Donald Trump was up at a podium, saying that America had gone weak and was headed for disaster.
“We don’t have tough people. We have nice people,” Trump said. “But I’m tired of nice people, already. I mean, too much.”
But this was not 2016 and Trump was not talking about President Obama.
This was 1987 and Trump was denouncing the course of the country as set by President Reagan, who was famously known for being the nicest of guys.
“I’m tired of nice people already in Washington,” Trump told a Rotary Club gathering at Yoken’s restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Let somebody be in there who doesn’t just smile nicely, who’s not just shaking hands. I want someone in there who knows how to negotiate, because that’s what it’s all about now. And, if the right person isn’t in office, you’re going to see a catastrophe.”
America, he said, was being pushed around and fleeced as it fell ever deeper into debt.
“They’re ripping us off left and right,” he said. “They knock the hell out of the United States. Do they say, ‘Thank you?’ No. Do they like us? Not particularly...”
He went on, “We are a country that is losing $200 billion a year. We are supporting, we are literally supporting Japan, which is the greatest money machine ever created, and we created it to a large extent. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
He continued, “We’re supporting Saudi Arabia. We’re supporting Kuwait. We’re bringing in ships to Kuwait through the gulf. We’re losing our men. We’re spending billions of dollars. So what’s happening? They don’t contribute one penny of this defense.”
He offered a solution for the deficit, which was tripling under Reagan.
“Why can’t we have a share of their money?” he asked. “We should have Japan and we should have Saudi Arabia and we should have all of these countries who are literally ripping us off left and right... They should pay for our $200 billion deficit.”
That raised the unspoken question of how this might be accomplished.
“I don’t mean you demand it,” Trump said. “But I tell you what, folks. We can ask in such a way that they’re going to give it to us—if the right person’s asking.”
The implication was that he would be the right person—though he insisted he was not seeking to trade Trump Tower for the White House.
“I’m not here running for president,” he said. “I’m here because I’m tired of our country being kicked around and I want to get my ideas across.”
Trump certainly was not going to tell the truth. Folks authoritatively in the know say the event was just part of a scheme to promote his book The Art of the Deal. Trump was basically a New York figure and the idea was to generate press that would make him better known outside the city.
One unwitting accomplice to the scheme and perhaps the first person to think Trump should actually run for president was Mike Dunbar, the New Hampshire political activist who had arranged for The Donald to come there. Dunbar had initiated a completely sincere Draft Trump movement in the spring.
“He was known as brash and daring,” Dunbar recalls to The Daily Beast. “So, I concluded he was the guy. To get attention, I started a Draft Trump movement.”
Dunbar was subsequently unsure whether word of his campaign reached New York or if it was simple coincidence that Trump took out a full-page newspaper ad that September trumpeting his displeasure with foreign policy under Reagan.
“I’m up there making a whole lot of noise,” Dunbar remembers. “Whether that prompted him to take out those ads, I just don’t know.”
Dunbar had no inkling that the ad was in fact part of a PR put-up. A Trump spokesman was quoted in the press saying it had cost $94,801 ($202,921 in 2016 dollars) to run the ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.
“There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure,” the ad proclaimed.
The ad continued, '“For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States… Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests? ... The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help.”
Around that time, the true believer Dunbar asked the Rotarians if they were interested in having Trump address one of their gatherings at Yoken’s, where any candidate for state or national office traditionally puts in an appearance. The Rotarians said they would need a commitment from Trump, and so Dunbar traveled to New York.
At Trump Tower, Dunbar rode in a private elevator up to The Donald’s office. Dunbar remembered the outsized polished stone desk.
“I guess it’s more common now than it was back then,” he says. “It was just huge.”
Trump committed to the speech without saying anything about book promotion and helicoptered in on Oct. 22. Dunbar was there to pick him up in a limo. A number of apparent fans were also waiting to greet the modern day Midas-in-the-making.
“And I hadn’t organized it,” Dunbar reports. “These people all knew who Donald Trump was and they showed up to greet him. One woman had a bouquet she gave him.”
Dunbar was unaware that a Trump associate had arranged for the welcome and sought to ensure that a capacity crowd filled the function room at Yoken’s.
“It was packed,” Dunbar says. “I mean just packed.”
Trump proceeded to deride Reagan, who had stood before the Berlin Wall that June and issued a famous call to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Trump now sought to minimize that historic moment, telling the crowd at Yoken’s that America faced bigger challenges, such as Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.
