With all the chaos and controversy that has surrounded Trump since he announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015, it is worth recalling that the politician he became on the campaign trail is remarkably different from the public image Trump had before he threw his hat in the ring.
Business Week reporter Joshua Green’s book “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency” has gotten a lot of coverage for some of its scoops. Perhaps Green's most intriguing section is the one about the Trump candidacy, and the presidency that might have been.
Thanks to the efforts of advisers like former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon and Republican operative Roger Stone, Trump has remade himself as a tribune of disaffected blue-collar white people. But before all that, as Green extensively documents, as the star of “The Apprentice,” Trump had a far different image.
Right from its beginning, “The Apprentice” was a huge ratings success, attracting more than 20 million viewers an episode and millions in advertising dollars from big-name companies. In part, as Green writes in a chapter which was featured in full last month on the Bloomberg site, those companies were attracted to Trump’s program because it had large numbers of nonwhite viewers whom advertisers wanted to reach.
“As an active marketer watching the show, the beautiful thing about ‘The Apprentice’ was that it was a wonderfully integrated program,” Monique Nelson, an advertising executive who bought time on the show, told Green. “There were always people of color, women, people from all different backgrounds — so it connects. The one thing we know about marketing is that when you see a character that reminds you of yourself, you get invested.”
The upbeat and competitive nature of the show and its positive portrayal of people of all races striving to get ahead endeared Trump to many Latinos and African-Americans, according to the polling company Q Scores Co. In fact, the future president’s “Q Score” among minorities was actually higher than his rating among whites. As Green notes, in 2010, Trump’s positive score among black Americans was 27; among Hispanics, it was 18. By contrast during the same year, Trump’s rating among white Americans was a mere 8.
Trump’s politics roughly (but not entirely) matched those perceptions. As a man whose ego knows no bounds, Trump had toyed with the idea of running for president for literally 30 years. Before 2015, his most serious flirtation came in 1999, when he publicly explored the idea of seeking the nomination of the Reform Party, the short-lived political vehicle for fellow billionaire Ross Perot.
The Trump of that moment was a dramatic contrast to the man who sought the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. During an interview with then-CNN host Larry King, Trump announced he was forming an exploratory commission to consider the idea of filing as a candidate. He also took aim at a likely opponent, then-CNN commentator Pat Buchanan, who had just written a book arguing that the United States did not need to enter World War II, a position that was and is controversial.
"I believe I can get the Reform Party nomination,” Trump told King. “I don't even think it would be that tough." His top rival was "going to be Buchanan," Trump continued. "And I think he just blew himself up with the book, and his love affair with Adolf Hitler.”
Trump returned to that line in subsequent media interviews. In February 2000, he did an interview with The Advocate, America’s largest LGBT magazine, in which he heavily criticized Buchanan, a man he would later embraced as a GOP candidate.
“I used to like Pat. I was on 'Crossfire' with him. I thought he was a nice guy. Then I read the things he had written about Hitler, Jews, blacks, gays, and Mexicans,” Trump said. “I mean, I think it’s disgusting. That speech he made at the ’92 Republican convention was a disaster. He wants to divide Americans. Clearly, he has a love affair with Adolf Hitler, and that’s sick. Buchanan actually said gay people had chosen ‘Satan and suicide.’ Now he says he welcomes gay people into his campaign. The guy is a hypocrite.”
Trump summed up his criticism of Buchanan in his own book, published in 2000, called "The America We Deserve":
Pat Buchanan has been guilty of many egregious examples of intolerance. He has systematically bashed Blacks, Mexicans, and Gays. Simply put, Pat Buchanan has written too many inflammatory, outrageous, and controversial things to ever be elected president.
When he ultimately declined to seek the Reform Party nomination, Trump blasted the organization as being full of extremists. He lumped Buchanan in with Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and said he didn’t want to be affiliated with either of them.
"The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. [Lenora] Fulani," Trump said in a press release. "This is not company I wish to keep.”
Fast-forward 15 years, however, and Trump has been more than willing to keep company with racists. During the Republican primary campaign, he repeatedly retweeted the statements of white nationalists, even after being criticized frequently for doing so. He even retweeted a parody Twitter account that relayed quotes from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini but attributed them to Trump.
As Green documents in his book, Trump’s about-face on race began with his embrace of the “birther” conspiracy theory which posited that former President Barack Obama hadn't been born in the United States.
Knowing now that [Trump's] presidential ambitions were serious — and not simply a ratings stunt, as we assumed at the time — it seems clear that he was considering challenging Obama in 2012 and had an inkling of the power he could marshal by highlighting the president’s otherness to appeal to anti-Obama voters. The birther charge had been circulating for some time in the darker corners of the internet, on right-wing conspiracy sites, and in email chains. As someone possessing perhaps the best raw political instincts of any Republican in his generation, Trump had intuited, correctly, that a racist attack targeting a black president was the surest way to ingratiate himself with grass-roots Republican voters. And so Trump, without batting an eye, proceeded to destroy the goodwill he had built up with minority voters as a way of appealing to a new audience. …
The effect was almost immediate, and the first place it showed up was in Trump’s television ratings. In the spring of 2011, as his birther crusade took off in earnest, NBC was airing a new season of "The Celebrity Apprentice." According to research conducted by National Media Inc., a firm that places political ads on television, the audience that tuned in to it was among the most liberal in all of prime-time television, owing in no small part to the large number of minority viewers that Trump attracted. As he broadcast his birther charge against Obama, Nielsen ratings for "The Celebrity Apprentice" took a sharp turn for the worse. “Given the downward trend of Trump’s ratings among his current, liberal audience,” joked Will Feltus, a Republican ad buyer, “maybe he’s running as a Republican to add a little bipartisan diversity to his viewership.”
The effect of Trump’s attacks was even more pronounced on his personal image. His favorability rating with minority viewers began to collapse. Trump’s positive Q Score among blacks fell from its high of 27, in 2010, to 21 the next year, then to 10, and to 9, before bottoming out at 6 in 2014. That same year, his negative Q Score, which had floated in the 30s, skyrocketed to 55. ... Hispanics — not yet a Trump target — also soured on the Apprentice host. While his positive Q rating among English-speaking Hispanics roughly held steady in the teens, his negative rating soared into the mid-40s.
Did Trump make a cynical calculation several years ago to appeal to white racists to build a base of support for a future presidential campaign? It's a shocking allegation, but there is some evidence behind it. In May of this year, Elizabeth Spiers, the former editor of the New York Observer, the publication formerly owned by Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, told her social media audience that Kushner had explicitly told her Trump was using the birther conspiracy theory to manipulate the GOP base.
“I told Jared that I was particularly appalled by his father-in-law’s birtherism stance, which I viewed as cynical and racist,” Spiers wrote.
Kushner rolled his eyes, Spiers wrote. Then he responded: “He doesn’t really believe it, Elizabeth. He just knows Republicans are stupid and they’ll buy it.”
Given the demonstrated malleability of Trump’s opinions and his apparent lack of interest in policy – on health care, has allowed congressional Republicans to promote proposals that are directly opposed to his campaign-trail promises of lowering premiums while increasing coverage – it’s difficult to say whether the Trump of yesteryear or today is the authentic one. More than likely, they both are. Based on conversations I've had with some current and former Trump loyalists, I can say that the anti-racist messages the president formerly sent were heard and appreciated by people who now feel betrayed at what he's since become.
It's also impossible to know whether Donald Trump could have gotten elected president without running a campaign based on appealing to racism and white resentment. He clearly decided he couldn't take that chance.