The Presidency Is Not the 'Ultimate Reality Show'

A slick, commercially sponsored political convention is made for TV. The Oval Office is not. But Donald Trump adviser Paul Manafort doesn’t get it.

Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP

It was a throwaway line in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews—but one that briefly, if inadvertently, revealed the depth of Donald Trump’s cynicism and the toxic churning of current U.S. political culture.

Matthews was pressing foreign-lobbyist-turned Trump adviser Paul Manafort for details on how his boss planned to energize the Republican National Convention, where the former star of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice is expected to accept the GOP presidential nomination.

MATTHEWS: How? What do you do? Do you have movies?

MANAFORT: We’re going to put a program together. It’s not put together yet—

MATTHEWS: A reality show of some kind?

MANAFORT: This is the ultimate reality show. It’s the presidency of the United States.

It’s one thing to compare the four-day convention to a television show. Sponsored by corporations, scripted by writers, and staged by Hollywood producers, presidential conventions long ago stopped serving a purpose beyond making money and winning (approval) ratings wars.

It’s another to call the presidency a reality show. But that’s what Manafort did.

In his fifth decade of national GOP politics, Manafort could have made the point that celebrity has been a part of American politics since General George Washington converted his fame into the first presidency. Manafort could have said politicians are entertainers and consultants are their promoters, drawing from a history rich in both: the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and Ronald Reagan’s mastery of television stagecraft.

He didn’t. He called the presidency a “reality show.”

It’s not.

Manafort and his boss should look up the definition: “reality show: (n) a television program in which ordinary people are continuously filmed, designed to be entertaining rather than informative.”

The work of the presidency is conducted mostly outside public view. The part in front of cameras is increasingly about entertainment and celebrity, but the job itself is designed to lead an anxious people and to govern the world’s greatest country. It should at the least be informative.

I am surprised only by Manafort’s honesty, because Trump treats the office for which he seeks as a show. He is fixated on (poll) ratings. He has no interest in substance beyond his script. He divides the world into bad guys and good guys, oversimplifies the plot, and promises a perfect ending.

Should an office once occupied by Harry Truman be filled by a man who thinks he’s living out his own Truman Show?

My wife and I watch a lot of reality TV, including The Amazing Race, Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette. I share in the appeal—the escapism, the voyeurism, and cheesy drama. But those are not the attributes of the U.S. presidency.

For years, we were fans of Trump’s Apprentice series, a guilty pleasure despite the star’s boorish behavior. I stopped watching when Trump leered at a female “employee” and said it would be nice to watch her “dropping to your knees.”

The thing about reality TV shows is that they’re not real. “You’re fired” was a catchphrase, not the act of an actual boss dismissing an actual employee. I’m not sure Trump knows the difference.

I’m not sure we, the people, always know the difference.

Just as Trump is a combed-over reflection of an angry America, he may be the latest manifestation of a culture that blurs fiction and nonfiction. That conflates celebrity with ability. That empowers people to sort themselves into likeminded groups, disconnect from one another, and plug into worlds of virtual reality.

Economically, technologically, and demographically, people today are so buffeted by change—so disillusioned with the inability of traditional institutions to adapt to the modern era—that they’ll grasp like drowning children onto any lifeline. Into those churning waters enters Trump, a louder-than-life celebrity who promises to build a wall, keep out Muslims, kill ISIS, and whatever else people crave between commercials.

Hell, his campaign may be a reality TV show after all: Make America Great Again.

But the presidency isn’t.