Whoever ends up the eventual Republican nominee, this primary campaign has already been won by Donald Trump, because that’s how history will remember it. The human equivalent of a sentient White Castle that fell into a winning lottery ticket and then was handed a bullhorn, Trump has dominated media coverage, receiving 20 to 33 times as much press attention as other candidates. He won two more states last night, lending credence to the possibility he may yet become the official nominee. Yet there is still a bizarre feedback loop when it comes to explaining his enormous popularity. Media outlets criticize themselves for providing outsize coverage. But media heads then point out what good business it is to dedicate so much airtime to him, which leads to further coverage, and further hand-wringing, ad nauseam.
Similarly, one of the political media’s favorite games over the past months has been “Explain Trump,” as though the candidate were some bizarre skin lesion on the body politic. One popular narrative argues that Trump is a case of chickens coming home to roost for the Republican party, where decades of explicit anti-government rhetoric and racially coded language set the stage for someone like Trump to come in and make explicit the ugly ideology that party leadership wanted to keep subtextual. (Even Fox News pundits have made a variant on this argument, although it restricts the blame to Tea Party extremists.) Another explanation is that the size of the Republican primary field created an opening for someone who rebuked the party line, especially one who spoke directly to fears of white working-class American who felt shafted by the capitalist exigencies of globalization, and wanted someone who expressed that anger. Cull the field, the thinking goes, and sensible conservatives will rally around whoever’s left standing.
There is certainly truth to these arguments. But one of the most obvious elements of Donald Trump’s rise to popularity and ubiquity often gets marginalized in these accounts, likely because his hateful rhetoric, easily mocked demeanor, and what John Oliver has noted as Trump’s lack of interest in the truth all lead to a near-universal desire in mainstream media to dismantle the guy. As such, Trump’s decade-plus tenure hosting two iterations of a popular reality show are brought up only to deride him as a mere entertainer. The fact is tossed out as a throwaway insult, a patronizing disavowal of the possibility that he could have anything of value to offer. But the job itself contains the value: Donald Trump is so compelling as a presidential primary candidate because Donald Trump is very good at his job—and his job is making watchable media.
Trump’s time as host of The Apprentice (and The Celebrity Apprentice) is a widely known but little-appreciated aspect of his success. It may be difficult to remember, in this era of literal dick-measuring contests on the debate stage, but Donald Trump was a talented host. Just watch the above introduction from the Apprentice series premiere. In a few short minutes, Trump’s narrative and barrage of imagery position him as someone above the fray, a business talent, an unparalleled reader of people and situations who can solve any problem. The editing and language paint him as the living embodiment of post-Giuliani New York City, a Wall Street-sponsored Utopia of capitalism, where the right name (i.e., a famous one) and attitude (i.e., being an unapologetic asshole) are all that matters in the 21st century.
Back in 2004, even TV critics who didn’t care for the show itself were generally complimentary of Trump’s skills as the manipulative master of ceremonies. EW called him “a surprisingly engaging—and engaged—host,” praising his refusal to remain above the fray of boardroom catfights. (Does that trait sound familiar?) In Time, he was described this way: “Enviable yet accessible, neither shy nor subtle, he was reality TV before reality TV was… His detractors can say that he’s a better self-promoter than businessman, but all those chandeliers and sheets of brass are real and inarguable.” It’s a shining example of how manners-challenged business acumen can trump all else in the eyes of admiring followers, pun intended. Donald is praised in contemporary reviews as a “real star” who comes alive in the episode-ending boardroom showdowns, “charming his candidates one minute, curtly smacking them down the next.”
The show was about exactly what media talking heads seem to have trouble understanding—namely, Donald Trump’s commanding manipulation of narratives. The Apprentice’s real drama was about how Donald Trump creates whatever narrative he wants. Consider the structure: Every week, the show would unfold as a bunch of standard-issue reality TV types vied to succeed at the week’s challenge, be it selling lemonade or managing a Trump casino event. Tempers would flare, personalities would clash, but at the end of it all, the final 10 to 20 minutes was always a journey up to the penthouse boardroom, where Trump awaited, like a blow-dried panopticon, to render a judgment on what actually happened. He would hear the explanations and then craft a story—an explanation of who the winners and losers really were—that retroactively and definitively determined the narrative of events. The end. This was his job for years. He started out very good at it. The ensuing years only improved his acumen.
Donald Trump is still the Svengali host of The Apprentice, but his boardroom is now the Republican primary field. When Trump dresses down “Little Marco” Rubio, it’s reminiscent of his chastisement of Melissa Rivers, whom he scornfully told, “Never volunteer for an execution!” (That’s a line that, in retrospect, actually seems better fitted for Rubio.) Transforming Chris Christie into a low-energy supporter evokes memories of the similarly outspoken Joan Rivers ending her combative winning season with smiles and praise for the mogul, and returning for subsequent appearances to lend her support. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, though he doesn’t explicitly make this connection, nails Trump’s abilities as a manipulator of reality TV, a genre of which cable news is just a slightly more reputable example. Trump, he writes in a recent cover story, gets that “the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience.” And this show runs on media savvy.
Last night reaffirmed the fact that Trump’s appeal doesn’t rest on “likability,” that hard-to-define and elusive go-to metric on which pundits so often base their claims about a candidate’s appeal. But his supporters don’t give a shit whether he’s a nice guy. They like exactly the opposite: He’s not likable, and he doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter if he’s telling the truth. He’s telling a story, one about being a winner, and when you don’t care about the truth, everything you say is honest. Ted Cruz is still sadly and awkwardly nipping at his heels—last night’s win in Idaho means Cruz will continue to bray about his electability, despite literally no one who knows him actually liking him—but it’s looking more and more like Cruz, and every other contender for the nomination, is getting fired.