Donald Trump is stuck in a reality TV loop

The former president's only plan for the debate is to recreate high-stakes drama like on "The Apprentice"

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 26, 2024 9:49AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/clu/Salon)
(Getty/Chip Somodevilla/clu/Salon)

One of the more unusual side stories in this presidential campaign cycle is a renewed look at Donald Trump's pre-presidential years as a Reality TV star. It offers some new insights into how he has transformed our politics into a spectacle we couldn't have imagined just a decade ago. The publication of the new book “Apprentice in Wonderland: How Donald Trump and Mark Burnett Took America Through the Looking Glass” by co-editor-in-chief of the Hollywood Reporter, Ramin Setoodeh, offers a unique perspective on Trump's post-White House years. Additionally, a recent article in Slate by a former "Apprentice" producer named Bill Pruitt gives an inside look at the phoniness of reality television and how it perfectly fit Trump's already well-developed phony persona. 

It's amazing that we are still trying to figure out what really makes this strange man tick — but I think that era of his life illuminates one of the most mystifying aspects of his appeal. How is Donald Trump able to convince tens of millions of people to believe him when all the evidence and facts prove otherwise? How does he successfully create an alternate reality for these people and, in the process, change ours as well? 

Trump has always been a braggart and a BS artist. You can watch videos from decades ago and he's boasting and exaggerating about his wealth and success as always. He had books ghostwritten for him extolling his business acumen and he encouraged the tabloids to portray him as a wealthy playboy, the image he cultivated for decades despite being married for most of his adult life. He was a self-promoter desperate to be a celebrity. 

The Trump name was pretty well-known (since he plastered it on everything in sight) and his press game was good enough he achieved a sort of C-list level of fame. But it wasn't until "The Apprentice" that he became a legitimate TV star. Suddenly he had fans all over the country who believed the character they created for the show was the real him. 

Pruitt's story tells just how fake that character really was. We all know by this time that his business success was largely due to the vast inheritance he got from his father and that most of his entrepreneurial attempts were failures. The fame he received from "The Apprentice" offered him the opportunity to create a celebrity brand and all those consumer goods like Trump steaks, ties, water, perfume, etc. It was supposedly a "luxury" brand but products were marketed to his fan base of middle and working-class reality show fans, the same people who became his political base. 

The producers soon found that they wouldn't be able to use Trump's own offices to do the show because they were scruffy and run down. So they created a "board room" in one of the empty spaces in Trump Tower as well as the living quarters for the contestants while they were filming. They covered up all the racism and misogyny and never let that audience know how often he stiffed his contractors or how many of his businesses went belly-up. They created the "business genius" image of Donald Trump and somewhere along the line he learned that he could now lie with impunity because when you're a star they let you do it (among other things.) 

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Sehtoodah's book begins after Trump has left the White House and is reminiscing about his glory days as a TV star. He was down in the dumps and it seemed to perk him up to talk about his knowledge of how show business really works. Trump told him, “It’s all about one thing: ratings. If you have ratings, you can be the meanest, most horrible human being in the world.” (It reminded me of an anecdote from Dr. Anthony Fauci in his book “On Call,” when during the COVID pandemic Trump called Fauci into the Oval Office to brag about the ratings his crazy press conferences were getting.) That's what it's all about —- ratings, poll numbers, Truth Social followers. It's all a measure of his fame and celebrity power. 

According to Sehtoodah, Trump showed signs of short-term memory loss, failing to recall that he'd spent several hours talking to him just a couple of months before and he talked about "dealing with Afghanistan" as if he were still president. Trump also claimed that Joan Rivers told him she voted for him even though she died two years before the election. But what's really interesting is the extent to which reality TV stardom seems to have deeply informed Trump's approach to politics. 

Reality TV is essentially a lie. It maintains the pretense of authentic documentary filming of real life but it is actually a phony, manipulated narrative that tells the story the producers want to tell. (It's like professional wrestling, another Trump obsession.) Trump discovered that his fame and access to media allowed him to literally create a new reality for millions of people through the simple act of manipulating the narrative with lies and repeating it over and over again. I don't know if he even realizes what's real and what's not. At this point, his very survival is on the line. 

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This week we are all on tenterhooks waiting for the presidential debate on Thursday and Trump is doing his usual promotional teases to get those all-important ratings up. He's quite talented at that. Recall that in 2016, he staged a press conference and planted women that Bill Clinton had allegedly had affairs with in the front row of the presidential debate as a stunt to rattle Clinton and get the press buzzing. This year he's demanding President Biden take a drug test to prove he isn't going to be "jacked up" on something. Some of that's just trying to psych out the opponent and playing the expectations game. But really, he's just setting up a scenario for the press and his fan base: Could Joe Biden really be on drugs? Is he senile or is he "jacked up"? Will Trump be "tough and nasty" or will he be calm and disciplined? Stay tuned. 

That's all politics is to Donald Trump — another reality show in which he is the star. It's the only way he can understand it. Unfortunately, his massive fame and power have managed to convince almost half the country that it's an actual reality. The rest of us are desperately clinging to facts and truth, dismayed and unnerved that so many around us are susceptible to such an obvious fraud. If only it really was a TV show that we could just turn off or change the channel. Unfortunately, it's all too real and we can't allow ourselves to look away. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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