Yes, some of what makes Trump good at this sort of thing is that he’s got ample business experience. But even more than that, he’s got ample reality TV experience, and he learned from Burnett, who learned from Hatch, that someone who seemed a little imperious, aloof, and utterly unconcerned with what others were doing around him could make for riveting television.
NBC actually promoted The Apprentice in this way for years. You won’t believe what Trump does next! But despite his frequently strange decisions, he rarely was ridden down as out of touch. Part of that is the simple suspicion most of us have that reality TV is heavily controlled by the producers (and thus Trump was as well). But just as much is due to the fact that Trump held court in the boardroom in a way that made everything he did, no matter how out there, seem like a perfectly logical decision.
Indeed, watch this famous firing of (as the YouTube description says) not one, not two, not three, but four people, and you’ll see glimpses of the Trump who took the debate by storm.
Reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV
We have a tendency to write off reality TV in America as lowest-common-denominator entertainment, because a lot of it is. But the specific storytelling forms and cinematic tricks of reality have more or less become central parts of our current cultural vernacular. Is it any wonder they’ve entered politics as well?
When people talk about Trump as a reality TV personality, then, they’re trying to ride him down, to suggest he’s unserious or simply there for entertainment value. And all of that may well be true.
But this ignores that reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV. And, more specifically, the skills he learned on reality TV make him better equipped to handle tough challenges and big pushback than other candidates who’ve gotten in similar hot water. The usual way to deal with something like what Kelly accuses Trump of is quick contrition, followed by a pivot to a talking point or two.
But Trump is, as Ezra Klein has noted, without shame, because he’s a reality TV character who’s escaped into a presidential race. He avoids the contrition and jumps straight to whatever he wants to talk about. It’s the debate equivalent of the reality TV confessional, where the contestant tells us what he’s really thinking.
That’s what makes him more dangerous than many political observers will allow. As we saw with Richard Hatch, unflappability plays beautifully on television, and it makes for wildly entertaining viewing. The contents of Trump’s message are loathsome to many, including many Republicans, but the package Trump is selling them in is market-tested and ready to ship. Compared with many of his competitors, especially, Trump seems to be playing at a whole other level when it comes to live television.
The smart money is still on Trump eventually self-combusting, crumbling under the weight of his own hubris. But, then, the smart money in that first season of Survivor was on the fellow members of Richard’s alliance realizing he didn’t have their best interests at heart and tossing him overboard — and that simply never happened.
On television, never look for the person who’s playing the game best. Look for the person who’s realized the rules are only a suggestion. That’s the person the audience wants to watch — and that’s the person who just might win.