Once upon a time, Americans were confronted with two nightmarish scenarios: The untimely and apparently unavoidable collapse of a world economy—an economy that had inexplicably come to rely upon a precarious global network called “the Internet” and a seemingly infinite series of overvalued companies peddling nothing but buzzwords like some horrible late capitalist Matryoshka doll—and a Donald Trump presidency.
This was in 1999, when Trump was mulling a bid for the White House—not as a Democrat, Republican, or even an independent, but rather as a member of the Reform Party, and specifically as a member of the affiliated Independence Party of New York. In November of that year, Trump’s longtime advisor and operative Roger Stone appeared as a surrogate on the C-SPAN program “Washington Journal” to promote his friend’s political ambitions.
Stone had been involved in eight presidential campaigns up until that point—all Republicans. (When he was 19, he played a small role in the Watergate scandal, sending campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s primary challenger in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance. Stone, famously, has a tattoo of Nixon across his back.) But on C-SPAN, he defended his break with the GOP by repudiating its increasingly regressive social policies.
“If the party demonstrates some tolerance for a broader spectrum of views in the area of social policy, I could very easily remain a Republican,” Stone said. “I don’t want to be part of a party that bashes immigrants, that bashes gays, or bashes African Americans, or who takes extreme positions of intolerance on questions of social policy. I want a party that’s economically and fiscally conservative, a party that’s conservative on defense issues, but which is more I think tolerant on some of these other issues of immigration and civil rights.”
Later in the appearance, Stone described Trump’s proposal for a one-time net worth tax on individuals worth more than $10 million to reduce the national debt. (The “Robin Hood Plan” also would repeal inheritance tax.) “I’m not sure that the rules for wealthy people should be different than the rules for everybody else,” Stone said.
One concerned caller asked whether Trump would support the Reform party’s nominee if it were someone other than him. Stone said that Trump would—unless it was Pat Buchanan. He’d be reluctant to support the paleoconservative, “given the things that Mr. Buchanan has written about Jews, and blacks, and Mexicans, and his revisionist views about World War Two.” Stone said that Trump would be comfortable with Ross Perot, however.
Stone, of course, is a notoriously slimy political operative who is liable to say or do just about anything on behalf of his chosen candidate. (Lobbying disclosures show that the Trump Organization paid Stone’s firm, IKON Public Affairs, $125,250 in 1999 and 2000.) Recently, he recalled for the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin how he and Trump came to know each other:
It started in 1979, when Stone was a twenty-six-year-old aide in Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign. Michael Deaver, a more senior campaign official, instructed Stone to start fund-raising in New York. “Mike gave me a recipe box full of index cards, supposedly Reagan’s contacts in New York,” Stone said. “Half the people on the cards were dead. A lot of the others were show-business people, but there was one name I recognized—Roy Cohn.” So Stone presented himself at the brownstone office of Cohn, the notorious lawyer and fixer.
“I go into Roy’s office,” Stone continued, “and he’s sitting there in his silk bathrobe, and he’s finishing up a meeting with Fat Tony Salerno,” the boss of the Genovese crime family. Stone went on, “So Tony says, ‘Roy here says we’re going with Ree-gun this time.’ That’s how he said it—‘Ree-gun.’ Roy told him yes, we’re with Reagan. Then I said to Roy that we needed to put together a finance committee, and Roy said, ‘You need Donald and Fred Trump.’ He said Fred, Donald’s father, had been big for Goldwater in ’64. I went to see Donald, and he helped to get us office space for the Reagan campaign, and that’s when we became friends.”
Things were not always so cordial: “Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told Toobin in 2008. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.” Despite being ousted from the Trump campaign last summer, Stone is still working on the Republican candidate’s behalf coordinating a small, pro-Trump super PAC.
There is something uncanny in Stone’s 1999 appearance on C-SPAN, though—much of what he has to say about Trump sounds eerily familiar, as when he describes the real estate developer’s skepticism of trade deals, but especially when he speaks to Trump’s character and people’s perception of it. “Trump has a certain resilience,” he claimed. “He faced financial disaster. He was nine hundred million dollars in debt personally. He was nine billion dollars in debt if you looked at his companies. All of that caused by a government-created crisis in the real estate industry.”
“I think people respect somebody who came to the edge of disaster—didn’t quit, didn’t walk away, didn’t go bankrupt like so many others in this industry, who came back and rebuilt their business bigger and better than ever,” he continued. (Actually, Trump has declared bankruptcy—multiple times.) “He is not claiming to be anything that he is not,” Stone said. “He is not claiming anything other than the facts.”
These are all bald-faced lies—they were then, and they are now. But calling them lies, and even pointing out the absurdity of a Trump campaign that “demonstrates some tolerance for a broader spectrum of views in the area of social policy,” misses what makes Trump so popular. Stone was on to something: Trump does have “a certain resilience.” If the past year has shown us nothing else, it’s shown us that.
Trump’s strength is not his wealth or his charisma—neither of which does he actually possess in any great quantity. Trump’s strength is in revealing the artifice of assumed political truths to an angry and frustrated people. “My entire life, I’ve watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were,” he told Maureen Dowd, a month after Stone’s C-SPAN appearance. “And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons. There’s a perception that voters like poverty. I don’t like poverty. Usually, there’s a reason for poverty. Do you want someone who gets to be president and that’s literally the highest paying job he’s ever had?”
Trump’s supporters don’t care whether or not he’s worth $500 million, $1 billion, or $10 billion—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he says he’s rich, and doesn’t feel the need to apologize for it. In fact, he doesn’t feel the need to apologize for anything, and resents any implication that he might. One “Washington Journal” caller was uncomfortable with how Trump introduced his then-girlfriend Melania at a rally—not by name, but as “his supermodel.” “He’s not going to take any coaching. He’s not going to change his approach,” Stone responded. “That’s just not Trump. He is outspoken. He is brash. He is unvarnished. All those things are true. We shall see what the American people think.”
“In the age of mass communication, all our politics are changing,” Stone proclaimed. “Here’s the fundamental question: Is the pop culture in this country now more influential than its institutions?” Maybe! Or maybe pop culture is but one institution in this country among many, and the fundamental question is not whether one institution is more influential than another but rather what happens after a candidate like Donald Trump emerges, like a tangerine kaiju from the deepest trenches of the white American id, to demolish them all—that is to say: What comes next?