The Slatest

They Totally Knew: The People Who Foresaw the Rise of Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to a rally at Macomb Community College on March 4 in Warren, Michigan. Trump went on to win Michigan.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

There was a time, not so long ago, when reasonable people all across America believed that Donald Trump was a fake presidential candidate. The guy was a novelty act, we thought—a narcissistic dingbat who was going through the motions of running a political campaign in service of nothing more sinister or consequential than promoting his big dumb brand.

That turned out to be an incorrect assessment. At some point it became clear that Trump was a narcissistic dingbat who was also possibly going to be president.

As many of us continue to grapple with the depth of how wrong we were to dismiss Trump in the opening months of his campaign, it’s worth looking back at the handful of individuals who declined to join our giddy chorus of skepticism. While the rest of us giggled like idiots, or else reasoned our way to being convinced that a Trump nomination could never happen, these commentators saw something in Trump that made them confident he had what it took.

Below is a guide to Trump’s first believers—what they said when, why, and what it feels like now that their ridiculous predictions have all but come true.

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski

Who they are: Hosts of MSNBC’s morning show, Morning Joe

When they called it: June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his candidacy, and pretty much every day since.

What they said: “Anything can happen.” “He’s not a fringe candidate.” “This denial of reality by the mainstream media is actually feeding into Donald Trump’s strength.”

What tipped them off: Two things, according to Scarborough: First, people he and Brzezinski knew in South Carolina told them early on that Trump was bringing out thousands of people to political events that normally drew a few hundred. Also, Scarborough has long believed that the GOP elite was out of step with the party’s populist base.

What they say about it now: “I upset Republicans and got eye rolls from Democrats,” Scarborough said in an interview Monday. “It was a little lonely out there.” In a segment that aired on March 2, Scarborough and Brzezinski boasted about their clairvoyance and ran a supercut of interviews in which they expressed their contrarian confidence in Trump.

Earlier this month, Matt Taibbi published a scathing column in Rolling Stone making fun of Scarborough and Brzezinski for claiming to have known, saying that the only thing Scarborough was early to was “[strapping] on his kneepads in exchange for access once he saw that the Trump campaign was going places.” Scarborough’s response: “First we were mocked and ridiculed for saying Trump could win, and now that it looks like he is on his way to winning the nomination, a lot of people who missed the boat are trying to turn that around on us.”

John McLaughlin

Who he is: The 88-year-old host of TV’s The McLaughlin Group

When he called it: July 10, 2015

What he said: “Do you realize this man’s achievement? Do you realize the buildings that he’s put up?”

What tipped him off: The buildings. “They’re enormous!” McLaughlin said, as his guest Mort Zuckerman shrugged.

Robert Baillieul

Who he is: Toronto-based editor in chief of investing site Profit Confidential.

When he called it: July 27, 2015

What he said: In a blog post titled, “Here’s Why Donald Trump Will Win the GOP Republican Primary,” Baillieul wrote, “How can a baboon like Trump compete against political chess players like Bush and Clinton? Because Trump is playing three-dimensional chess. Or at least, he’s flipped the table, declared himself the winner, and started throwing pieces at his opponents. Either way, it’s effective.” One section of the post appeared under the heading, “If You’re Betting Against Donald Trump, You’ll Hate Yourself Later.”

What tipped him off: “The nerd squads in Washington have to learn this every election cycle, but it’s obvious to anyone without a 202 area code. People crave a strong leader.”

What he says about it now: “The idea that anyone could have any positive things to say about Donald Trump here in Canada certainly was absurd at the time,” Baillieul told me. “I wasn’t supporting him, I was just saying that this was resonating with people. I got a little bit of flak for even suggesting that this was a possibility. Now it feels pretty good.”

Scott Adams

Who he is: Creator of Dilbert, author, blogger.

When he called it: Aug. 5, 2015

What he said: “[I]f Hillary does not coast into the White House as I expect (and this is a prediction, not a preference) you will see a Donald Trump presidency.” Later called Trump a “clown genius.”

What tipped him off: “I certainly understand that Trump comes off as arrogant, obnoxious, and lots of other bad stuff,” Adams wrote on his blog. “But over time, and compared to the liars on stage with him, you might get hooked on hearing his honest opinions. That’s how the New York style works. At first you hate it because it seems so harsh. In time you start to appreciate the honesty. And when you realize the harshness is not a signal of real evil—just a style—you tend to get over it. He won’t win over all of his haters, but I predict that his New York style will grow on people more than you would expect. You could say his style is his biggest problem, but it might be self-solving with time and exposure. He is getting both.”

He elaborated on his reasoning in an interview over FaceTime this week: “I have a background as a trained hypnotist and I’ve been studying persuasion and influence in all its forms—everything from advertising and marketing to you name it—for decades. I’ve gone deeper than most people in the art of influence, and when I started watching Trump I realized early that what looked like the random behavior of a clown to people who were untrained, was almost pitch perfect persuasion.”

