Why Trump TV would be a huge failure
by Paul Waldman, The Week
August 23, 2016
Fifty-five years ago in his book The Image, historian Daniel Boorstin described the rise of what he called “pseudo-events,” occurrences which had little or no underlying reality, but had been arranged “for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced.” We’ve become so saturated in pseudo-events that we no longer question what they represent; indeed, much of our politics is a procession of events staged solely so they can be passed on in the media, from the press conference to the congressional hearing to the candidate’s anything-but-spontaneous visit to a diner or a shop floor. If no cameras were there to record them, everyone would stand around awkwardly for a few minutes and then depart.
Politics-as-pseudo-event has reached its apotheosis in the presidential run of Donald Trump, a man who managed to win the Republican nomination for president without anything resembling an actual campaign. Utilizing little more than rallies and endless interviews on Fox News, Trump berated and belittled over a dozen opponents into submission without bothering to create more than a skeletal campaign infrastructure, for which he is now suffering as he struggles through the general election. So perhaps it’s not surprising that as his campaign spirals downward, Trump is thinking about launching some kind of media network after the election is over. Much as he does when saddled with a wife inconsiderate enough to turn 40, Trump may be looking elsewhere for a more enticing option.
Two months ago, Sarah Ellison reported in Vanity Fair that Trump “has become irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself,” and was considering whether he might be able to create a cable channel of his own. Now look at who Trump has brought to his side. Stephen Bannon, the chief of Breitbart News, last week became CEO of the Trump campaign despite having no experience in campaigns. Trump is also being advised by Roger Ailes, recently deposed as head of Fox News after dozens of women came forward to charge him with sexual harassment. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter said, Trump “might be thinking about a media enterprise, and if he is, Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon are the men you want in your corner.”
On the surface, it might make sense. Now that Trump has all these angry followers, would he actually just walk away without trying to turn them into dollars? And since Trump’s entire presidential campaign has been more of a media occurrence than something with actual substance, why not just transition it into Trump TV?
But there are some problems with that idea. Naturally, Trump would never participate in a media enterprise if it didn’t have his name splashed across every second of broadcast time or every web page. And I’m sure he thinks that if he did it, it would be a huge hit, just spectacular, believe me. But would it? What exactly would Trump TV look like? Just another Fox News? Or some combination of nativist politics and tours of Trump properties? It could get boring pretty darn fast.
Trump succeeded in the Republican primaries in no small part because he was an entertainer competing with politicians. But on television, he’d be an entertainer competing with other entertainers. In that context, he wouldn’t seem quite so unusual and compelling. Trump may have been a reality-show star, but it was on a show somebody else created—and it didn’t do as well as he’d like you to think. The Apprentice got good ratings for a few seasons, but it declined rapidly; as one media reporter described it, “When, after its sixth season in 2007, it finished as the 75th-most-watched show (with 7.5 million viewers on average), NBC decided to scrap real people as contestants and bring on celebrities close enough to rock bottom to appear on a reality show where success depended on ingratiating themselves to Trump. The celebrity show did better, but it has been middle of the pack all the way, with finishes ranking from 46th to 84th before Trump announced his candidacy and NBC replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger.” You may be saying, “Wait, doesn’t Trump always say The Apprentice was the number one show on television?” Yes, he does and yes, he’s lying.
But even worse than Trump’s finite skills as an on-air performer is the fact that the Trump brand has been irretrievably poisoned by his presidential campaign. Trump spent decades working to make his name synonymous with luxury, quality, and success (which just happens to be the name of his cologne: Success by Trump), but what it actually came to represent was a particularly garish form of conspicuous consumption. If you have a private plane, plaster your name in 10-foot letters across it. Marry a procession of successively younger wives. Literally cover every surface of your apartment in gold, as though a Russian mobster was your decorator.
It was laughable in its vulgarity, but it still had an aspirational appeal for lots of people, particularly those held back by their own limited finances (not coincidentally, the same people Trump treated as marks for his Trump University and Trump Institute scams). That’s what I’d do if I had a billion dollars, they’d tell themselves. I’d shove my wealth in the face of anyone who had ever wronged or demeaned or ignored me, and then they’d know I was better than them.
But that’s no longer what the Trump name represents. His biggest venture has become his biggest failure, and in the process it exposed all his other failures. Before he ran for president, few people had heard of Trump University or Trump Steaks or Trump Vodka, and few understood just how noxious Trump’s beliefs are. But now they all do. When this is over, booking a room in a Trump hotel or buying a Trump tie—or tuning in to Trump TV—won’t mean you’re getting a taste of high living. It’ll mean you’re associating yourself with a bigot, an ignoramus, a revanchist, a buffoon with crazy ideas and infinite vanity.
And most of all, once the campaign is over, Trump will forever be the one thing he worked his whole life not to be: a loser. Who wants to watch that in prime time every night?
Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.
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