I want to be the Prez,” says Donald Trump on the cover of New York Daily News in October, 1999. On the front of the same tabloid three weeks later, New Yorkers reply: “Are you kidding?” Twenty years on, many are still asking the same question.
Contemporary artist Aleksandra Mir believes the answer to the question of how Trump became president can be found in the archives of New York’s tabloid press.
Her discoveries are the focus of a Hayward Gallery exhibition, showing Trump’s personal life, business dealings and political aspirations through 32 front pages, blown up to two metres high. Aleksandra Mir presents the Pre-Presidential Library opens on January 7.
“It is a fairly open secret in New York City that Trump used to call the media under a fake name to report stories on himself,” says Mir. “Anyone who spent a quarter in those days contributed to his needy ego, just like every eyeball on his tweets does today.”
Despite his face being plastered across so many tabloids, Mir’s interest in the pages was not so much towards the man himself as what the coverage revealed about the media’s attitudes and priorities.
“Over the same time period that Trump’s amassed his 87 front pages over his personal dramas, the AIDS crisis, which claimed the lives of 75,000 New Yorkers made the front page a mere 13 times, so this is quite revealing of how the tabloid media thinks and what readers want from it.”
Similarly, the lead in the New York Post on February 12, 1990 is taken up with a story about Trump and ex-wife Ivana’s split. In tiny letters at the bottom of the page, a line reads: “Nelson Mandela Free.”
This is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, as Mir says it demonstrates the media and readers’ complicity.
“The paradoxical vortex we are in now is that the press has to keep reporting on what the President does, and we need to know, which binds us in a torturous codependency. So what I am trying to work out is how we got here in the first place, and if one could be savvier to power at an earlier stage.”
The covers are part of a collection of reproduced microfiche tabloid front pages from 1986 to 2000, which Mir plucked from the New York Public Library archives in 2007. At the time she was researching for a different show, Newsroom, where she and 17 assistants worked live in a gallery every day for two months, creating new art from old news. She didn’t give the Trump covers a second thought until the archive came to light again 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,” she says.
“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.”
This prompted her to look again at the material. When she did, she found 87 total cover stories that turned out to be the “blueprints for where we are today”.