A Theory Of Donald Trump

Is he trying out for the Oval Office-or just "The Office"?

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As a longtime viewer of The Apprentice, I've puzzled lately over Donald Trump. His apparent bid for high office didn't surprise me. He's always been a publicity hound, and there is no more visible contest for self-aggrandizing rich men than American presidential elections. But he seems different from the guy we see on NBC each week, lording his authority over B and C-list celebrities. On his show, Trump is certainly gruff and arrogant, but he is also a man who wins our grudging respect. Given celebrity casts that include a lot of absurd characters and a few capable ones, he winnows them down as we might, and for this we're grateful - it doesn't always happen that way in real life, so we forgive his bad sense of humor and occasional bullying. One can do a lot worse than a boss with absurd hair whose gut decisions are basically sound.

But Donald Trump the apparent presidential candidate? His behavior makes no sense. Through The Apprentice, he built a personal brand any outsider politician would envy: decisive, averse to bullshit, impossible to swindle, and guided in all decisions by brash, plainspoken common sense. What single position could undermine every aspect of that brand? An embrace of the Birther movement. Trump of all people could've generated publicity in a dozen different ways. The Birther obsession likely hurts his electoral chances even in a GOP primary. And a backlash could even harm his business interests.

So what gives?

Is Trump a less intelligent man, or a less savvy strategist, than I imagined? Perhaps that's so. But I always prefer to hold out hope for the most charitable explanation imaginable. In that spirit, perhaps what we're witnessing isn't a bungled run at the presidency so much as the most ingenious long-shot campaign ever undertaken - one waged by a man who has begun to see himself as America's boss. Forget the White House. What if Trump plans in 2012 to take over The Office?

Despite the unprecedented rapidity with which he's turned himself into a national joke, he's a long-shot for the gig. Steve Carell is a comic genius - and as he departs the series, Will Ferrel is being brought on by the show's producers as a temporary replacement. On the other hand, Trump is already on NBC in prime time, he is demonstrably capable of playing a self-aggrandizing if ultimately likable buffoon, and once "That's what she said" departs with Michael Scott, the most recognizable tag line on the network will be his. If what we're seeing is a very public and unorthodox audition for the lead role on the hit series, it is at once one of the most audacious career moves and inspired pieces of performance art ever undertaken. And returning to certain Trump interviews with this theory in mind makes them so much less inexplicable!

Take his appearance on the Rush Limbaugh radio program:

TRUMP: I notice that the White House they give a lot of the balls for people, and some should have balls! I mean, if you look at Britain, if you look at certain places, they've come through and they've been good allies, and we should have balls for them. As you know, 'cause you're in Palm Beach, I have the greatest ballroom probably in the world.  I built it five years ago, and it's one of the great ballrooms of the world.  It's at the Mar-a-Lago Club.  And I see that the White House -- the White House, Washington, DC -- when a dignitary comes in from India, from anywhere, they open up a tent. They have a tent. A tent!

RUSH:  Yeah, I've noticed that.

TRUMP: An old, rotten tent that frankly they probably rented, pay a guy millions of dollars for it even though it's worth about $2, okay? So they have a tent for a dignitary that comes in.  So recently, a couple of months ago, I called up the White House.  I said, "Listen, I'm really good at this stuff.  I will build you a magnificent ballroom. We'll go through committees. You know, you have all sorts of things with committees. We'll go through committees; we'll pick the one they like. We'll pick the architect everybody likes. We'll pick something that works. We'll do ten designs. You'll pick the one that's the greatest with the greatest architecture.  I will build it free." So that's anywhere from 50 to hundred million-dollar gift. I will give that, and I mean, I'm talking, Rush -- it's the first time I've said this. I'm talking to the biggest person, one of the biggest people at the White House.  I'm not talking to a low-level person.

RUSH:  Right.

TRUMP:  Well, but they never got back to me, Rush.  When whether I'm a Republican or an independent or a Democrat, they never got back to me.  If I was a Republican they should do it anyway! They should say, "Trump's gonna give us a hundred million dollars? He's gonna build the ballroom? It's gonna be magnificent?" Why wouldn't they get back to me?  That's the problem with this country.

Isn't that magnificent? "That's the problem with this country"! As earnest commentary, it beggars belief. Were Michael Scott to run for president, however, would this not be a plausible plank of his platform? Sure, the writers would make it a bit punchier. But Trump is just showing us he can own the character. Absurd flights of fancy? Check. Fleeting obsessions with grand projects? Check. Offers of help that aggrandize the giver as much as possible? Check. Of course, Trump would in many ways be unlike the boss as played Steve Carell, or Ricky Gervais for that matter.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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