Donald Trump is the latest proof that the campaign always reflects the candidate and that the candidate is a product of his experience over the years. So, as Trump, after clinching the Republican nomination, reshuffles and rejiggers a campaign that has fallen behind Hillary Clinton, it’s instructive to look at his political ground zero.
That would be New York and its tabloid politics. I first encountered this in summer 1961, on a family vacation to New York City. As a teenager I was allowed to travel on the subway (15 cent fare, a dollar gets you six tokens and a dime change) and arrange my own meals (a pizza slice — exotic food back home — for a quarter).
That was the summer of the primary between two-term Mayor Robert Wagner and a challenger supported by bosses who had backed Wagner twice before. You could watch the campaign in the headlines of the tabloid newspapers on the kiosks outside subway stations.
In those days, circulation of the easy-to-read-on-the-subway tabloids was “yuuuge”: over 1 million for the Daily News and Daily Mirror, about 800,000 for the then-liberal New York Post. This was the media environment in which Donald Trump grew up.
Politics was part of the family business. His father, Fred Trump, was well-connected with machine Democrats in Brooklyn and Queens, which helped him get favorable zoning, land assembly and Mitchell-Lama subsidies for the giant apartment towers he built there.
The young Donald Trump was drawn to politics early on. At 19, he wangled a spot among the bigwigs at the ceremonies opening the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In his 20s he capitalized on Trump contributions to the mayor and governor to make his first real estate deals in Manhattan.
In the years that followed he was an interested observer of New York’s tabloid war campaigns. John Lindsay versus Nelson Rockefeller, Pat Moynihan versus Bella Abzug, Ed Koch versus Mario Cuomo, Al D’Amato versus Chuck Schumer: conflicts fought out in the morning and afternoon editions of the tabloids every day.
I remember watching David Garth, media consultant to Mayors John Lindsay, Edward Koch, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, phoning tabloid reporters like Deborah Orin and TV anchormen like Gabe Pressman to feed them storylines and suggest headlines for their next edition or broadcast.
Sensational headlines were especially effective, dominating the front pages visible on kiosk stands. The Daily News’ “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD!” helped Jimmy Carter carry New York in 1976. The New York Post’s 1983 classic “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR” epitomized the feeling that the city was being overwhelmed by violent crime.
It is commonly said that today’s political campaigning, with blogs and Twitter feeds, with never-ending news cycles over every 24-hour period, is something entirely new. Well, up to a point.
Compressing your thoughts into 140-character tweets is not unlike attracting news kiosk browsers with a couple dozen ENORMOUS CAPITAL LETTERS on a tabloid front page. Sitting in your office giving phone interviews to selected media outlets is not all that different from what David Garth used to do.
Derogatory epithets — “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary” — were the argot of tabloid headline writers, and insults got you on the front page. D’Amato’s characterization of Schumer as a “putz” had lamentable echoes in the primary campaign.
There are limits to the effectiveness of tabloid-style campaigning. The tabloid wars were unique to New York for the obvious reason that no other city has anywhere close to as many subway riders and therefore as many tabloid buyers. And even there the tabloid wars seem a thing of the past. In New York’s subways today you see more people reading their phones than staining their fingers with tabloid ink.
Moreover, even in the years of tabloid wars, New York candidates did other things — such as raising money, running television ads and drawing on experts and their own in-depth knowledge of government to come up with serious public policy proposals.
Until this week, Donald Trump has done very little along these lines. And having won the Republican nomination, he seems to have taken the view of many election winners: If his critics are so smart, how come their candidates lost and he won?
Now, firing his campaign manager and speaking with some seriousness about policy, he seems to have decided that updated-for-the-internet tabloid war politics, sufficient in the primaries, aren’t enough for the general election. Let’s see if he sticks to it.