We Tracked Down Newsweek Readers Who Predicted Trump's Presidential Campaign in 1987

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Donald Trump talks to reporters on November 1, 1985, in Memphis, Tennessee, during a break in the United States Football League's owners’ meeting. Trump was an owner of the league's New Jersey Generals. Todd Lillard/AP

Welcome to "Explain Your Letter," a recurring feature wherein we choose an interesting letter published in Newsweek decades ago and track down its writer to ask for an explanation or update. In this installment, we talk to several readers who wrote surprisingly prescient letters about Donald Trump in 1987.

In the fall of 1987, Newsweek took a break from covering the 1988 primaries to put a 41-year-old businessman on the cover.

It was one of the earliest national magazine profiles of "America’s brash billionaire," Donald Trump. Though 29 years younger, Trump was hardly more modest than the presidential candidate you know today. "I’m not running for president,” he told Newsweek's Bill Powell and Peter McKillop in the 1987 piece, “but if I did…I’d win." In the same interview, he boasted that "there is no one my age who has accomplished more."

Then—as now—Trump provoked strong reader reactions. In 1987, expressing this required an envelope and stamp instead of a Wi-Fi connection. The letters poured in. "How about Donald Trump for president?" one reader proposed. "God forbid that our society would ever put such a man in the White House," wrote another. 

We published the letters in our October 19, 1987, issue under the header "Trump for President?"

Trump A letter from a reader about Donald Trump. Newsweek, October 19, 1987.

Today, with Trump leading the GOP primary, these letters seem startlingly on the nose, predicting both the rhetoric of Trump's supporters and the disgust of his opponents. We tracked down the authors of the most interesting ones to see whether their views on Trump in 1987 accurately predicted their votes in 2016.

Trump A letter from Newsweek reader Louise Dexter. Newsweek, October 19, 1987.

An interview with Louise Dexter, now a program assistant for the Central Nebraska Council on Alcoholism and Addictions.

Take me back to 1987. What were you doing when you decided to write a letter to Newsweek?
I was a revenue agent. I was back in college. I was working full time [but] returned to college to get some additional education. I get involved in politics. My kids and I discuss politics. And I'm very aware of the world situation because I read a lot and was in tune with what's going on in the world. That's how strongly I felt. If I hadn't felt strongly and appreciated your article, I wouldn't have submitted the letter.

Do you remember writing that letter?
Oh absolutely… At that time, I thought [Trump] was just amazing. We were having issues with the economy, and I thought, "Wow. He would probably be able to straighten it out with the way he managed his money and his property."

What made you support voting for him for president back then?
Because I followed him. I read his books. I thought he was just a very intelligent man. He could take property that kind of fell apart and make it come to life again. Have you read any of his books?

Do you stand by what you wrote 29 years ago?
You know, I've been watching this campaign. At first, I didn't think I did, because he kind of talks before he thinks sometimes. I think he would do a good job. And I think he has calmed down a little bit with the approach he has when asked a question. He's caught off guard. You know what I'm saying? It's the way he says it. I still think he's a very intelligent man. I think he could do a good job, and I think people want a change. Many people are saying, "Oh my gosh! We need him, because he's not afraid to speak up and he isn't doing it for the money; he's got plenty of money." Of all the people that are running right now, I have to say, I think he's probably going to be the best.

So you plan on voting for him?
I think so.

Robert Crook A letter from Newsweek reader Robert Crook. Newsweek, October 19, 1987

An interview with Robert Crook, now an attorney in California.

You seemed to predict the future with this letter.
Well, I appreciate the title of Political Psychic.

What do you remember about sending this letter?
I was finishing up my schooling at UCLA and preparing to enter law school. I remember the country was also in transition. Reagan years were over. At the time, a viable Trump candidacy—it didn't seem likely. I don't recall the details of the article, but something within it alarmed me sufficiently to write a letter to the editor. I don't think I had a reaction just to Trump. I think I had an icky reaction to the idea that someone with a lot of money and a big ego could hijack the American political system and win. Sort of a living, breathing Citizen Kane.

How old were you?
I would have been almost 23 years old.

Do you remember writing the letter about Trump?
I definitely do remember it. I've thought back over the years about that letter as Donald Trump has become more prominent as time has kind of marched on. In the succeeding years, Trump has not materially changed, but the circumstances around him and the Republican Party have changed. As the GOP has sort of imploded on itself, it really has created the perfect circumstances for a viable Trump nomination.

