Trump Before Trumpism: The Way He First Came Into View

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.


Here are a few highlight’s from P. Bump’s piece, toward the end of encouraging you to read it in its entirety:

During the period in 1990 when Trump and his first wife Ivana were very publicly ending their marriage, USA Today asked its readers to call in to offer their opinions on the real estate magnate. People could call to agree with one of two statements:

  • “Donald Trump symbolizes what makes the USA a great country,” or
  • “Donald Trump symbolizes the things that are wrong with this country”

It's not entirely clear why USA Today decided to do the poll, other than that they wanted to leverage a good water-cooler topic into a little extra spending money. The calls were 1-900 calls costing $0.50 a piece -- and nearly 8,000 people weighed in….

But there was a problem.

“The calls had been running a steady 2-to-1 in Trump’s favor Friday and Saturday,” USA Today's Gary Strauss wrote. “However, a surge of more than 1,000 calls in the hours before the hot line ended at 6 p.m. EDT Sunday ran 93% positive.” Strauss quoted a guy from the company that conducted the survey: “That's definitely odd, out of character with how these things go.”

And the story goes on to explain the origins of the oddity. Behold our nominee!