Klein College Professor Geoffrey Baym discusss "Tabloid Trump"

By: Nick Santangelo

Nobody saw it coming, and no one knew what would happen next. At least, that was the prevailing storyline the morning after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. But there actually was a certain sector of the media that had been previewing a future President Trump for decades. And now that that presidency is well in place, there are many thoughts on how it's affecting the world.

On March 21, the Center for the Humanities at Temple (CHAT) welcomed Klein College Professor Geoffrey Baym to discuss what he called "Tabloid Trump," a character created through tabloid media from 1980 through 1999. Then on March 22, the History Department hosted CLA professors Alexandra Guisinger, Roselyn Hsueh and Alistair Howard for a panel discussion on how President Trump is affecting the United States' standing in the world.

Tabloid Trump

Presenting a number of clips from tabloid media like People, Playboy, The Howard Stern Show and the NY Daily News, Dr. Baym explained that "Trump's early tabloid presence reveals a great deal about his political agenda." According to Dr. Baym's research, the tabloids created both the character and the political figure that is Donald Trump, painting him as "a neoliberal hero, the King of Can-Do" and "an avatar for working-class resentment."

Throughout the '80s and '90s, tabloid coverage of Trump focused on a rejection of elitism, speaking of how rich socialites, the mainstream media and highbrow artistic types wouldn't accept the real estate empire heir. The New York Times called his buildings gaudy while elite country clubs didn't want to grant him membership. Trump responded by ripping his detractors in tabloids while hinting at his future ambitions.

As early as 1987, People speculated that Trump might run for president. In 1990, Playboy asked him what he'd do in office. His answer offered a glance at his future "America first" rhetoric: tax Mercedes Benzes and Japanese products. He then repeatedly told Howard Stern he wanted to be president throughout the '90s before again stating it in a 1999 New York Daily News interview.

Both Trump and the tabloids also reveled in romantic exploits that Trump himself essentially admitted were exaggerated while also playing up what the tabloids admitted was a mythological fantasy: a self-made billionaire who lived an extravagant lifestyle and carrying himself in a way Howard Stern called "refreshingly honest." If social and cultural norms were being flouted, said Dr. Baym, then Trump and the tabloids believed the norms were wrong.

Trump and the World

Tabloid Trump operated well outside the norms, and so too does President Trump—and he's bringing the country with him. Dr. Guisinger spoke about Trump's disdain for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). His stances on those trade agreements have turned the once nonpartisan issue of international trade into a partisan one.

This sort of movement may not be constrained to just America, either. Dr. Howard sees "some parallels between Trump's place in the world and Brexit. Both Brexit and Trump represent losers, right? They represent the losers in the economy winning."

Brexit supporters, like Trump supporters, decided to reject experts. It was an idea that at first seemed crazy to many, but now Trump is president and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. But while Dr. Howard disapproves of Trump's approach, he does credit him with tapping into a segment of the population that's been troubled and ignored for decades. He also thinks it's allowed both Democrats and Republicans to become more honest about their intentions.

"I think Trump's rejection of liberal internationalism and his tone, his rhetoric—which is appalling, of course—I think raises questions about what America has always done," said Dr. Howard.

Dr. Hsueh echoed this though, saying that while the approach is alarming, some of Trump's criticisms of China are also both accurate and in line with concerns that were shared by presidents Obama and Bush. While she doesn't think Trump will succeed in getting China to change, Dr. Hsueh believes his condemnations of how the country has been breaking World Trade Organization standards to create success for Chinese tech products are valid.

Nonetheless, the entire panel agreed that Trump's rhetoric and policies have soured much of the world on America. His pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the TPP has made other countries distrustful of the U.S. Is that damage permanent even if a new president is elected in 2020?

"I think if it doesn't happen in January 2021, it's a much harder sell," concluded Dr. Guisinger. "They will think that this is who we are now."