When Donald Trump was just starting out as a candidate for the presidency, he used to confuse ratings and polls.
It was a meaningless eccentricity from a showbiz candidate going nowhere, a sign of the unreality of his campaign and of his own strange place in American culture.
Now, it’s clear how badly a cosmopolitan media that may not have watched The Apprentice missed Trump’s continuous appeal. The sneers of New York tycoons who considered Trump a fraud, and of their media friends, couldn’t drown out the volume of the television, of The Apprentice and later The Celebrity Apprentice.
This isn’t an accident. Trump’s late publicist Jim Dowd recalled that, as a television actor, Trump, paid particular attention to markets in the midwest and south. "The Donald Trump post-first season of The Apprentice all of a sudden became a very popular figure on Main Street, U.S.A.," Dowd told Frontline. "So it was Wall Street before, and then it became Main Street to the point where we showed up in Denver for an event, and we had to have a separate room just for The Apprentice fans."
Jeff Zucker, Trump's erstwhile benefactor — then of NBC, now leading #FakeNews CNN — bet on The Apprentice in the waning days of the network's upscale, white Must-See-TV Thursday lineup, which included Friends and Will & Grace. But Trump, who Dowd said once served him and Apprentice creator Mark Burnett Oscar Mayer bologna so they could toast to a successful day of publicity with the sandwich meat, proved to have an unexpected appeal.
Trump wasn’t quite as bad a businessman as his detractors like to think — their calculations of this return-on-investment typically leave out the staggering sums he dropped on his lifestyle. But he was a truly great publicist, and, it turned out, stellar television actor.
Now Trump is failing as a president by every measure — popularity, global influence, a basic grasp on the levers of power. Perhaps most fatally, his incoherence has prevented him from projecting power through the federal government. He has been essentially irrelevant to the Republican health care agenda, except to draw out the process when Congress might have otherwise put the issue aside after the first disastrous attempt in the spring.
But the same instincts that have scuppered his presidency made for unbelievable, tremendous television.
"I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a frisson of anticipation when logging into Twitter early in the morning, knowing that the president of the United States could be tweeting about literally anything, no matter how strange or self-sabotaging,” the Trump critic and conservative writer who goes by the name Allahpundit wrote recently. "Is he going to start riffing on Obama’s birth certificate again? Might he be ready to flame Rosie O’Donnell?...Increasingly, The Trump Show isn’t a distraction from the Trump presidency. It is the Trump presidency.”
The ratings for the Trump show bear this theory out. They are, in a word, terrific: Fox News is still No. 1, even in its post-Bill O'Reilly incarnation; CNN, Zucker's kingdom, and Trump's stated enemy, keeps hitting quarterly highs in ratings; and MSNBC has directly benefited from Fox News' implosion, coinciding with Rachel Maddow's rise as the #resist hero. (Here’s a litany of other beneficiaries.) The television executives who felt qualms about syndicating the unfiltered Trump show through the Republican primaries are now cleansing their consciences with episode after episode of The Americans, produced for free by the American government.
This is classic reality television, down to its defining conventions. Perhaps the most memorable trope of reality TV — popularized in the United States by Trump’s old Pygmalion, Burnett — is the confessional interview. Those are the moments when a cast member directly addresses the camera, to tell us how they really feel. This is what happens on a Bachelorette date, when Rachel turns to the audience to say she needs Peter to assure her that he'll be ready for marriage at the end of this, or when one of the Real Housewives is filmed in formal dress in an ornate room and snipes about the lies of her castmates.
That moment-by-moment insight into the inner lives of the cast of Survivor: White House doesn’t always include those on-camera revelations, though Trump’s public disappointment with Jeff Sessions — in interviews, on TV, at the White House and always with tension or even a tease about what could happen — fits the genre perfectly.
More often, the confessionals come through leaks from the supporting characters: We know about Steve Bannon’s enmity for Jared Kushner, and his complex and shifting relationship with Reince Priebus. We know about Sean Spicer’s frustration, Rex Tillerson’s pique. Everyone is mad at Don Jr.! It’s an emotional mess.
And that twisting, ever fluid dynamic extends to each breaking news development. The country has been rapidly conditioned to wait for the drama of the emotional reaction — the kind of torqued up authenticity on which reality TV thrives.
The White House reality show goes off the rails when it shifts into more scripted moments. In June, cabinet members heaped stilted praise on Trump for the cameras, and the audience winced.
"To me, that cabinet meeting, that was scripted,” one Emmy-nominated reality producer told BuzzFeed News. “It felt unreal, it felt fake, it felt inauthentic, it felt produced."
The ratings though — the ratings are terrific. Better, in fact, than on The Apprentice as it aged. Jim Dowd, whose job as a publicist required he tell Trump about the show's diminished numbers, found himself unable to do it: "There’s about 10 people who cover ratings in terms of the publications that matter most," Dowd said. "And he would want to make sure I called all those 10 people and told them, 'No. 1 show on television, won its time slot,' and I’m looking at the numbers and at that point, say Season 5, for example, we were No. 72. I can’t tell that to him. I can’t say that. Maybe I should have, maybe I should have gotten Jeff Zucker involved, but he became kind of a monster when it came to these ratings."
Here, however, it’s hard to turn away.
And the recent rise of Anthony Scaramucci marks a kind of recognition that this is a show. Scaramucci is a television figure, a money manager known best for a conference he organized, and who played the role of hedge fund titan as Trump played real estate baron. A former talk show host who seemed to be working toward a CNBC show, he was hired for his cocksure grace in front of the camera.
Scaramucci recently suggested he’ll be adding an over-the-top morning show (as we say in the biz! BuzzFeed News recently announced one!) to the lineup. There could be “a desk on the White House lawn.” But that’s a crowded space. And the biggest TV show in history is already happening.
The rise of Trump has so many roots. Pundits routinely understate, though, the centrality of his television celebrity. And they miss its continuing power: Trump may not, yet, have figured out how to be president — but he has monopolized our attention, dominated the narrative and the story, and it would be mistake to dismiss that power. A president doesn’t have to accomplish traditional things (policy, programs, reforms) to change the culture. What if once we start viewing major American institutions as players in the Trump Show, we can’t stop?
He’s failing at what used to be thought of as the presidency, but succeeding at reality television like no one ever has before. The question is whether there’s still a difference.