Look at Ted Cruz: He's a very smart man, yet in the Senate he's done little but oppose legislation. His legacy is obstinance. In contrast, people are used to watching Trump on television. They're used to seeing him talk as if he's a World Wrestling Federation character. At the same time, he's decisive. He's independent. He's in control. Most importantly, Trump appears to be getting things done on television. Again, Trump still does things for Trump. No one else.

Is that still your view?
Oh absolutely. I think that time has shown that to be true. There's no real change in Donald Trump.… Donald Trump is basically the mirror that's being held up to the Republican Party, and they're seeing themselves perhaps for the first time and they don't like what they're seeing.

You wrote, "God forbid that our society would ever put such a man in the White House." Did you ever imagine he'd get this far?
You know something? I didn't. I think this was someone who appeared to have a lot of money, who had no experience. If you look at not what Donald Trump said but what he did over a period of time, it really became very clear that he's not a particularly charitable person. He's not someone who's particularly diplomatic. In fact, he's none of those qualities. He's just somebody who has developed a persona and has the money to back up the persona and is making a bid for an office that he's not qualified to possess.

What qualities does this letter reveal about yourself?
I don't remember the details of the actual article. But there was something in that article that must have alarmed me, because I don't write to publications. It's not something in my nature. I think the concern I had was that the American people would allow themselves to look at perhaps persona and money as factors for why someone would be in office, rather than substance.

I take it that you won't be voting for Donald Trump.
I would never vote for Donald Trump. Well, let me correct something here: If you had to tell me whether I would vote for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, I probably would vote for Donald Trump in a primary election. Again, you'd have to put a gun to my head to do this. If I were to have to choose between two candidates for the White House, it would be Hillary Clinton, and there's no comparison. But the fact that in the primaries I have to think about choosing Trump for president is bewildering.

Joelle A letter from Joelle Ziemian about Donald Trump. Newsweek, October 19, 1987.

An interview with Joelle Ziemian, now a communications director at a college in Virginia.

Do you remember sending that letter?
I had completely forgotten about it. It's so funny. I would have thought [I'd remember] given that I felt strongly enough about him in 1987 to pen that letter. I'm surprised that it remained buried in the recesses of my memory now that he's on the front pages every single day.

Take me back to 1987. Where were you when you read this cover story about Trump?
I was working on Capitol Hill. I was a press secretary for a congressman. In those days, everybody read both Time and Newsweek, especially in a congressional office. If I recall correctly, [my letter] was in response to a profile that Newsweek did on Trump that was really quite glowing. I have this memory of just being surprised that he was taken at such face value. There didn't seem to be a lot of questioning of his motivation and who he was as a person and what was in his heart and soul. 

Did you often write letters to the editor?
It was very rare. Other than for clients and writing in the voice of others, it might be the only one I've done, actually. 

You felt that strongly about Trump?
I did. Isn't that funny? I think I was reading a biography of the Guggenheims or something. I'm trying to remember what he was doing in 1987. Is it possible he was just building his casinos then?

You wrote in the letter, "How truly sad it will be if Trump's only legacy turns out to be a pair of casinos and a lot of tall buildings."
If only that were his only legacy! [Laughs.]

It seems like he's moved on from those casinos.
It's interesting. Thinking about getting ready to talk to you, I was thinking about the meaning of public service. The families I reference in that letter are, of course, still legend. But now we have a whole new class of philanthropists. People like the Gateses and the Zuckerbergs and Mayor Bloomberg and Steve Case. Even the Koch brothers on the other side of the aisle. 

These are all people who have been blessed in great ways and they want to serve society, not by running for office but by making it better through their money. That is their gift. And I was thinking about Nelson Rockefeller, who also was a public servant. He too ran for the presidential Republican nomination.… He served society before he ran. That's just not what we see with Donald Trump.

Has your opinion of Trump improved or lessened since you wrote this letter?
As we've gotten to know him better, I feel like we sort of see the humanness of him. We see how easily his feelings get hurt. And obviously we have a large part of the electorate responding to that humanness—that he's like us in many ways. So in that way, I feel like I'm just like the rest of America: I know him better. But I still believe, as I did when I wrote that letter, that he doesn't have a generous heart. He doesn't have a generous mind.… He's not finding ways to use his wealth to lift people, to lift society. His campaign kind of mirrors that. It's not about lifting up, is it?

You work at a college now?
I do. And we would welcome Donald Trump's money!

