This past November saw one of the most surprising events in recent American history: Donald J. Trump, the braggadocio real estate developer, showman, and reality television personality, won the United States presidency by upsetting Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College. Nearly two months later, political commentators and voters alike are still trying to understand how a wealthy, private citizen, with more experience on the screen than in any form of government, could channel the frustrations of millions of Americans by using a populist, authoritarian message of national renewal to carry himself to the White House.
While on the surface it seems surprising, Trump’s victory has clear historical precedents in the lives of three major political figures from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When we contrast the rise of Trump with the stories of these three men— two Republicans and one Democrat—we are able to see Donald Trump’s election not as a foreign event or something outside of our history. If anything, we find it is quintessentially American.
The Corporate Cowboy
Following a nearly 15-year period of high interest rates and crippling inflation, the 1980s were a welcome respite and perhaps no man better symbolized this period of consumer glorification and glamorized greed than Donald Trump. From the moment he appeared on the national scene in 1983, with the opening of Trump Tower on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, Trump made sure our country would remember his name and understand he was here to win the game. Not since Bill Zeckendorf had one developer publicized his achievements and connected himself to the ethos of his structures quite like Donald Trump. Everything about his buildings had to be bigger, better, shinier, taller, more beautiful and more expensive than the competition on the market. Already known in New York for his work transforming the dilapidated Commodore Hotel into the glass-encased Grand Hyatt on 42nd Street during the late 1970s, Trump used the completion of Trump Tower, with its ornate pink quartz atrium and multi-leveled shopping experience, to change the relationship between residential real estate and retail and create an international brand. From there he leveraged his fame and talent to acquire a New Jersey gaming license and purchased three Atlantic City casinos, single-handedly bringing a dying beach town to levels of prestige and prominence it hadn’t seen since gangsters were patrolling its boardwalks during the 1920s. Trump Plaza, Trump Marina and Trump Taj Mahal instantly became top east coast tourist attractions, garnered Trump huge sums of personal wealth, and contributed to him being featured on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, and People five times during the decade, an astonishing achievement of publicity for a private businessman, but one not unprecedented in an era of easy money.
On January 17, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of the American people is business.” And while Coolidge, a man of few words, uttered the quote that defined a decade, it is his successor who best exemplified America’s worship of business during the “Roaring Twenties.” Herbert Hoover overcame tremendous odds to build himself a vast personal fortune by the time he was 40. Born a sickly child into a devout Quaker family, Hoover was orphaned by age nine and put himself through night-school before being accepted into Stanford University’s inaugural class of 1891. From there, through sheer force of will and intelligence, Hoover prepared himself to become a mining engineer, eventually reaching the status of chief executive for multiple corporations during the early 1900s. Over the next 15 years, Hoover ran and monitored mining operations in places as diverse as Australia and China, achieving both national and international success and a sort of outsized celebrity, before eventually becoming sole proprietor of a personal mining firm with investments all over the world and as many as 175,000 employees under his name. By 1914, Hoover had amassed a fortune of $4 million dollars (equivalent to nearly $100 million dollars today). His business acumen led to him being chosen to run the food and relief effort in both Europe and America during World War I—his first entry into public policy—and paved the way for a tide of great fame to come his way. A New York Times poll named him one of “The Ten Most Important Living Americans” in 1920, and The Hoover Institute was established, a public policy think tank that is still in use today. President Warren G. Harding appointed him the first Secretary of Commerce in 1921, a position he held for eight years. By the time the 1928 election rolled around, with his massive personal fortune and sterling reputation as a competent businessman, Hoover was primed to become the first person to win the presidency despite never having run for any sort of public office; a distinction he would hold until 2016.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Few men in public life have realized the power of publicity like Donald Trump. From the time he used the alias “John Barron” to call various New York City newspapers and offer embellished scoops about his own behavior or buildings in the 1980s, to both of his front-page-featured divorces in the 1990s, Trump has understood that there is no such thing as bad press. He hosted WrestleMania IV and V in the late eighties, brokered multiple Mike Tyson heavyweight title fights during the early nineties, and bought the Miss Universe Pageant in 1995. With his comfort for spectacle and scandal alike, it should come as no surprise that Trump would eventually discover his destiny as a television star. After making dozens of cameo appearances in films and television shows over the years—always playing himself, the wealthy New York businessman, tough as nails and richer than ivory—Trump, along with producer Mark Burnett, found the role of a lifetime with the birth of NBC’s The Apprentice in 2004. Still playing the souped-up version of himself, Trump was able to channel America’s fascination with business, its addiction to T.V., and the nascent power of “reality” programming to become more famous than he’d ever been before. When it was at its peak, as many as 15 million Americans would view The Apprentice each week, and watch Trump play the role of cutthroat executive and ultimate boardroom decider with characteristic relish. This increase in fame allowed Trump to expand his business empire mainly by branding and spend the rest of the 2000s and 2010s appearing on news networks and late-night talk shows, where he’d offer prescriptions for public policy ills and international affairs, commenting on anything from the Iraq War and the use of torture, to criticizing the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration’s nuclear arms deal with Iran. In this way, Trump proved nearly five decades later the power of television to elevate an actor to the height of American politics.
