When responding to his administration’s darkest hours or confronting steadfast opponents, President Donald Trump turns to his social media arsenal, deploying an artillery of tweets to shock and awe the political, cultural, and broadcasting elite. But Twitter offers only temporary relief, a virtual discharge while confined to the lonely White House. For Trump, hitting the road is the ultimate release, and it’s before admiring and unwavering crowds that the president campaigns for his preferred platform and finds validation. Nearly a year after his stunning victory, Trump’s rallies remain an unchanged ritual, comprised of a congregation celebrating the president’s populist agenda with all its solemnities.
But Trump didn’t invent this exhibition or emotional approach. It was Morton Downey, Jr., a bombastic provocateur, who transformed our media culture through his nationally syndicated television show in the late 1980s. This autumn marks the thirtieth anniversary of The Morton Downey Jr. Show’s debut on New York’s WWOR-TV, and while the short-lived program ended with scandal and fleeing advertisers, it still established a rhetorical style replicated by talking heads, politicians, and ultimately, a winning presidential candidate.
Downey, who died in 2001, presided over the original Trump rally. His show launched during the final stretch of Reagan’s presidency, a period of cataclysmic change in the media realm that was only realized in hindsight.
The era’s shifting cultural, political, and economic fault lines slowly cracked the foundations of established institutions, whether it was print publications, network news, or political parties. And yet it remained a simpler time, when households digested current events in local newspapers, tuned into Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather on countertop televisions over dinner, and understood the clear ideological sympathies of Republicans and Democrats. These households, often working class, were located in small to mid-sized cities and aging postwar suburbs that were only beginning to witness the rapid changes wrought by technology and globalization. Downey intuitively understood the budding frustrations of these households, and he tapped into that resentment before a fawning television studio audience.
Downey’s show arrived just months after Gary Hart’s ignominious downfall as the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 1988 presidential election. Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado, was considered a formidable candidate against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, but rumors of adultery and a newspaper’s stakeout of his Capitol Hill home created a media frenzy that ended his campaign. The frantic coverage of this scandal was a “Franz Ferdinand” moment, one which completely transformed the confluence of American media, politics, and culture just as the Austro-Hungarian Archduke’s assassination in 1914 changed the course of geopolitical history.
If there is a Guns of August-like book that brilliantly captures this period, it’s Matt Bai’s 2014 account of the Hart scandal, All the Truth Is Out. “Within about a decade or so of Gary Hart’s spectacular collapse,” wrote Bai, “new technologies—first the satellite revolution that made twenty-four-hour news possible, and then the advent of the Internet and the rapid spread of broadband technology—would obliterate this old order, creating a new world of instantaneous and borderless information.” In a cruel twist of irony, Hart spoke on the campaign trail about how America should prepare for the 21st century’s inevitable technological upheaval. What Hart failed to anticipate, however, was how a figure like Downey would trigger Americans’ emotional response to these changes.
Although raised in a world of privilege, Downey was always an outsider. Born in Los Angeles in 1932, Downey was the oldest son of Morton Downey, a famed Irish tenor during the Depression era (“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”), and Barbara Bennett, an actress and dancer.
Dysfunction, marital drama, and violence marked Downey’s formative years. His alcoholic mother abandoned the family for a B-movie cowboy actor, and his father instilled fear with his ferocious temper. But the Downey family, for all their faults, still enjoyed the trappings of celebrity. Before they were shipped to Connecticut to be raised by their paternal grandparents, Downey and his siblings grew up in opulent homes and counted the Kennedy family as neighbors in Hyannis Port. By age 10, Downey was sent to military school, and his educational quest continued with a degree from New York University, a J.D. from a correspondence school, and a doctorate from an unaccredited college in California.
Downey inherited his father’s love for show business, but Morton Downey, Sr. responded to his son’s interest with stunning cruelty. “The name Downey opened doors,” Downey recalled in a 1988 interview with People. “But they slammed just as fast because that same name controlled them.” Downey’s father was perversely determined to keep his son out of Hollywood, going as far as arranging for his son’s imprisonment for bouncing a check. Downey served 61 days in a California jail. His father finally apologized many years later.
