The Archeology of Trumpism

August 13, 2018 1:27 p.m.

Over what are now the years since Donald Trump entered, took over and now totally permeates American political culture, I now and again think back to something that happened years ago, long before his presidential campaign. Starting in 2011 Trump started posting these video blog or ‘vlog’ videos to Youtube. They were called “From the Desk of Donald Trump”. They ran on the Trump Organization video channel. What settles in my memory is that at some point I started watching them and was chatting with a TPM colleague about them. They had a certain Dr. Evil-ish feel to them – or maybe one of the video messages from Blofeld, the Bond series villain on whom Dr. Evil is based. Trump has always been a comic book-like figure, whether you like him or not. That’s part of the brand, bold and over-the-top. Like a character from a Batman comic, there he is in his iconic headquarters, Trump Tower, sending out his videos messages: some new promise, threat, or angle.

To get a feel for these videos it’s important to set aside so much of what we’ve seen over the last three years. Video blogging goes back to the early aughts. But Donald Trump wasn’t some self-starting teen or millennial. He was a man in his early 60s with what was in fact an existing, massive media megaphone. What added to the oddity is how lo-tech they were. I don’t know just how they were filmed. But they could easily have been put together with an iPhone or a very simple video camera on a tripod in front of Trump’s desk. There’s no intro or outro or special effects. Not really anything. Just Trump talks for a minute or so with signature Trump cuts and jabs and then he’s done. In and out. This crass simplicity would be a through-line and a strength throughout the 2016 election.

Here’s a November 2016 video from Cracked parodying and mocking some of the recurrent themes and catchphrases.

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Only years later did I realize that this series, which ran mainly in 2011 and 2012 but had a handful of episodes in 2013 and 2014, were a sort of dry run for the Trump we now know from Twitter, the presidential debates and his rallies. Trump has been a public figure at some level for almost forty years. He been a national media presence for three decades. And then of course there was The Apprentice. But politics was only a small part of the mix, especially the highly caustic right wing politics which he ran on in 2016. It’s present of course. There were the recurrent threats to run for President. But there was fairly little that was explicitly ideological in Trump and, to the extent there was, the ideology could change from one year to the next. So in these videos you can see him working with the language and tonalities.

I think he eventually realized that video had too many superfluities. Twitter just cut to the chase. It was easier, more open to impulse and the kinds of sudden gut instincts and insights that are the core of his eventual political success.

There are apparently 66 of these videos in total. All but a few are from 2011 and 2012, when Trump was flirting with the idea of running for President and trying to muscle his way into Republican politics with birtherism and trashing Republicans for making bad budget deals with President Obama. As this graphic shows, he gets into Twitter right as the videos trail off. He seems to have realized that his desk videos didn’t quite work and didn’t have the feel he wanted.

There are strong continuities between Dr. Evil/’From the Desk Of’ Trump and the one we know today. The press are “liars” and “terrible people”, for instance. Here’s one particularly entertaining example in which Trump insists that, contrary to what everyone thought, he didn’t mind President Obama’s notorious roasting of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2011 at all. In fact, he had a great time. The “liars” and “terrible people” in the press made the whole thing up.

China and foreign trade generally is another big theme. China is stealing our wealth and laughing at us. Since the videos are mainly from 2011 and 2012 there’s a lot of explaining why the Republicans are being laughed at, dumb, weak and so forth in their battles with Obama over the budget and the various debt ceiling standoffs. The message is clear: I know deals. They don’t know deals. There were even the occasional movie reviews, takedowns of awards shows like The Emmys. The one thing that is conspicuously absent is any talk about immigration: immigration, “illegals”, crime, the border. It doesn’t seem to exist. Possibly I missed some stray reference or one of them was successfully deleted. But the difference is striking. This whole leitmotif of Trumpism is basically absent. And remember, anti-immigration sentiment was a major theme of the 2011 election.

The only possible hint of the future comes in this video from 2013 about the Boston Marathon bombing from the day after the bombing. In some ways the very absence proves the point, since there’s no explicit mention of immigration or Islam at all. This was before the identity of the suspects were known, I believe. But for the later Trump it would have been an obvious place to go. He didn’t.

I’ve alluded a few times to some of these videos being deleted or missing. That’s an interesting story in itself. When I went to watch these videos again, I realized that there were only a handful of them on the Trump Organization Youtube channel. None of the ones I remembered were there. Had I misremembered this? It turns out that at some point after Trump was elected almost all of them were taken off-line. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski noticed this a year ago and wrote about it here. By most reasonable standards, these videos are tame compared to things Trump says every day now. It seems most likely that they were taken down because they contained statements that contradicted Trump’s later positions. In any case, at least two entities or Youtube channels seem to have made copies. Those are still online. There’s this Youtube channel. There’s also this much more detailed database.

Trump is a cretin and a racist and a buffoon. But we fool ourselves if we don’t recognize that he is a sort of savant, a con man but an instinctive political animal who has a deep hold on a big chunk of the country. Language, tone and voice are at the heart of that. Understanding how this happened is well worth our time.

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