Donald Trump will make history in many ways come Inauguration Day – including becoming America’s first former reality TV star president.
So far, reports about his transition have been full of drama, the kind that’s abnormal for today’s political Washington. But it all feels pretty familiar for loyal reality TV show fans, where something as small as a tweet or a small feud can turn into a whole high-stakes episode.
“He is a novel character,” former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg told The Washington Post last week. “We’ve never had a magnate – a successful entrepreneur and celebrity who understands the tabloids and media saturation, and who thrives off of it – elected.”
Princeton University presidential historian Sean Wilentz put it this way: “No previous president-elect, let alone president, has acted with the high-pitched drama that Trump has displayed. Five crises a day – keep ’em coming.”
It’s not uncommon for politicians to float names or even policy proposals to gauge reactions. But the choosing of who will work in his administration has taken on a sort of “Bachelor,” “American Idol” or, yes, “Apprentice” kind of vibe.
All reality shows share common staple features, from the kinds of contestants to alliance making-and-breaking. And there are two main formats: documentary and competition (Trump’s “The Apprentice” was nominated twice for, but never won, an Emmy for outstanding reality competition show). And since so much of a presidential transition revolves around assembling an administration and picking people for jobs, “The Transition” most closely resembles a competition show.
Here is a guide to understanding the Trump transition through classic reality TV show tropes:
“Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions,” Trump tweeted after a New York Times story describing a chaotic transition. “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
There are rounds of voting: “Romney and Giuliani make the final 4 cut for Trump’s secretary of state finalists,” reads a Post headline.
Loyalty is key, and longtime Trump backer Rudy Giuliani has an advantage there. It’s also important for contestants to look the part. Trump described Mitt Romney as “right out of ‘central casting'” for the role of secretary of state, according to the Times, the same phrase he used to describe Mike Pence when he picked him as his running mate.
When vying for the affections of a single person on “The Bachelor,” many contestants take to warning him that others aren’t there for the right reasons. Trump transition aides may be trying to warn the president-elect of the same thing – such as senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who declared publicly that Romney “went out of his way to hurt Donald Trump” in the past.
There are contestants who depart early and deliver epic exit interviews.
Then there’s the “Elimination Houdini,” the contestant who seems like he’s going to get voted off – all signs point that way! — but has managed to stay on, week after week. Ben Carson, anyone? Why, just last week his business manager and close friend said Carson “feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.” (Note: Carson ran for president.) But on Monday, Trump announced he is nominating Carson for secretary of housing and urban development.
– The Mansion
MTV declared decades ago that when seven strangers are picked to live in a house and stop being polite, things do, indeed, get real. Since then, the unbelievably crazy or fancy houses cast members call home have helped drive the appeal of reality television. It’s so much more entertaining to watch two people fight with a glitzy or odd location as a backdrop.
In 2016, Trump Tower, which was also home to “The Apprentice,” is basically serving as the “Bachelor” mansion – where a large group of contestants stop by to make a case for themselves.
You can even watch it on television! Which brings us to …
– Cameras at every turn
It’s not reality TV without the TV, right? In reality show land, interviews and editing help create coherent story lines and amped up stakes.
With the Trump transition, it’s C-SPAN’s “elevator cam” in Trump Tower. Yes, there is a live feed from C-SPAN that captures the comings and goings of transition cast members, from featured players to guest stars. While it’s got no music, weird stuff happens sometimes, – just like on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
– Liberal use of the ‘confessional’
Every reality show needs central characters narrating, from their perspective, what’s unraveling for viewers. You may not agree with their take, but it’s the moment the stars break the fourth wall to tell us how they really feel.
Twitter is Trump’s confessional.
And news shows serve as the confessional for other regular Trump aides/cast members of this show.
– Alliance making, breaking and manipulation
Alliances are critical on competition reality shows, and they can get convoluted.
On “Big Brother,” for example, it’s common for some contestants to align with each other early in the season, only to break pacts later on when a better deal comes along. Sometimes, the person will go back to their original alliance and come clean about making a new deal with someone else, at which point the original alliance will try to use this knowledge to manipulate the situation – or kick the person out of the group completely for betrayal.
Did you get all that? Good. Then maybe you’ll be able to understand what the heck is going on with this Kellyanne Conway-Mitt Romney beef. Why is she going on television to bash Romney, instead of keeping her opinions inside the confines of Trump’s office? Is she going rogue? No, she says.
Hmm, seems weird. Commence the speculation that this is actually all part of someone else’s plan.
And then there’s the tragic arc of Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor said a lot of terrible things about Trump, and then shocked the political world when he became one of first high-profile establishment Republicans to back him. Oh dear; was Christie OK? The speculation was he wanted to be Trump’s running mate.
