What do old tabloid covers reveal about the rise of Donald Trump?

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WHAT DOES it tell you about the world, or about America, or the news cycle, that in the 15 years leading up to the millennium Donald Trump appeared on the front page of New York tabloids 87 times whereas the AIDS epidemic featured 13 times? Enough, thinks Aleksandra Mir, to warrant blowing up microfiche film of front pages to a height of two metres. 

She invites viewers to consider the answer for themselves in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London cheekily titled “Pre-Presidential Library”. Ms Mir chose 32 of the 87 Trump covers, starting the show with the New York Daily News edition of October 8th 1999: “THE DONALD TELLS THE WORLD: I WANT TO BE THE PREZ”. If the reality of Mr Trump presiding over a period of economic growth, low immigration, robust security and open communication has been one of weakening institutions, divided polities and ever-more-hysterical fears of civilisational collapse, the thought of 9/11 under President Trump—and the carnage that would have unleashed—is an even more alarming one.

The conceit—a mini-expo of Donald Trump’s public persona before he became president—is cute. But that is about it; that first image is the highlight of the show. The other front pages—“I WISH I HAD DATED DI”; “TRUMP: I WON $20M ON TYSON FIGHT BET”; “DONALD AND MARLA: IT’S OVER”—are notable not for the manufactured socialite goss of New York in the 1990s but for the marginal stories at the edges. One mentions the New York transport authority’s $167m surplus, a scarcely believable notion for any New Yorker today. “Hawaii judge OKs gay marriage” declares another, in what was to be the beginning of the fastest socio-political change ever seen in America. A third, “Brits boot Major in historic landslide”, signals the start of the West’s peak centrist era to which Mr Trump’s presidency marks an end. Mr Trump made good copy then as he does now. “News” about him sucked the air out of the room in the 20th century as it does in the 21st. 

This exhibit makes use of research that Ms Mir did in 2007, when she spent months combing through the microfiche archives of the New York Public Library. The result was a project, titled “Newsroom 1986-2000”, in which she replicated 240 covers in felt pen. Now, more than a decade later, “Pre-Presidential Library” is a smaller version of that, made up of offcuts. It rather shows.

In 2017 “we uncovered a ‘Trump Reject’ folder with some 40 more Donald Trump front pages I had originally found, sorted and dismissed as uninteresting,” Ms Mir told London’s Evening Standard newspaper. “By 2017 when Trump had become president and people were asking themselves in disbelief, ‘how could this happen?’ I felt that the ‘Reject’ folder held the answer to that question. If you look at this material today in its detail and totality, you can see exactly how this presidency happened.”

But it does not, and you cannot. It is no secret that the pre-presidential Trump loved media attention and would do anything to get it. Nor is it news that the media—whether newspapers, magazines or television—cheerfully obliged, interviewing the tycoon on matters ranging from public policy to geopolitics to macroeconomics. Searching Mr Trump’s past for clues that might enlighten the present is a futile exercise. A popular meme on social media is to find an old Trump tweet in which he directly contradicts the presidential pronouncement of the day. On the day this correspondent visited Ms Mir’s show, in the midst of an American government shutdown caused by the president’s insistence on building a $5.7bn wall on the southern border, a video from 2004 was doing the rounds online. It showed Mr Trump imploring students to “never, ever give up. Don’t give up. Don’t allow it to happen. If there’s a concrete wall in front of you, go through it, go over it, go around it.” 

Mr Trump is the most media-savvy American president in a generation, perhaps longer, and the world has got the first politics-as-spectacle government of the modern era. But to point that out is to point out nothing.