Donald Trump, performance artist: Is he really "a very nice fella" when the microphones are off?

How else do we reconcile these reports from "Apprentice" producers?

Published August 28, 2015 8:23PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mary Schwalm)
(AP/Mary Schwalm)

So many things about Donald Trump – his broad popularity on the right, the odd persistence of his support, the three-times-married man’s appeal to evangelical Christians, his ability to sleep at night after being nasty to people, his unconventional hairstyle – are enigmatic.

But what we think we know about Trump has to do with his temperament: His arrogance and narcissism and bullying insensitivity are, by now, well-established. These qualities are the ones that come up repeatedly when he makes a public appearance, whether offering a speech, speaking in a debate, or brusquely firing someone on television.

Whether allegedly saying that “Laziness is a trait in blacks,” insulting the physical appearance of women he doesn’t like (“Rosie O'Donnell is disgusting — both inside and out”), or denouncing Latino immigrants as rapists and criminals, his attitude toward people who are not fellow rich white men seems pretty well established.

But a new story about Trump suggests another possibility. What if Trump is not really the surly piece of work he appears to be, but a particularly gifted performance artist?

That’s just about the only way to make sense of a Deadline Hollywood story in which reporter David Robb contacted dozens of producers who worked with Trump on “The Apprentice.”

It contrasts not only with what we think we know about Trump, but with a Boston Globe story about Trump’s time at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. (That story -- which describes Trump telling a Wharton professor, “I’m going to be the king of New York real estate” and mentions how he punched a second-grade music teacher for insufficient musical knowledge – gives us a portrait-of-a-bully-as-young-man.)

But the Deadline story, on how the adult Trump behaves when the cameras aren’t rolling, suggests that the truculent rants and macho aggression may be for show – or some kind of Laurie Anderson/ Marina Abramovic conceptual project.

Given how unpleasant Trump is on "The Apprentice," and how consistently he seems to insult people when he gets behind a microphone, it’s startling to hear a producer (whose politics differ from Trump’s) toss this out:

“I can’t say anything bad about the guy because he was always nice to me,” he said. “To be honest, he really was nice. On TV, he looks like a posh, fancy guy, but when the cameras are off, he’s a regular guy. He is like an everyman… He is a nice, calm guy. I never saw him get angry, and he’s respectful to women, across the board.”

And producer Matthew Bartley says that, “What you see is what you get. He’s a very nice fella. He was always kind and generous to me. I don’t have a bad word to say about the man.”

Of course, those who work for powerful people tend not to talk openly about their bosses in the press, and maybe that’s what happening here. But it may be that the belligerent Donald is actually a cool, easy-going guy who has been role-playing in public all these years? Perhaps he is interested in the instability of identity and the way public and private personae inevitably conflict with each other? And speaking of, has anyone seen Donald Trump in the same room with James Franco?

The one aspect of Trump’s personality that seems to be consistent is his loose command of facts.

“He used to make up facts and figures about the show, based on nothing, just coming out of his ass,” the producer laughed. “If we were fifth in the ratings, we were the No. 1 show in the history of shows. He would cater his stories to his agenda. If he wanted people to think it was the No. 1 hit show, he would say it was whether it was true or not.”

Now we’re starting to see the Donald we know and love!

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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2016 Presidential Election Donald Trump Gop Reality Television Republican The Apprentice Tv