Downey persevered in spite of his father’s opposition, and his career trajectory included working as a singer, disc jockey, lobbyist, co-founder of the American Basketball Association, and eventually a radio host in a half dozen cities. He was also a campaign aide, first working for both John and Robert Kennedy’s presidential runs before switching sides, joining the National Right to Life Organization, and later running for president on the American Independent party ticket in 1980.
As a radio host, Downey’s evocative style tuned listeners into his show while also imperiling his allotted airtime with station bosses. In 1984, Downey was fired from a Sacramento station, fortuitously leaving his seat to be filled by a former Kansas City Royals ticket salesman named Rush Limbaugh. It was not until 1987, at age 55, that Downey got his lucky break with WWOR, which relocated to a studio in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Known by natives as “WOR,” WWOR-TV’s popular programming originally reached audiences in the New York metro region, New Jersey, Philadelphia and its suburbs, and pockets of Pennsylvania. The station’s most popular host was Joe Franklin, who interviewed a comically eclectic mix of celebrities, faded stars, and unknown performers. It was Bob Pittman, a producer and co-founder of MTV, who arranged Downey’s debut in what was then a superstation with 20 million people picking up WWOR’s signal nationwide.
Downey’s show developed a loyal cult following. His confrontational persona, distinguished by an intolerance for excessive political correctness, especially resonated with a large segment of the increasingly post-industrial Mid-Atlantic.
His audience, admiring baby boomers or members of Generation X, typically lived in the cities and towns grappling with the stagnating wages, job limitations, rising crime, demographic changes, and technological upheaval occurring in a newly emerging global economy. Their families lived in bungalows on Staten Island, rowhomes in northeast Philadelphia, ranches in Levittown, and duplexes throughout Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region and Lehigh Valley.
The typical audience member was a young male who likely hailed from a third or fourth generation ethnic Catholic family, residing in neighborhoods experiencing the accoutrements of urban decline. His homemaking grandmother listened to Morton Downey, Sr. croon on the Victrola as a child, his grandfather recalled Father Coughlin’s radio diatribes before World War II, and he or his parents watched TV host Joe Pyne’s combative interviews on WDEL-TV in the 1960s. Downey communicated in a way that easily clicked with this demographic, which understood the language of conflict in working class urban America.
“The element that makes Mort work is that he is truly not a conservative; he is a populist,” said Pittman in a 1988 interview. “If you watch him, he is sometimes on the liberal side of the issue. He bounces around. What he’s really interested in is the little man’s opinion: that’s really what he is representing.” Noting Downey’s television style, Pittman concluded that, “Downey doesn’t take an intellectual approach to things, but an emotional approach.”
This approach manifested itself in Downey’s television optics, which hooked the viewer and rallied the crowd. Each episode started as a field entrance with Downey, kibitzing with a pack of crew members behind stage, slowly approaching the audience. A pulsating bass played and the adoring crowd cheered as the grinning Downey approached individual audience members, slapping high-fives with men and kissing or hugging women. Typically attired in a Ralph Lauren oxford cloth shirt, regimental tie, khakis, and loafers, Downey faced the camera on-stage, announcing the controversial theme for that evening. Downey then cued the intro video, with the memorable theme depicting the host wearing boxing gloves, making strange faces, and sporting his pearly-white smile amidst a dizzying montage of newspaper headlines, military tanks, women’s legs, TV sets, and electric guitars.