In 1937, a Chicago Cubs radio announcer took a screen test at Warner Brothers studios, whereupon he received a seven-year contract. Over the course of the next 15 years Ronald Reagan would appear in over 50 films, earning as many accolades as eye-rolls, while also carving out a position of power for himself within the highly politicized environment of 1950s Hollywood. He was elected by his peers to be president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1947 to 1952—the height of the House Un-American Activity Hearings and entertainment industry blacklist controversy—and served as an informant to the FBI on possible communist sympathizers in the motion picture industry. By the mid-fifties, with his film career waning and his anticommunist credentials creating a relatable persona to the average American, Reagan was hired to host General Electric Theater, a weekly show of serial dramas set to be broadcast on the still-new technology of television. Transitioning to the small screen gave Reagan a second life in the public eye, as he hosted the show from 1953 to 1962, appearing in the living rooms of millions of Americans every Sunday night at 9:00 and becoming almost as familiar to the public as some nightly newscasters. Furthermore, his contract with GE stipulated that he visit various manufacturing and engineering factories, where he gave self-written motivational speeches to thousands of blue-collar employees—talks which, over time, would turn into fiery political speeches espousing the growing conservative movement’s message of smaller government, less spending, increased tax cuts, and anticommunism. By the 1960s, despite never having run for or held any sort of elected office, Reagan was a major voice in the Republican Party, appearing as a sort of professional pundit and major critic against the growth of New Deal social programs in the post-war period. Whether it was denouncing proposed Medicare legislation on behalf of the American Medical Association in 1961, or calling forth an apocalyptic version of liberal America in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential Campaign in his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech, Reagan proved that an entertainment career was no hindrance for an aspiring politician. In fact, he, along with the rest of the country, would discover his time on the screen provided him with a unique advantage in capturing elected office four times over the next two decades.
The Unpopular Populist
When Donald Trump glided down the escalators at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President on June 16, 2015, few could have imagined that someone who lived in a gold-plated penthouse on Fifth Avenue would form a connection with millions of working class Americans from every state in the Union. But the man who dubbed himself “The Blue Collar Billionaire” and “Mr. Brexit” would hammer home a message that these displeased and dispossessed Americans had been waiting years to hear from a candidate running for office, especially with the effects of the 2008 economic crisis still causing so much anxiety. Railing against the results of globalization brought on by self-serving politicians and championing a form of political incorrectness that bordered at times on outright racism, Trump promised to tear up international agreements, rewrite long-standing trade deals, raise tariffs on imported goods, and penalize American corporations for shipping jobs overseas. Both sides of the political establishment were aghast at his incendiary campaign, with Republican leaders refusing to stand in support and Democrats denouncing him as a demagogue. None of it mattered. Eschewing a power tie and wearing one of his iconic “Make America Great Again” hats, Trump traveled around the country, giving as many as six stump speeches per day from a lectern without teleprompters to tens of thousands of Americans who sought a champion for their economic frustrations and international fears; speaking extemporaneously and with his famously blunt New York brogue, he derided the traditional Republican agenda of free-trade, corporate coziness, and nation-building, and instead sold a message of closed borders, manufacturing miracles, and isolationism abroad. Prior to election night, only one newspaper in the entire country had endorsed him for President, and some pundits were wondering aloud if his candidacy would inaugurate the death of the Republican Party. Instead, by connecting directly with voters in the Southwest, Rust Belt, and Great Lakes states, Trump would redraw the Electoral College map for a new generation of the members of his political party.
Again, this had happened before. In the late nineteenth century, at a time of massive income inequality and a devastating financial crisis, an outsized orator stepped forward to capture the imaginations and votes of millions of dissatisfied Americans. And while he never won the presidency in each of his three attempts, William Jennings Bryan had as big an impact on the Democratic Party as any politician since Andrew Jackson. With no historical precedent, Bryan would combine a campaign based on moral outrage at the causes of a depressed economy with his wholly unique cult of personality to rally voters to an unlikely presidential campaign that would be rejected by members of his own party and denounced as dangerous by actors of the economic establishment. Occurring at the tail-end of America’s heavily industrialized (and grossly unequal) “Gilded Age,” the Panic of 1893 was the most significant economic crisis in American history up until that point. Caused mainly by a fall in international wheat prices, a collection of national railroad bankruptcies, and the Federal Government’s reactionary decision to collapse the silver market, the ensuing crash created widespread hardship throughout the agrarian West and farmer-rich South and led to the formation of a Populist movement as the election of 1896 approached. With his evangelist education, expansive personality, comfort with crowds and fiery rhetoric against the banks, railroads, and economic and political elite, Bryan completed a meteoric rise from his little-known role as Nebraska Senator and populist pontificator to the leading voice of the Democratic Party. His famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention roused the halls, shocked the delegates, and secured his place as a new, if not unlikely, leader.
Bryan was dismissed by members of his own party as a fanatic and inexperienced zealot and could barely earn a national newspaper endorsement. Despite the establishment Bourbon Democrats’ preference for sitting president Grover Cleveland, Bryan used his populist message against increased industrialization and the grassroots support he gained from speaking directly to voters during nationwide stump speech tours to capture the Democratic nomination for president. And while he would narrowly lose the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections to the Republican William McKinley, Bryan served as the vessel that would transform the Democratic Party forever, as his campaigns moved Democrats away from pro-business conservatism into a more liberal vision of economic populism and social reform.
It will take many years, if not decades, for Americans to fully understand how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, but by taking a look into the past, we can begin to discern some semblance of cause and effect in his sudden rise to power. Whether it was the reputation of economic expertise earned by a multi-millionaire businessman like Herbert Hoover, the acting skills and superstar publicity honed by Ronald Reagan, or the Everyman oratory of William Jennings Bryan, Trump’s life and rise to power used elements of these three figures and he channeled them into his own unique campaign for president. And while there are many ways we can refer to Donald Trump, after looking at his story in comparison with these three men, there is no denying that he is absolutely American.