The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why does everyone call Donald Trump ‘The Donald’? It’s an interesting story.

The Donald at the April 1990 opening of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., not long after his nickname entered common parlance. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

It’s a nickname so clunky that it’s absolutely catchy.

It’s the inside joke that makes you laugh every time, even if you don’t quite get it.

When anyone says it out loud, you can practically hear the ironic air quotes around it — and these days you’re hearing it a lot.

“The Donald’s strange pompadour and Hillary’s strange server have eclipsed all the usual primary permutations.”Maureen Dowd, New York Times

“Fascination with the Donald has been sucking the life out of the other candidates.”Elaine Kamarck, Newsweek

“I’m willing to concede that The Donald could become the GOP nominee. . .”Charles Gasparino, New York Post

Which Donald? Oh come on. You know. Not Sutherland. Not Rumsfeld. Not Duck. The Donald.

So how did Donald Trump get this nickname — and why has it caught on so big?

Considering that Trump hardly shrinks from the name (opening sentence of his 1997 book “Trump: The Art of the Comeback”: “It’s usually fun being The Donald”), you might be surprised that its origins lie in what he’d probably consider enemy territory — a fluke moment of harmonic convergence between the long-estranged wife whose fame once matched his and the legendary, long-defunct magazine that built its reputation by ruthlessly mocking him.

In May 1989, Spy magazine published a sensational cover story on Ivana Trump. As a shoulder-padded bouffant blonde with a rich Czech accent, the future GOP front-runner’s then-wife cut nearly as flamboyant a profile as her husband in 1980s Manhattan. The article, by writer Jonathan Van Meter, gleefully punctured many of the boasting claims Trump made about his wife — that she was an Olympic skier (sadly untrue) and former top model of Canada (what does that even mean?) — and painted her as an inept CEO of his hotels and casinos.

[Forget the Megyn Kelly and Jorge Ramos incidents. Why Donald Trump is actually the most media-friendly candidate.]

But the most delicious revelation was how she referred to her husband. A name that evokes so many alpha-male icons — The Duke, The Gipper, The King, The Man in Black, The Chairman of the Board — except somehow both more grandiose and more completely absurd.

Ivana! Why the The?

Twenty-six years later, Ivana — who has largely retreated from the spotlight during her ex-husband’s campaign — explains that it was simply a matter of broken English.

“As most people know, English isn’t my first language, in fact it’s my fourth,” the former Mrs. Trump wrote in a text message. (She was traveling and unavailable to speak on the phone, her assistant said.) “When I came to live in New York, I really had to learn the language from the beginning almost. Some things come easily, some things don’t. And for whatever reason, probably because I was going at my usual turbo speed, I started putting ‘The’ in front of most people’s names. Yes, you know the outcome — ‘The Donald’ just slipped off the tongue, and now it seems to be making its ways to the political history books.”

As for The Donald himself, he laughs that he had “no choice” but to accept the nickname. “I don’t mind that it stuck,” he told The Washington Post. “I think it’s an endearment.”

[How the Brat Pack got its name — and spoiled celebrity journalism forever]

Considering the impact, it’s funny to go back and read the 1989 story — and see that it was barely a passing reference. And he wasn’t even “The Donald” on first introduction.

Very special people are always the source of controversy. And yes: Ivana Trump is a special lady. Her specialness is everywhere apparent: in her special set of white-white teeth, in the slabs of polished pink marble with which she has all but tiled Manhattan, in the kicky little mink flounces attached to the bottom of some of her daytime suits, in her charmingly old-world relationship with her husband, Donald. The Don, she calls him. (“You know how she always put the before people’s names?” says the wife of a Trump Organization vice president. “Well, one day she was all flustered, and she needed to talk to the vice president of administration, Richard Wilhelm. She went tearing through the halls of the executive offices shrieking, ‘Where’s the Dick? I need the Dick now!’”)

Van Meter was a 24-year-old writer who had just moved to New York when he pitched Spy the story about Mrs. Trump, drawing on his contacts from his old job in Atlantic City. “In the tiny hot-house of Atlantic City in the 1980s, Ivana was just kind of accessible” to journalists, he recalled. “It was a small town with big-city things happening.”

“I didn’t get excited immediately,” said the ever-practical Ivana about her first meeting with the Donald.
Some people have gone so far as to suggest that Ivana was removed from the management of Trump’s Castle. Removed by The Donald himself!

“Wow, did they run that through the funny mill,” said Van Meter, later the founding editor of Vibe and now a contributing editor at Vogue. “So many of the editors who worked there were like Letterman writers: They knew what’s funny and what’s not.”

Slowly, the phrase began to catch on with other journalists. Howard Kurtz, then a New York-based correspondent for The Washington Post, was an early adopter. Just weeks after the Spy cover story, Kurtz wrote about Trump’s vicious spat with rival hotelier Leona Helmsley and made several references to him as The Donald (“as he is called by his relentlessly glamorous wife Ivana”).

Kurtz, now the host of Fox News Channel’s “MediaBuzz,” doesn’t remember whether he saw “The Donald” first in Spy or another newspaper, but once he heard it, “it was like tabloid gold.”

“Trump was this flamboyant and over-the-top New York character, but not that widely known by the rest of the country — and he also was saddled with kind of an ordinary first name,” he said. “Making him The Donald kind of captured the singular nature of this media-savvy wheeler-and-dealer. And I just decided that was going to be his name in The Washington Post.”

It sure came in handy a year later, when the cataclysmic breakup of Donald and Ivana became one of 1990’s biggest celebrity stories. “I was writing so much about the divorce war that the nickname provided some much-needed variety, instead of saying ‘Trump. . . Trump. . . Trump'” said Kurtz. The phrase was picked up by other writers; by 1991, it even made it into the headlines.

By the end of the decade, the phrase was so popular that the Trumps were fighting over it: In 1999, Ivana attempted to claim a trademark on “The Donald” for a line of lotions, after-shaves and other toiletries. She told the New York Observer at the time that she was filing on behalf of her son, Donald Jr. — but her move drew an angry condemnation from Donald, who filed several competing claims for the trademark. Both parties eventually abandoned their claims, and now it appears to belong to no one — except, of course, for the pundits and headline writers who have made it such a go-to part of their lexicon.

Why is “The Donald” funny? Kurtz offered that “I guess it’s funny because it’s like a royal title for a guy who’s not a senator or a governor or part of the political establishment.” (Well, not yet. . .)

For Van Meter, the humor lies in the syntax: “I don’t know what it is about the broken English. The misplacement of articles, it’s just funny, I don’t know why” — and, of course, the source: Ivana. She was a woman of the era, a caricature of “Dynasty”-style glamour and bootstrapping Big Apple ambition — a “Saturday Night Live” character waiting to happen — and, briefly, an unlikely media heroine showcased on the covers of Vanity Fair and Vogue in the years after her husband left her for a newer model, whom he would eventually leave as well.

Who else could have come up with “The Donald”?

“It was funny because it was coming out of Ivana’s mouth,” said Van Meter. “No one thinks about her anymore, but she was such a larger-than-life character in the culture then. . . You can just hear it in her Czech accent.”

Ben Terris contributed to this story.

This story has been updated with a quote from Donald Trump.