Trump is using the tricks of reality TV against a virus — and it's not going well

Trump is using the tricks of reality TV against a virus — and it's not going well
President Donald J. Trump gives a thumbs-up as he walks to board Marine One after speaking to reporters outside the South Portico of the White House Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, to begin his trip to Austin, Texas. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

It's hardly new or revelatory to say this, but it's critical to remember the role that "The Apprentice" played in turning Donald Trump, a notoriously bad businessman with a string of bankruptcies, into an American icon of capitalist success. Everything from careful editing to set designers giving the dreary Trump Organization offices a glow-up came together to create the illusion of success where only failure and mediocrity had been before.


It was an experience so profound for Trump that he did something highly unusual: He learned something. He absorbed the idea that a well-constructed illusion of competence gets you all the benefits of being accomplished, without having to do the hard work of actually achieving anything.

Unfortunately, it was a lesson we are all paying the price for now.

On Thursday evening, the New York Times published an exposé about how the Trump White House forced the CDC to publish dangerously misleading coronavirus testing recommendations on its website.

The new "guidance said it was not necessary to test people without symptoms of Covid-19 even if they had been exposed to the virus," Apoorva Mandavilli writes, noting that actual public health experts at the agency strenuously objected because the virus is often spread by asymptomatic people and vigorous testing is crucial to preventing that.

It's not hard to see that Trump's reality TV instincts fueled this effort to discourage coronavirus testing. Trump has made clear from the beginning of this pandemic that he would prefer to leave as many coronavirus cases on the editing-room floor as possible, and he thinks the best way to do that is to keep people from getting tested. Trump truly believes that the best way to get coronavirus numbers down is not by preventing people from getting infected in the first place, but by hiding the true number of cases and juking the stats.

Even during this week's town hall hosted by ABC News, Trump asserted this belief, claiming that the only reason the U.S. has more 20% of the world's coronavirus cases (despite having only 4.5% of the world's population) is that "we do much more testing."

Of course, the U.S. also has more than 20% of the world's deaths, a fact that exposes that Trump's instincts aren't just immoral, but wrong. Those dead Americans tell the real story of what's happening, and no amount of trying to monkey with the numbers is going to change that.

Trump is also playing the reality TV game with the vaccine. He has been dropping hints for weeks, reality TV-style, that there will be a shocking and heartwarming twist right before the election, which he clearly views as the penultimate episode of this "season," in which he will dramatically unveil the vaccine that will save us all and also ensure his re-election. He's even used CDC resources to prop up this insinuation that the big vaccine reveal is coming, right in the nick of time.

"You could have a very big surprise coming up," Trump said in a press conference last week.

"We're going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I'm talking about," he added. Gee, I have no idea. What date could he possibly mean?

It's doubtful that Trump cares, one way or another, that he's making empty promises. In reality TV, it's normal to hype some big revelation to lure in viewers for the next episode, only to produce some anticlimactic nothing-burger. All that matters is sucking people in, not delivering them what was promised.

Trump's playing the same game here. He doesn't care that there won't be anything close to a readily available vaccine this year. He just wants to hype that idea long enough to somehow scrape out an election victory, legitimate or otherwise, at which point he'll not only abandon the idea entirely, but most likely interfere with the process of getting one safely on the market.

But of course, trying to deceive people about their own health and lives isn't just reality TV sleaze. It's a deeply immoral gambit that appears to have given the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, a minor crisis of conscience. At least Redfield he wasn't willing to lie to Congress flat out, and told the obvious truth that even if a vaccine is approved this year, it probably won't be widely available until the middle of 2021. He also encouraged mask-wearing, even though Trump seems to think every mask applied to a face is an eff-you personally directed at him.

Trump, as usual, reacted poorly to someone trying to pierce his poorly constructed illusion of competent leadership. He responded by claiming that Redfield had "made a mistake" and offered "incorrect information."

This is just another example of Trump treating the leaders of important government institutions not as if they were public servants, but as if they were TV producers whose main job is to clean up Trump's image, cover for his ignorant mistakes and odious statements, and present him to the public as the brilliant statesman he absolutely is not.

Much has been written about the hard work that it took for the team on "The Apprentice" to conceal Trump's repugnant personality and mediocrity as a businessman.

"What we did, that was a scam," Bill Pruitt, a former producer on "The Apprentice," said in the Netflix documentary "The Confidence Man," which explored how the people behind that show used TV magic to make Trump seem smart and accomplished.

"If you walked around Trump's actual office in Trump Tower you'd see the wood's chipped, and what's that smell?" Pruitt added, noting, "It wasn't the empire we were going to have to sell to people. We needed to gussy it up a bit. And we did."

"Most of us knew he was a fake," Jonathan Braun, another producer, told The New Yorker. "But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king."

In a 2017 essay about "The Apprentice," New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum wrote that "the Trump of 'The Apprentice' receives endless praise, even behind his back. All scandal and debt are erased; Trump's combative streak is alchemized into Daddy's tough love."

For Trump, being a fake success is better than being a real success. For one thing, it's less work. For another, it feels like cheating the system, and Trump loves to believe he's doing that. So even with the death toll from the pandemic closing in on 200,000 Americans, Trump still clings to this notion that he doesn't need to actually do anything about it. He just wants someone to come in and edit reality to make it look like he's doing something.

While it was undeniably hard work for the team at "The Apprentice" to present this false image of Trump-the-competent-businessman, they at least had the benefit of being able to contain the illusion within the rectangular frame of the TV screen.

The real world, it turns out, is too big to be captured and controlled in an editing bay. Trump's increasingly futile efforts to make the pandemic disappear through reality-TV antics keep running up into the biological realities of people who get sicker and sicker, wind up in hospital ICUs and then on respirators, and then die. Trump can't hide that his management of this crisis has been a total failure, and on some lizard brain level, he seems to understand that he's unpopular. That's why his next big gambit is to try to replace the real election, which he would almost certainly lose, with a fake one where he's declared the winner.

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