Steven Soboroff A letter from Newsweek reader Steve Soboroff. Newsweek, October 19, 1987

An interview with Steve Soboroff, now vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.

Had you forgotten about that letter?​
Now that you brought it to my attention, it all comes back. Yes, sir.

Tell me where you were in 1987 when you read this story.
My business was real estate. I read The Art of the Deal. I wasn't hot on Trump. I got a library card, which I had to wait a week for, so I could check the book out so he wouldn't get any royalties off me—I really didn't like the guy. But there was a chapter about the Wollman skating rink that I found fascinating. I rebuilt a park in Los Angeles using the same strategy. 

And just before the book came out, the Newsweek article came out. I've met dozens of people that are richer and more successful and worked with him. In fact, I was president of a project that was bigger than anything he's ever done, $6.2 billion. This article of yours in Newsweek shocked me. There seemed to be something way off about a guy that had an opportunity to be on the cover of Newsweek talking about his successes where he didn't talk about anything other than buildings, negotiating—it sounded to me like taking advantage of people—and never did he mention anything about his family, about his civic life, his religious life. Nothing! It was sort of like, my God! Anybody but Trump should be on the cover of Newsweek.

Has your opinion of Trump changed since then?
Yeah!

How so?
I'm ashamed and disappointed in him. I thought his real estate successes had some sort of mitigating factor on my feelings. Now they don't. I know hundreds of real estate people that have the same attitude as him.

What kind of attitude?
Winning through intimidation. Winning through humiliation. Winning through puff talk. That's a real estate term for bullshit. Or lies. The stuff about his tax returns and his net worth—I'm sure you're rich if you're worth $2 billion or $1 billion or $100 million, but I've never met a rich person that overstates their net worth. Never ever! They always understate it! Who needs the IRS all over you? Who needs the state tax all over you? He talks about his tax returns, he says, "Well, I already gave my financial disclosure statement." I filled out those same forms! Those forms don't tell anything compared to what a tax return shows! So he's not going to ever show his tax returns. I don't know if he's told the truth about which ones are being audited and which ones aren't, but the point is there's just nothing real. I just don't find any credibility in any statement. I wouldn't want him as my landlord. I wouldn't want to have a contract with him! I wouldn't want him to owe me anything! So I gave my copy of The Art of the Deal to Goodwill.

Businessmen do have a few skills that would be good in government, and he has those skills. He's a finisher. Real estate people—I'm one too—we're paid on completion. Government people are fired on completion.… The way businesspeople who have been successful have manipulated is through positive reinforcement. Donald Trump doesn't know those two words. He manipulates through fear, through isolationism, through intimidating, generalizing, insulting and bullying. That works with weak people; that doesn't work with world leaders. As we've seen, it doesn't work with women. And he thinks he can just say, "Trust me." When a guy says "Trust me," you know not to trust hm.

Did you ever think that he would run and get this far?
Obviously not. I'm just disappointed in the 30 percent of the people that are so angry and so weak that they're voting for him. I've heard a lot of real estate people think they can run for office and win. I did myself! I got 106,000 votes. I almost became mayor of Los Angeles.

You ran in 2001, right?
In 2001. After that, I took the same things that I learned—which is, good business has good public policy—and I took that to the private sector and ran a $6.2 billion project called Playa Vista. I can name lists of businesspeople, you can pick off which ones would be good in government and which ones can't. Bloomberg was a businessman, but Bloomberg understood public policy and he used his business skills to implement public policy. Trump doesn't give any indication that he knows or cares about public policy.

Is there a presidential candidate you do support?
Yeah. I think we can make America great by [choosing] anybody but Trump. There isn't a candidate out there who wouldn't be a better president of the United States. There isn't one.

I've been a Republican for 50 years. But I'm ashamed now of what the party's done to itself. If he becomes the nominee, I'll switch to being an independent.… I will not only vote for Hillary, but I have a new car, and I'll put a Hillary bumper sticker [on it]. And I don't like to do that, because it damages the paint. 

Have you thought about your letter during his recent rise?
No, I didn't think about it because I didn't remember that I wrote it! I've talked about the guy in my classes since 1975 because he was such an extremist with this stuff. That article was written in Newsweek in 1987. All you gotta do is change the date and do a few blackouts and it's the same exact person who has just taken more of the same medicine! That's what's so amazing about the article. And that's what's so amazing about my letter!

Anything else you want to say about that letter?
If you have the original, I'd like to frame it.