In 1990, Marion Barry was arrested by the FBI while smoking crack cocaine with a woman who was not his wife. He had been mayor of Washington, D.C., since 1979, only the second person ever to be mayor of America's capital city. And after serving a brief stint in federal prison for drug-related offenses, he would be mayor again, before serving twice on D.C.'s city council.
Before Donald Trump even so much as sniffed the humid air of the District, Marion Barry won elections and enjoyed consistent, even fervent support time and time again, despite his many legislative and personal failures and his betrayals of his closest advisers and an entire city desperate for hope. His charisma carried him from civil rights activism to the mayorship, and then through prison and, somehow, a second political life. Four decades before Trump appealed to an unheard white underclass, Barry was appealing to the most ignored people of D.C. — poorer black people living in a majority-black city that, until 1973, did not have the right to elect its own mayor, people Barry described as "the last, the lost, and the least." Over and over again, he told the people of the District of Columbia that he would stand for them when no one else would.
Barry earned his constituents' loyalty through his promises of jobs and, more importantly, black visibility. In the midst of the civil rights movement, he offered thousands of black people employment in the public sector as well as much-needed support. His mayoral campaign promises of fiscal responsibility and hope for black D.C. residents became a brief reality in the early 1980s, during his first term as mayor. "I'm in the right place at the right time, and of the right generation," he said while campaigning in 1978. Thousands of people believed him, even when he let the city down spectacularly, and those most hurt by his failures and corruption remained his most stalwart voters. The story of Donald Trump — a man who said "I alone can fix" America's problems — is one that D.C. has seen before, in a legendary and infamous mayor who promised the moon and actually tried to deliver before everything fell apart.
To understand Marion Barry, you first have to understand Washington, D.C. In 1790, Maryland and Virginia donated 10 square miles of land to the U.S. government to create a national capital that would not be in any way beholden to any one state. D.C.’s urban landscape was designed by Pierre Charles l'Enfant, whose grand vision (as opposed to Thomas Jefferson's simple agrarian plan) won over our first president. In reality, its low-lying geography and extreme humidity make it feel more like the jungles of southern Vietnam in the summer. The city is divided into quadrants: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast, with the Capitol dome serving as the hub.
And D.C. is black. Funk legend George Clinton called it "Chocolate City." Slavery ended here first, schools were desegregated here first. Even as Woodrow Wilson resegregated the federal government in the early 20th century, wealthy and middle-class black Americans congregated around U Street in Northwest D.C. and established banks, restaurants, unions, theaters, schools, and institutions that outperformed their whites-only counterparts. In 1920, a 40-block area of D.C. known as the Shaw neighborhood was home to more than 300 black-owned businesses.
The D.C. of this era was not only a black city, but a city that fostered a black elite: Black families owned massive homes in fashionable neighborhoods and sent their children to black-run schools that were some of the best in the country. The aforementioned economic hub of black businesses and subsequent success did not happen because of government support, however, but despite the lack of it.
There were no viable alternatives: Black D.C. residents could not put their money in white banks, or visit white hotels, or go to white clubs, or even visit parks or recreation centers used by their white neighbors. D.C.'s wealthiest black citizens could not eat at segregated restaurants close to the White House or use whites-only drinking fountains in Georgetown. Restrictive housing covenants kept even the richest black (and in some areas, Jewish) doctors and lawyers out of desirable neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Dupont Circle.
From 1957 to 2011, Washington, D.C., was a majority black city — in 1970, black Americans made up 71 percent of the capital's population. But this population had no political representation to speak of for decades. Until 1961 and the passage of the 23rd Amendment, D.C. residents could not vote for president (D.C. residents still have no representation in the Senate). From the late 1800s through 1974, the city was run by a Board of Commissioners selected by the president. By the time D.C. gained home rule — the right to elect a mayor and a city council — it had lost virtually any other form of economic or social power it had once had. The city had endured riots and two decades of white flight, as white residents (and some middle-class black Americans) left for the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. By the early 1970s, the city had been left largely on its own by Congress and by white America.
Barry moved to D.C. three years before the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King's assassination, when more than a thousand fires burned and 12 people were killed. Unlike Trump, he was not gifted with wealth or prestige. Born in rural Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he came to the city to open a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but quit two years later over disagreements with SNCC leadership. He then founded Pride Inc., an organization dedicated to helping unemployed black men in D.C. find jobs and housing. After the riots, Barry drove trucks to deliver food to bombed-out neighborhoods in Northeast.
