You might recognize this pattern, even if you don’t care about Puerto Rico and the suffering of the more than 3 million Americans there. Trump comes in with razzle-dazzle and self-congratulation, promising great things to come. Then, when the cameras are off, comes the quiet collapse.
The prototype is the Trump Taj Mahal Atlantic City. In April 1990, it opened with much fanfare as the world’s largest casino-hotel complex. Six months later, it defaulted on payments. Nine months after that, it filed for bankruptcy.
Now this happens on a world scale. Trump promises an easy peace in the Middle East but winds up setting off a new wave of violence. He promises a tax cut for the middle class and winds up with a giveaway to corporations and millionaires. He promises to improve upon Obamacare but ravages the program with no replacement.
He’s aware of the storylines, and he reacts to various challenges to his authority as if they’re just weird turns the producers came up with behind the scenes. This should come as no surprise. This is how you win in reality TV, a format Trump is eminently comfortable in.
.. Hatch gleefully styled himself as the contestant you loved to hate and invented reality TV as we know it. The producers were only too happy to follow along.
.. Hatch invented the alliance — the voting bloc that would carry a contestant to the finals. He double-crossed others with impunity. And he generally seemed to get a huge kick out of behaving like a total asshole on TV. Hatch understood, on some intuitive level, that we wanted to see people give in to their own worst, most amoral impulses on our TV sets, and where he went, reality TV followed. Reality TV wasn’t for the nice or pure of heart. It was for the nasty, and in that first season, Hatch alone seemed to grasp this... What’s also notable here is the way Hatch drew to himself a coalition of people who wouldn’t necessarily have kept company with him in other situations, simply because he rarely blinked and seemed like he knew what he was doing in a most unusual situation... Richard was the one guy who seemed like he could see the whole picture, simply because he didn’t let things throw him, and that caused others to gravitate toward him, even as they were fairly certain he would stab them in the back eventually... Watch again, if you can, Trump’s confrontation with Megyn Kelly over his previous misogynistic statements. Try to ignore, if possible, how horrible those statements are. Instead, focus entirely on how Trump carries himself... For starters, Trump doesn’t shrink from Kelly’s challenge. He stays ramrod straight at the podium, and he doesn’t shift or move around. That’s pretty basic stuff, but you’d be surprised how many politicians who are under the gun forget all about it.Now notice how he uses his hands. His gestures are kept close to his body, so they don’t fly out too far from the audience’s attention or distract from the speaker at hand. He’s essentially keeping the center of the screen focused entirely on him, even when the Fox News chyron pushes him into the left half of the screen. This is, again, something politicians know to do (keeping your gestures small and forceful conveys control over your own emotions),
.. But also look at how good Trump is at sliding what he wants to say in between what Kelly is saying. He holds up a single finger, the universal symbol of “My turn.” He waits for just the right pause to jump in. And he doesn’t let Kelly continuing to speak deter him. He knows exactly how to do this, because, in so many ways, Trump is just back on reality television at this moment. If anything, he makes Kelly seem like she’s out of control of the situation, on a night when Kelly’s performance was generally very good. And that’s to say nothing of how quickly he comes up with this little quip to turn the audience to his side.
.. 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... 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?.. 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... 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... 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.