The chaos in Washington has deep roots, stretching back to the moment in American Psycho ’80s New York when two men catapulted themselves into that elite cadre whose members are best known by their first names: Rupert and the Donald.
They built their fortunes together out of the era’s chief contribution to cultural economics: the celebrity supply chain. Donald as an up-chain provider of content from gossip page to reality TV to Twitter; Rupert as the mid-chain aggregator and distributor from tabloid mastheads to 24-hour cable news.
Forty-odd years on, their fortunes are still intertwined — each now treading the same high wire of survival, each trying to shove the other into the pit below.
This struggle was echoed in Murdoch’s Australian papers over the weekend, as his commentators — from Miranda Devine to Greg Sheridan — came to the same conclusion at the same time: Donald had to go.
Yet neither man would be where they are now without the mutually parasitic symbiosis that enabled them to thrive.
Both Donald and Rupert came to Manhattan in the late ’70s. Already millionaires, Donald jumped from Queens across the East River; Rupert, by then, from London across the Atlantic.
These outsiders found that most unlikely doorman to the inside: lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn. Made famous as legal adviser to 1950s red-baiter senator Joseph McCarthy, by the ’80s Cohn was (as Ken Auletta wrote in Esquire in 1978) the lawyer of choice for “clients who want to kill their husband, torture a business partner, break the government’s legs”. Both Donald and Rupert became his clients and, to some extent, proteges.
Trump took his first steps to celebrity through Murdoch’s recently launched “Page Six” in the tabloid New York Post (bought by Murdoch in 1976). It was gossip for and about the city’s in-crowd. Cohn, Trump and Murdoch grasped that treating Trump as gossip-worthy would vault him into the city’s elite.
Both Trump and Murdoch understood and sought to monetise the touchstones of late 20th century popular culture: crime, sex, sport and populist politics.
Through the Post, Murdoch’s reporters wrote about a New York under siege from (largely black) criminals. Trump joined in with full-page ads demanding the death penalty for the so-called Central Park Five — young men of colour wrongly convicted of gang-rape.
Trump used “Page Six” to brag about his sexual exploits. He bought and traded off the Miss Universe franchise. The Murdoch papers became notorious for sexualised images, such as the topless women in London’s The Sun. Murdoch’s Fox News would later be roiled by allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.
In the ’90s, each man turned to television and each bought and sold sporting franchises — Trump for the celebrity of ownership, Murdoch for the content.
That content had become critical for Murdoch as he emerged from near-bankruptcy in 1990 with a plan to dominate global television distribution through buying or launching providers (including Foxtel in 1994) until the scheme collapsed when he failed to capture US satellite distributor DirecTV.
Trump, now too big for New York, morphed into reality TV star through The Apprentice, running through 15 seasons.
As Murdoch joined Trump in moving on to wife number three, the families became closer. Murdoch advised Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner after he took over The New York Observer. Trump’s daughter Ivanka became trustee for the Murdoch-Deng daughters when the couple divorced.
In the Obama era, white nationalist populism brought the two men politically together, apparently through the mediation of Fox News boss Roger Ailes. Trump’s schtick was made for the Fox format — his rhetorical shock and awe and willingness to go where others wouldn’t (particularly in racist attacks on Barack Obama), drove audience numbers.
But as Trump’s presidential run caught fire, the celebrity threatened to outgrow the network. When Fox wavered, Trump threatened a boycott, and the network had to give way. One of Murdoch’s final tweets before abandoning Twitter was to endorse Trump for the Republican nomination.
In office, Trump sought Murdoch out as adviser. In his 2019 book Siege, Murdoch biographer and Trump White House chronicler Michael Wolff quoted Rupert as saying: “I can’t get the asshole off the phone.” He’d earlier quoted the mogul calling Trump an idiot.
Turns out, with billionaires there are no permanent friends — only corporate interests. And the interests that once brought Rupert and Donald together are now tearing them apart.
For more on how Murdoch helped give us Trump, go here.