The first episode aired on October 19, 1987, known as Black Monday, when the Roaring Eighties ended with a global stock market crash. The show became an instant hit—it was nationally syndicated by 1988—but critics were unimpressed with Downey’s approach. “The Morton Downey Jr. Show is, beneath the surface, a show about bullies,” wrote David Bianculli, the New York Post’s TV critic. “Downey, with the power of TV, becomes Head Bully, and encourages members of his audience to ‘get involved’—the same way the guy with the torch encouraged the mob around Frankenstein’s castle to get involved.” When the camera rolls Downey was “ready to fight and win,” wrote New York‘s David Blum. “Facing him are his fans. They want blood, and Mort is going to give it to them.”
The chain smoking host (he estimated smoking an average 80 cigarettes a day) ambushed his guests on episodes that addressed political incorrectness, divorce, the death penalty, race relations, affirmative action, Communism, and Vietnam. He invited audience members to approach his “Loud Mouths,” two podiums sporting the show’s open-mouth logo. Guests or audience members stated opinions but their remarks were often interrupted by Downey calling them “pablum puking liberals” and barking “zip it” or “shut up.” His shows even sparked physical confrontations among guests, with CORE chairman Roy Innis once knocking the Reverend Al Sharpton to the ground. Downey was forced to break up a potential stage brawl in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.
Downey unsettled critics and advertisers, but audiences craved his brash populism. He presented a conservative leaning viewpoint, yet his positions remained ideologically complex and failed to properly fit into either party. His sympathies were always with the working class, whether it was supporting government-funded healthcare for the elderly or discussing the perils of illegal immigration.
On his own TV show, On the Record, Alan Dershowitz asked Downey how he could appeal to this frustrated group of people. “Because I was frustrated most of my life,” he responded. “I’m able to come out there and present my frustration which I now recognize are the frustrations that every American goes through at one time or another in their life.” Downey told the Associated Press that Americans saw him as a “loud-mouth who gets in trouble like they do, who’s had problems like they had, someone that they can identify with a lot more than someone who’s squeaky clean.”
For all his faults, friends and foes alike acknowledged that Downey’s crude media persona didn’t match the kind and humble man they knew off camera. He was simply a performance artist who enraptured the country, but his show quickly faced an expiration date. By 1989, advertisers fled what was labeled “trash TV” or “tabloid TV.” Downey attempted a gentler show, but off-stage antics hastened its demise. In April of that year, Downey claimed he was assaulted by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, but his high-profile story didn’t add up. His incident was considered a hoax, and by September his producers and distributor announced the show’s cancellation.
Fast forward three decades and we now have a president who makes Downey’s show seem relevant and fresh. The parallels between Downey and Trump are stunning. They were privileged sons of complicated men, excruciatingly persevered in their respective fields, embraced show business and nurtured a growing audience with their working class language, encountered business failures in Atlantic City’s casino industry, and created an onstage spectacle that captivated the nation’s attention. They cultivated a base of aggrieved Republicans and Democrats who once cheered at Downey’s crude insults and now laugh at Trump’s stinging tweets.
In 1989, Downey taped an interview with Trump, who discussed America’s trade imbalance with Japan. “It’s a huge problem, and it’s a problem that’s going to get worse,” Trump said. “And they’re laughing at us.” Downey also asked Trump if he resented press criticism. “I think I used to resent it, I’m not sure I do anymore,” Trump responded. “Somehow, over a period of time, you become harder to this. You also realize it means less. It’s yesterday’s news. They take a shot at you in the newspaper, some reporter doesn’t like something for his own personal reason, so they take a shot. I find now—10 years ago I used to say ‘boy how could they do that, it’s wrong, it’s unfair,’ I find now that it really doesn’t matter.”
Trump is a cultural product of the late 1980s, and Downey deserves posthumous credit for creating the media ecosystem that led to this administration. The country continues to rapidly change, but the issues remain the same. The modern working class Americans who appreciate Downey or Trump fail to click with either political party. They’re just navigating the frantic pace of a global economy that often appears to present little hope for their future. In 1987, their outlet for populist release was Downey’s show. Now it’s Trump’s presidency. Downey is long gone, but his legacy has evolved into a new political frontier, the boundaries for which have yet to be defined.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @cfmcelwee