In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the United States is once again seeing that electing a narcissistic, racist, reality tv star as President was not ideal. Every day of this crisis a new story comes out showing how unprepared the administration was for this pandemic even though they had ample warning this was coming and was going to be devastating. In addition to the fact the administration was unprepared for the pandemic their decision making now in the midst of it has also been terrible. This New York Times story describes the chaotic policy response processes currently going on in the White House:
Senior aides battling one another for turf, and advisers protecting their own standing. A president who is racked by indecision and quick to blame others and who views events through the lens of how the news media covers them. A pervasive distrust of career government professionals, and disregard for their recommendations. And a powerful son-in-law whom aides fear crossing, but who is among the few people the president trusts.
What struck me while reading it was that, first it was not a surprise because Trump is a terrible executive but second how much it reminded me of scenes from Trump’s reality shows The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice as described in James Poniewozik’s great new book Audience of One: Donald Trump and the Fracturing of America. In the book, Poniewozik, who is a TV critic for the New York Times, describes every episode of The Apprentice/Celebrity Apprentice as adhering to a standard script which he likens to a Catholic Mass with opening hymns – the shows introduction, the introductory rites – the contestants all waiting for Trump to call them on a golden phone, the presentation of the host – shots of Trump doing “business”, the weekly text – the two teams of contestants getting their task for the show, the homily – Trump giving some generic advice, the offering of gifts – the winning team getting to dine with Trump or visit Mar-a-Lago, the confession of sins – where the losing team retreats to the boardroom where Trump announces “someone will be fired”, the prayers for forgiveness – where members of the losing team attack each other and suck up to Trump, and finally the concluding rite – where Trump utters his famous catch phrase “you’re fired.” It is completely on brand that Trump in real life is afraid of direct confrontation and therefore rarely fires people in person. However, on his TV show that is the iconic scene the one people who never watched the show (myself included) know about. It’s the scenes Poniewozik describes as the confession of sins and the prayers for forgiveness that strike me as indicative of how Trump is running his administration. Poniewozik further describes the prayer for forgiveness scene as:
It’s a reverse communion, designed to sunder the congregations rather than bring it together. Players assign blame and plead innocence. They cajole, they attack. Above all, they suck up, reminding Trump that they’ve studied his biography and worldview.
The above could describe The Apprentice or an Oval Office meeting. Participants back stabbing one another, protecting their turf, and above all offering effusive praise for Dear Leader.
It’s not novel or unique to say Trump was shaped by, and help shape, television but what Poniewozik does so well in the book is show how step by step the television character “Donald Trump” and television evolved together over the past few decades. It’s the television character “Donald Trump” that occupies the White House and as Poniewozik shows he probably would not have gotten there had not the structural changes in television occurred. The big change was obviously cable TV. According to Poniewozik network TV originally produced what he calls LOP – Least Objectionable Programing. This was programing meant to attract the attention of a broad swath of the American public and therefore could not be alienating or controversial think – Leave it to Beaver or My Three Sons. Cable TV, of course, began fragmenting the TV audience and therefore to attract and audience cable created MOP – Most Objectionable Programing. If the American TV audience was now too fragmented to capture a large swath then an objectionable program would admittedly capture a smaller audience but it would be a more niche and passionate audience as well. This according to Poniewozik also describes the evolution of the TV character “Donald Trump.” Poniewozik puts a lot of stock in Trumps first sit down interview with Tom Brokaw on the Today Show in 1980. He describes this Trump as:
assured, subdued, unctuous, doesn’t cut a memorable figure yet, beyond his mane of hair . . .He sounds like Donald Trump as we would late know him, yet not at all. His manner of speaking is mild. His sentences are diagrammable. There are some familiar locutions – ‘very badly hurt and killed,’ ‘people like what we are doing’ [describing his real estate business] – but not the punching cadence, the pugnaciousness, the anger.
This the the Trump for the LOP era. With the rise of cable and of course Fox News the character Donald Trump became the MOP.
Bringing this back to the present viewing President Donald Trump as just the next evolution in the TV character “Donald Trump” helps us understand his actions. This version of “Donald Trump” is the character honed on the MOP programing of reality tv and the Fox News program Fox and Friends where he had his own Monday’s with Trump segment right up until he announced his bid for the Presidency in 2015. Add in the pugnaciousness and instant feedback and gratification from Twitter and you have the current version of “Donald Trump” that we see on TV now – abusive, arrogant, ignorant and racist – all pretty objectionable qualities but also qualities one has a hard time looking away from. the character of “Donald Trump” is a car crash we can’t look away from. What I most enjoyed about Poniewozik’s book and what I will take away from is understanding the Trump we see as a TV character. He might have made for good reality TV at one point (although as Poniewozik tells use the ratings for The Apprentice declined every year from the first season), and he certainly appealed to the niche, but unfortunately very powerful, audience of Fox News, but as the rest of America warned about prior to his election and now we are seeing played out in real time during an honest to God crisis having a reality tv character as President is horrifying