Back to the Future: How 1980s 'greed is good' culture spawned Donald Trump
If you were a 20something in 1980something you’re probably loving the recent pop culture revival of that decade. Stranger Things, has a fourth season due out this year, American Horror Story: 1984 is streaming on Hulu and if I had anywhere to go I might rock some chunky pearls and taffeta, too, but as charming as this nostalgia is there was nothing quite like being there. The 70’s was my favorite decade aesthetically, but, truth, it was homespun, handmade, gritty and populist. The most popular TV shows were about poor and working class people, we never questioned polyester) and in 1977 President Jimmy Carter blew off riding in the presidential limo and walked from his swearing in to the White House, in part, as he wrote in his diary, to show his intention of “a reduction in the imperial status of the president and his family.”
It was a lovely moment but when the 80’s rolled up in a Mercedes, snorting champagne and telling us it was okay to like money it was a breath of fresh designer air. Being 70’s kids, we inhaled.
There’s one tinge of ickiness stuck to the otherwise joyful 80’s nostalgia wave, which is that it was the decade from which seeped Donald Trump. It made me wonder, was the fun-loving 80’s was in its ability to spawn someone so awful? Why was the 80’s so besotted with money in the first place?
Actually the 80’s money mania and Trump’s place in it started years earlier and with very understandable reasons.
“The 70’s were dominated by (New York City) being close to the brink of bankruptcy,” says George Arzt, a New York media veteran who runs a public relations firm and was press secretary to Mayor Ed Koch. The city didn’t go bankrupt but it “was right on the brink, and that would have been terrible for the city's credit and for all the people working for the city.” Arzt recalls President Gerald Ford’s refusal to bail New York out and the New York Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Things weren’t much brighter in the rest of the country.
“I don't think people remember, when they talk about the 80’s, they talk about the second half,” says Jamie Malanowski, senior speech writer at the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, author and editor at the now-defunct but much-beloved Spy magazine. “They don't really remember the first half when there was still a pretty strong recession, the AIDS epidemic seemed so mysterious and terrible and no one had a grip on it. We were still coming to the grips with the idea of a “rust belt,” among other painful issues.
“It took awhile for that Reagan optimism to lock in and float everybody,” Malanowski says. “And then after that it was John Hughes movies and one happy thing after another.”
Happy, ambitious and pumped.
We had “Michael J Fox’s character in Family Ties as a kind of materialistic kid of hippie parents,” Madonna’s Material Girl and “the hyper violence of the Rambo movies and the Schwarzenegger movies, and their muscled up bodies, it was, power power power,” Malanowski says.
Even sleep was amped in the 80’s: people didn’t take naps, they took power naps.
So we became conspicuous consumers for the same reason you’d dance in the rain storm that follows a drought. We were celebrating.
“We were back,” Arzt says of New York, which was particularly debilitated in a financial crisis in the 1970’s and early 80’s. Finally the city was “taking care of business,” cleaning up the parks and subways. The 1980’s, became an era “akin to the roaring 20’s.”
So how did Donald Trump become, not just of the 80’s, but as Malanowski wrote in 2015, the embodiment of it, with his swooping hair, self-aggrandizement and terror of not winning?
It starts in 1971, Arzt says, when Donald would make his first foray into Manhattan real estate by buying the Commodore Hotel, a property right near Grand Central Station. Fred Trump, Donald’s dad, had made his fortune in real estate in Brooklyn and Queens and, according to the New York Times, contributed heavily to Democrats, Mayor Abe Beame and Gov. Hugh Carey, connections Donald could use. Daddy also guaranteed the loans Donald needed to get the job done.
Wayne Barrett of The Village Voice wrote about the project in 1979, “The bureaucrats’ assumption seems to have been that the modern bankrupt American city ought to be opening hotels for its visiting rich while closing hospitals and schools for its unwanted poor.”
“But the big event was Trump Tower in ’83,” Arzt says. Trump successfully sued the city for tax breaks on that project.
“No subsidy was left untapped,” the Times writes of Trumps unending maneuvers to get out of paying taxes on his projects.
[NOTE: While he seemed phobic about paying those taxes and now lives off our taxes Trump proposed cutting heating aid to poor people in February to pay for coronavirus prep that his administration compromised by weakening funding in the first place. Just sayin’]
“We may laugh at Trump Tower and think it's kind of gauche. but at the time, it was a shot in the arm. There were a lot of places where we gave developers the store to get them to come back to New York,” Malanowski says, “I wouldn’t say he’s unique,” with many developers taking advantage of the city’s financial situation at the time.
Nor was he unique in being what Malanowski calls a “hot” personality, like the felonious Oliver North or the famously cantankerous George Steinbrenner. We’re talking about the era of Morton Downey Jr. here, not the smart, unruffled cool of Barrack Obama. Trump was part of a crowd of “transgressive” personalities and “he wasn’t the worst of them,” Malanowski says.
Other transgressors at the time included Ivan Boesky who inspired the decade-defining Gordon Gekko line “Greed is Good” and who went to prison for insider trading and Jim Bakker, the televangelist who was indicted in 1989 on mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy and is now out and on TV hawking a cure for the Corona virus for $125 a bottle.
Trump, though, was “the one who survived and kept breaking new ground,” Malanowski says. “When the others died off or kept repeating themselves he's gone on to bigger and worse things.”
What made Trump different in those early years was his publicity seeking.
“He was on top of the world, he tried to be a player. He would call up reporters and tell them gossip,” and used the press to get himself in their pages. Arzt says, “He wanted to be in the gossip columns.”
Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast and former editor of Vanity Fair said in an interview on CNN that at when The Art of the Deal came out in 1987 she liked the voice of the book, and found him, at the time, to be “fun,” and “just a great salesman.” In another interview, for Tech Insider, she said she thought of Trump’s book, “This is BS, but it’s authentic BS.”
He would go on Howard Stern’s radio show “and together they would be very amusing, if you weren't the butt of their conversation,” Malanowski says. They would just be sort of outragous together, but, you know one, of them knew he was a comedian.”
Those interviews happened later, in the mid-90’s, but all this contributed to Trump’s ability to to handle himself in the media. All that's been extremely useful to him,” Malanowski says, and also that it’s likely his TV experience - 14 years on The Apprentice “molded him more than his 80’s experiences.”
In her Tech Insider interview Brown said people underestimated the impact of that TV presence during the 2016 election.
So those of us who are enjoying the fun-loving 80’s and want to keep the sparkle on that most sparkly decade will feel a little better to know that Trump isn’t the 80’s fault. He may embody all the gross excess of the decade but he started long before and kept going long after.
“What you see now is what he was in the 70s and 80s,” Arzt says.
Maybe I thought of him as an 80’s guy only because I never saw his TV show. I had to look up the premise. It was pitting people against each other.