The Made-for-TV President

Where would Donald Trump be without fake media like The Apprentice?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 10, 2017 ◈ Politics

A FEW YEARS AGO I spent a week at Sunset Bronson Studios, in Hollywood, home of Let’s Make A Deal and The Biggest Loser and the first-ever “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Opposite the third-floor offices of Judge Judy a fellow named Clint Arthur runs his business, Celebrity Launchpad. Arthur’s Sunset Bronson students learn pitching to small-market morning television producers and the art of hustling their way to New York and Los Angeles, where celebrities are born. His tagline is “Make a difference & a fortune sharing your message on local TV.” Celebrity after all translates nicely into influence and money, regardless of the means by which it’s attained.

celebrity apprenticeDonald Trump plays a successful human being on a TV game show

You can easily grasp why the President of the United States makes me think of Celebrity Launchpad. The Arthur method bares a truth of our era, that performance is everything. In the 1980s Donald Trump worked the New York tabloid and chat-show circuit as a Lothario figure, and in the 1990s his revised performance, as a builder and politician, went national. The celebrity breakthrough arrived in 2003 when Trump was offered the starring role in a reality television program. Here is what Kelly McEvers had to say of this, in an October 5 NPR interview titled “The Apprentice Creators Look Back.”

At the time of The Apprentice, Donald Trump’s companies had already been through four bankruptcies, and there were two more to come, including the Taj Mahal. Airbrushing all this out is what [producer] Bill Pruitt says he feels most guilty about now. He says he was a good con artist, and his con helped take Donald Trump all the way to the White House.

There you have it: the performance is everything. Mark Twain once remarked that a man with an established reputation for rising early could safely sleep until noon, and the same appears true of a man with an airbrushed reputation for business success. Over and over again The Donald failed—at marriage, at dealmaking, at ingratiating himself with the members of a social class whose acceptance he craved, and at business. When the new millennium arrived he was persona non grata among New York’s elite and a notorious credit risk no American bank would touch. No one who had followed his antics since the early 80s could take him seriously, whether as a businessman or a politician. But that was in real life, and television is something altogether different.

Donald Trump kept at it when there was nothing in the bank and nothing in the tank except hype. The columnist Christopher Hitchens was asked in January 2000 what he thought of the rumoured Trump candidacy and dismissed it with the comment, “he’s managed to cover ninety percent of his head with thirty percent of his hair.” Such was the state of affairs when Mark Burnett committed the considerable resources of his major-network prime-time game show to a rescue and rehab operation. We’ll never know what would have become of Mr. Trump in the absence of this deus ex machina, but we know what did happen. An entire generation who knew about Trump only what The Apprentice chose to tell them swallowed Burnett’s fiction whole. Trump used the show to perfect a business model he’s since carried into the White House, surrounding himself with toadies whose sole job is to flatter the boss, shilling Trump-licensed products, giving his children jobs as “advisors,” and spending NBC’s money at Trump properties.

Don’t ever forget that Donald Trump hadn’t built anything for years when The Apprentice made him the world’s most famous builder. In the 1990s he became a RINO (Real estate In Name Only) by licensing the word TRUMP to the developers who did the negotiating, land acquisition, financing, contracting, and project management. A large chunk of The Apprentice was fabricated, from the sets to the pretense that Trump was judging the contestants to decide who would be fired. (In fact the producers chose who would leave and who would stay, using criteria that had everything to do with show business and little to do with Trump’s in any case dubious business acumen.) But it wasn’t all fake. The show’s star was, as the theme song goes, a lover of money, and as we’ve seen since January 20 of this year he likes to fire the people around him. The Apprentice did well—very well—because the future President has a knack for drawing attention to himself, which is the alpha and omega of a celebrity job description.

The President has spent his life working three of the principal routes to fame: New York talk shows, Los Angeles film and TV, and DC politics. (He’s hinted at a fourth with his comment about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue.) Today he’s the most famous and most-talked-about human being on our planet. When he tweets the world moves. Every day the newspapers turn his cast-away and often incoherent utterances into news. The stock market rises and falls on speculation over the thoughts in his head. He may soon say something that starts a war. Hundreds of thousands of lives perch upon his volatile mercies. And this, all of this, because he understands that in America you prevail as long as you perform.