Barry was good at getting people organized, and, like Trump, he was even better at getting attention. Barry was not a part of D.C.'s existing black elite or middle class. He didn't live in the "Gold Coast" neighborhood, and he didn't go to Howard. He knew where he stood, and by the time he ran for mayor in 1978, he saw it as an advantage. He told the Washington Post, "I'm a symbol myself of black success ... because of where I've come from economically and socially." When Apollo 11 reached the moon in 1969, Barry demanded that black Americans ignore the achievement because the money spent on NASA should have gone to America's inner cities; when asked whether white people who had left the city in the early 1960s should move back to D.C., he said that they should move back, offer their expertise to black business owners, and then leave again. As head of the D.C. School Board, he took time to launch a group — Blacks Against Narcotics and Genocide (BANG) — dedicated to boycotting and protesting the release of the 1973 blaxploitation movie Superfly because the film was "totally negative to black youth."
Like Trump, Barry garnered intense and unshakable loyalty from voters. Unlike Trump, who earned support from working white voters who believed that they, too, could be wealthy and seemingly untouchable, the symbolism of the rise from rural poverty to scion of black leadership earned Barry D.C.'s adoration. And he maintained his popularity, not just during his first term as mayor when he helped to spur a construction boom and trim the city's expenses, but during his second term, when corruption and Barry's own vices (cocaine, crack cocaine, and women) began to take their toll on his administration.
And Barry kept winning elections. After winning a third term as mayor in November of 1986, he told the crowd at his victory celebration, "I may not be perfect, but I am perfect for Washington." Like our current president, Barry recognized that his success wouldn't come with gaining support from "elites," but with getting votes from people who desperately needed to believe in his promises — in his case, D.C.'s black poor.
His third term was mired in scandal. As D.C. was hit hard by the crack epidemic that struck dozens of large American cities in the late 1980s, Barry himself was battling addiction — and the FBI. By the time the video of Barry using crack cocaine with an ex-girlfriend was made public (in the midst of his fourth run for the mayor's office), he had been under investigation by federal authorities for nearly a decade for mismanaging city money and lying to a grand jury about using drugs. After being convicted of a misdemeanor drug possession offense in 1990 and before being sent to prison for six months, Barry tried running for office again, this time for City Council. He lost.
Even with obvious video evidence of his most visible vices as part of his permanent record, Barry would win again. After returning to D.C. from a federal prison in Pennsylvania, he decided to relaunch his political career from Ward 8 — the poorest, blackest area of Washington. He won a City Council seat, and then he ran for mayor again in 1994, and won. Barry’s fourth term as mayor was just as bad as his third, as massive fiscal mismanagement led Congress to basically take back financial control of the city 20 years after giving it to D.C. Barry declined to run for a fifth term, and went back to Ward 8.
By 2010, Barry was a city councilman — again — but had just been censured by the rest of the Council for awarding a city contract to a sometimes-girlfriend who then gave him money from that contract. In 2012, Barry celebrated winning the Ward 8 City Council primary again by saying, "We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go. I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.” And yet in much of the city, Barry remained a hero. To many outside of D.C. — and, hell, to much of D.C. itself — his continued political popularity was a complete and total mystery.
Harry Jaffe, a D.C.-based journalist and co-author of Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., told MTV News that Barry's popularity came from his charm — and, critically, from what he was actually able to get done. "Donald Trump said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still get elected president," Jaffe said, "and Marion Barry could get caught snorting cocaine off of a painting that he pulled off the wall of the National Gallery in full view of the police and his constituents and he still, in their eyes, would be unassailable."
The big difference between the two, Jaffe pointed out, “is that Marion Barry produced for the people who adhered to him." In the 1960s, when black D.C. was either ignored or stigmatized, Barry launched a jobs program and put thousands of people to work. In his first term as mayor, Barry delivered jobs and contracts to black voters and made D.C. government accessible to black D.C. residents who had been shut out of leadership for more than a century. And even during his later terms in office, when he was in the depths of addiction and largely ignoring his responsibilities to the city that had come to trust him, black D.C. never lost hope in Barry — because he had repeatedly voiced his hope in them.
Our new president, on the other hand, has yet to deliver on his promises to the people who are depending on him. The D.C. that Barry represented doesn't look very much like the D.C. Trump has settled into. Gentrification and a fast-growing population — nearly a thousand people move to D.C. every week — have made the same streets through which Barry drove food trucks in 1968 into some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Entire neighborhoods that once bore the scars of the 1968 riots have been resuscitated and filled with wine bars, condos, and dog parks. D.C's growth even led to one Iowa congressman tweeting that the city "needs a recession."
But Trump's constituents, so far, feel about Trump much the same way Barry's did when the former "mayor for life" was still shaking hands on Florida Avenue. They believe Trump's claims and they trust his advice because no one else, they feel, is listening. And yet unlike Marion Barry, Trump has no story of hardscrabble success, no jobs program, no story of protesting for civil rights outside of the White House. And he has no plan for the people desperate for help. At least Barry's fall from grace took a rise to the top to begin.
This post has been updated to make a correction regarding the original urban design of Washington, D.C.