the United States swum in political currents like those swirling now.

But this humble Wikipedia definition of “Year Zero (political notion)” has some relevance:

The idea behind Year Zero is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will ideally be purged and replaced from the ground up.

Trumpism claims to “give us our country back,” but only after razing what the country has actually become.