WASHINGTON – Donald Trump told a U.S. television studio audience he is “tired of seeing the country ripped off,” adding with characteristic bravado that if he ran for president, “I would have a hell of a chance of winning.”
The real estate tycoon is currently the odds on favorite to win the 2016 Republican nomination. While he has expressed similar confidence over the past year, Trump’s TV boast — to host Oprah Winfrey — came not in the run up to his current White House bid, but in 1988, when he was just 42.
Consistency has not been The Donald’s calling card, his rivals argue. They claim Trump is a flip-flopping political opportunist, and that appears to be true on some counts, notably abortion, taxes and gun control.
But he is showing noteworthy consistency on the core of his message: strong defense, compassionate health care, support for the working man and tough talk on trade.
In late 1999, Trump made a more serious if only months-long flirtation with the White House, seeking the nomination of the Reform Party launched by populist billionaire Ross Perot.
“I’m a registered Republican. I’m a pretty conservative guy,” he told Larry King in a one-hour CNN interview at the time.
But “I’m somewhat liberal on social issues, especially health care.”
Trump expressed appreciation for then-first lady Hillary Clinton, whom he will likely face in a 2016 general election should he win the Republican nomination.
As for abortion rights, “I’m very pro choice,” he told NBC in October 1999, although he stressed that “I hate the concept of abortion.”
Trump’s 1980s and 90s entrepreneurial flamboyance and his unquenchable obsession with winning — despite four Trump-owned casinos filing for bankruptcy — remain hallmarks of the 2016 Republican front-runner.
Obsessed with his own destiny and image, the tycoon is relentlessly pursued by U.S. media, seduced by his charming patter that often veers into insults and rage.
But if over the past 30 years he has shifted on some issues dear to conservatives, he has refined his populist protectionist message.
Free trade is a key example. Today, a Trump rally never fails to include his rants against nations “ripping off” America, be it China or Japan.
Who were the culprits in 1999? Germany and Saudi Arabia were “ripping us off big league; France, I mean, they’re the worst team player I’ve ever seen in my life,” Trump told CNN, adding that Japan was treating America “like a whipping post.”
His message remains the same today: America needs a president with the backbone to defend its interests.
During the 1988 Republican convention that nominated George H.W. Bush, Trump told CNN that “I doubt I’ll ever be involved in politics beyond what I do right now.
“But I do enjoy the system, I find it a really beautiful thing to watch. It’s a beautiful machine.”
Back then, as in 2016, he boasted of his popularity with the working class.
“The people that I do best with are the people that drive the taxis,” he said. “Wealthy people don’t like me, because I’m competing against them all the time.”
Last week after romping to victory in Nevada, where exit polls confirmed his intuition about support from low-income residents, Trump bellowed, “I love the poorly educated!”
And he retains his contempt for the wealthy, repeating that by self-funding his campaign he owes nothing to the lobbyists and billionaire donors who finance his rivals’ candidacies.
This populist strain is reflected in his commitment to broad health coverage, a significant issue on the 2016 campaign trail. Trump insists he joins with conservatives in wanting to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care reform law, which they have decried as a step toward socialism.
“I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country if I’m president,” he vowed in a February debate.
“Somebody will say, ‘he’s not a conservative to say that,'” Trump said later. “Call it whatever you want.”
In 1999, he expressed similarly compassionate views on health care, saying “it’s an entitlement to this country if we’re going to have a great country.”
Trump’s incendiary bombast and divisiveness today is an amped up version of his slick, confident personality of yesteryear, when he made headlines for his massive real estate deals and messy divorces, and hit best-seller lists with his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal.”
But Trump’s tough talk was already on display decades ago, particularly when it came to other nations and their trading policies.
“This country would make one hell of a lot of money from those people that for 25 years have taken advantage,” Trump told Oprah in 1988.
“It wouldn’t be the way it’s been. Believe me.”