“You think Gorbachev is tough, think of this character Khomeini,” he said. “I mean this son of a bitch is something like nobody’s ever seen. He makes Gorbachev look like a baby. And Gorbachev is one tough cookie.”
Four years earlier, Reagan had named Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, as a federal judge. The appointment had been at the urging of Roy Cohn, a big Reagan backer as well as a lawyer and fixer and Donald’s mentor. The sister had called Cohn to thank him.
Whatever gratitude Donald Trump may have felt toward Reagan certainly did not stop him from going after the Gipper, first in the newspaper ad ads, now in the speech, all with the ulterior purpose of promoting a book. Trump proposed a Trumpian way of dealing with Iran, which he called a “horrible, horrible country.”
“Why couldn’t we go in and take over some of their oil?” he asked.
Trump received a rousing ovation. Dunbar rode with him in the limo and watched him helicopter away.
“That was the last time I ever saw him,” Dunbar says.
Dunbar did call Trump to thank him for coming. Trump seems to have developed an authentic regard for Dunbar and invited him to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Dunbar declined, as he had a business to run and could not get away.
“There was actually a pause as he realized I was declining,” Dunbar recalls.
Trump sent Dunbar what else but a copy of The Art of the Deal that December. Dunbar was still unaware of the role he had played in the promotion scheme. Trump’s inscription to his genuine supporter suggests that something else was also at work, that The Donald may have gotten a tingle of what it would be actually to run for president.
I really appreciate your friendship—you have created a very exciting part of my life—on to the future.
When Trump returned to New Hampshire more than a quarter-century later, he wore a red power tie just as he had on his earlier visit. He also had nearly identical rhetoric; it had gotten a big response before.
Only, this time it was not a publicity stunt. The Trump who now made repeated trips to New Hampshire was in fact running for president. And he was not trashing Reagan: He was trashing Obama.
Trump added Mexico to the list of countries that are supposedly ripping us off, and he spoke of building a wall along the border not entirely unlike the one in Berlin that the Russians actually did end up taking down after Reagan’s call.
He relied on the same tough-guy jingoism and simple answers to complex problems. He offered the same assurance that other countries would comply if the right guy was doing the asking. He now flat out declared himself to be exactly that guy.
And a surprising number of people were coming to share the long held view of the first person to support Trump for president.
“I guess I like to think I planted the seed,” Dunbar reports. “I probably didn’t but I like to think I did.”
Dunbar is now joined by so many people that Trump seems on the way to becoming the Republican nominee.
“I think my instincts were good,” Dunbar says. “He’s turned out to be the guy I thought he would be, somebody who would shake up the system break all the rules. He’s giving a great big finger to the elite in this country.”
Dunbar describes himself as a working-class populist who feels “the political class has forgotten about us.”
“The world is full of people who are just working stiffs,” he says. “The whole system’s been rigged against us.”
He suggests regarding Trump, “He’s doing what guys like me would do it we had the platform. He’s saying, ‘The guys who run this country, you’re a bunch of incompetent idiots.’”
Dunbar allows, “He isn’t like us, we know that, but he talks like one of us. He thinks like one of us. That’s what he’s touching. We finally have a champion.”
Interestingly, Dunbar did not go to see Trump during the present campaign, even when The Donald was at his town’s high school. Dunbar had sworn off politics when his first and only child, a son, was born in 1992.
“I felt I was going to do it right and give [the son] all my attention,” Dunbar says.
Dunbar remains a Trump supporter and is able to offer an explanation why he and those of like mind are so untroubled by the reality behind the reality TV star who had repeatedly gone bust since his 1987 speech and offers no specifics as to how he would make good on his grand promises and once trampled on the beloved Reagan as he now tramples on Obama while using the Gipper’s old slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Some of what Trump has uttered is said to have prompted his own daughter to ask him to tone it down. Nothing he says or does seems to hurt him with his supporters. And otherwise decent folks such as Dunbar seem blind to their champion’s manifestly un-American bullying and bigotry.
Dunbar offers, “I think the attitude of the average guy is, ‘I like Trump because he’s not one of you, meaning the pols. Anything you have to say about him, I’m not going to take seriously because it comes from you. If I vote for one of you, I know what I’m going to get; I’m going to get betrayed again. I’m going to put my money on the guy who’s not going to screw me.”
Dunbar adds, “I got nothing to lose by voting for Trump because I’m going to get screwed by voting for mainstream politics.”
And it is all the same Trump who took out that ad and gave that speech in 1987, who was simply trying to promote a book when he trashed Reagan.
The big change is in the country.
The fault is not just in The Donald but in ourselves.