What he says about it now: Adams thinks Trump will win the general election in a “landslide.” “I no longer think it’ll be close, unless he gets assassinated or something,” he said. As for what it was like to be taking Trump seriously when no one else was: “If you imagine politics as a stick fight, all other stick fights have been won by a person with a stick. But here was Trump who said, ‘I read the rules and there’s nothing against bringing a flamethrower.’ So I’m watching Donald Trump walk up to a stick fight with a flamethrower in his hands that only I can see. It’s like an invisible flamethrower! And the only reason I can see it is I have the same tool box.”

Chris Cillizza

Who he is: Political reporter for the Washington Post’s the Fix

When he called it: Aug. 2–4, 2015

What he said: Cillizza was wrong about Trump before he saw the light. In June he wrote a blog post titled, “Why No One Should Take Donald Trump Seriously, in One Very Simple Chart.” It doesn’t matter what the chart was. On Aug. 4, Cillizza published a follow-up: “Boy, Was I Wrong About Donald Trump. Here’s Why.”

What tipped him off: In the August post, Cillizza noted that Trump’s favorability ratings had gone up significantly in just a few months—something he did not expect because, as he put it, “I had NEVER EVER seen a reversal in how people perceive a candidate who is as well known as Trump—much less a reversal in such a short period of time.”  This made Cillizza realize that Trump was in uncharted waters.

What he says now: “My guiding belief with Trump has been that no political rules—or at least no conventional political rules—apply to him,” Cillizza said in an email.  

Mike Cernovich

Who he is: Author of Gorilla Mindset: How to Control Your Thoughts and Emotions to Live Life on Your Terms. Masculinity expert.

When he called it: July 28, 2015

What he said:

What tipped him off: “I knew Trump would do well because I read his books and had only watched a couple of episodes of The Apprentice over 10 years ago,” Cernovich said in an email. “I didn’t have the same biases on Trump that others had. I read his books and saw a man who had a strong mindset, a track record of succeeding, and who would make strong and sometimes offensive comments as a way to get media attention.“

He went on: “Culturally, people were tired of politically correct culture. We live in an age of micro aggressions where people are deemed racist or sexist of phobic for making one wrong tweet. There will always be a counter-culture, and Trump, with his take no prisoners style of commentary, is that counter-culture.”

Also: “Trump … has the ‘strong father’ masculine energy. Consider how his family members all live (opulent wealth aside) normal lives. They have families. The children and grandchildren have avoided the Kim Kardashian style drama common these days. Trump must’ve been an extraordinary father to have raised well-adjusted kids.”

What he says now: “I received a lot of hate and doubt when backing Trump. I’m used to that, though, as I prefer taking contrarian positions. …. It feels great to be vindicated, especially because most of Trump’s doubters were snide.”

Tom Anderson

Who he is: Moderate Republican who hosts a talk radio show that’s broadcast in Alaska.

When he called it: Aug. 28, 2015

What he said: “People love Trump,” Anderson wrote in an op-ed for the Hill.  “They deem him a saving grace. He’s the proverbial Hercules and America’s problems are the labors to pursue and slay. He is riding a wave of popularity so profound even the sharks are curbing their taste.”

What tipped him off: “If radio listener opinions are any indication of genuine support, Trump will sail to victory next year. … Polls and the trending of primary politics may matter, but don’t overlook the culture of American talk radio and the obvious backdraft of resentment building behind the doors of Americans across the country. Voters are listening, and radio talk may be the clearest window through which to understand their wishes.”

What he says now: “I wasn’t Nostradamus about it,” Anderson told me by phone. “But I had faith that the public, particularly in the conservative states, would look at him and say, ‘We want a commander in chief and we’re willing to bend a little on some of his stances that may not comport with ours.’ ”

Howard Stern

Who he is: Iconic radio host and the patron saint of shock jocks.

When he called it: Aug. 24, 2015  

What he said: “I’ll tell you why I think he’s going to be the nominee: He’s proven that no matter what he says, people dig him,” Stern said on his SiriusXM show. “I also think that a lot of people are of the mind that… they hate illegal immigrants but they just feel funny saying it—whether it’s rational or not.” The next day Trump called into the show and Stern repeated his prediction: “You could actually be president. This is looking like a reality.”

What tipped him off: Trump has been a guest on Stern’s show many times over the years. (Sex-related comments he made during those appearances sparked a very minor controversy earlier this year.) Maybe Stern saw something in him as a result of those interviews? As he put it: I think more or less, people are sick and tired of politicians, meaning that they like the idea of a successful businessman running the country who might actually be able to get shit done.”

What he says now: Stern’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.