He wasn’t, but consolation prize, Christie got to head the transition – until he was surprisingly dropped and replaced with Pence. People with ties to Christie were purged from the team. Why? Loyalty? Theories involve Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father was prosecuted by Christie back in the day.
– “I’m not here to make friends.”
Sometimes bickering can be really uncomfortable to watch – until a participant helpfully reminds us that he is not here to make friends. He is here to win.
It’s a phrase uttered on most competition reality shows, including on “The Apprentice,” featured first in this montage:
Trump’s presidential run, marked by him going after everyone from Rosie O’Donnell to Ted Cruz, has been described as the “I’m not here to make friends” of political campaigns.
Now that he’s won, he has toned down his harsh rhetoric about some, like the Clintons. But he’s still not here to make friends with, say, CNN. We also have Conway and Newt Gingrich not eager to make friends with Romney.
“Romney said vile and vicious things,” Gingrich told USA Today.
On “The Apprentice,” it was “You’re fired.” On “The Simple Life,” it was Paris Hilton declaring, “That’s hot.” On “Jersey Shore,” it was “GTL,” meaning “gym, tan, laundry.”
Now we have, “Make America great again,” “Sad!” and a near constant use of exclamation points.
– Groveling before judges
From “Project Runway” to “Last Comic Standing,” you have to show some deference to judges and their feedback. Once, a contestant on “Top Model” showed such indifference that host Tyra Banks unleashed an epic rant, yelling, “We were all rooting for you!”
Contestants also groveled plenty before Trump throughout his stint as a reality show host. And sometimes that wouldn’t even get you a win.
Now, we see a bit of this going on between Trump and Romney. On Nov. 19, the Times reported that “Mr. Trump loves the tension and drama of a selection process, and has sought to stoke it. A senior adviser described the meeting, in part, as Mr. Romney simply coming to pay his respects to the president-elect and ‘kiss his ring.” Gingrich said Romney was “sucking up” to Trump.
Then there’s the Fox News report that Romney may be forced to issue a public apology for past negative words about Trump in exchange for a top Cabinet spot. Trump and Romney went out to dinner, a moment captured in an incredibly awkward photo taken by Getty’s Drew Angerer. Feel free to project onto it as you wish.
– Intimate candlelight dinners
Intimate dinners with low lighting are staple “Bachelor” scenes.
And during the Trump transition, you, too, can be invited to such a dinner – should you donate $1 million or more to the inauguration. That will earn you a ticket to “an intimate dinner with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Mrs. Karen Pence,” as well as a “candlelight dinner,” one that is “elegant” and attended by Trump, his wife, Melania and others.
To be fair, the top donor package at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration also included an invite to “a VIP reception at a candlelight celebration on inauguration eve.” Unclear if it was intimate, though.
– Text to vote
A lot of talent competition shows use a mix of judges and audiences at home casting votes to narrow the field. America has already voted for president, and it’s up to Trump to choose his Cabinet. But there is apparently still an opportunity out there for regular folks to “text” their picks, according to Trump’s PAC.
The New York Post ran an item about Trump asking Mar-a-Lago club members during Thanksgiving dinner who he should pick for secretary of state, Romney or Giuliani.
While many shows rely on cliffhangers to entice audiences to return next week, reality TV shows comically draw out suspense past the point of reason.
On “The Bachelorette,” sometimes producers won’t show the rose ceremony – where the bachelorette makes her choice – at the end of the episode, and instead force viewers to wait until the next week. And of course, there’s Ryan Seacrest’s famous “We’ll find out … after the break” teases on “American Idol.”
While this took place before the transition, Trump famously said during his final presidential debate “I will keep you in suspense” as to whether he’d accept the results of the presidential election, should rival Hillary Clinton win. Like, he used the word “suspense.”
The transition has been described in news reports as dramatic and chaotic – even though the pace of the hiring process is now right on track with previous transitions. But the floating of all these Cabinet secretary “contestant” possibilities have kept many on the edges of their seats – just as any good reality TV show would.
– Playing out in the press
Not all the drama on reality shows takes place in a neat, hour-long episode. It often spills over into celebrity news outlets that shape and fuel interest in the show characters.
Take Jake and Vienna from “The Bachelor,” the disastrous couple who broke up soon after the show – and instead of keeping their relationship private, proceeded to trash each other in the tabloids. Vienna called Jake a “monster” in Star magazine; Jake went to Us Weekly and People magazine with claims that Vienna cheated on him.
As the transition plays out in the press, we’re seeing – even in small ways – how the characters might be using the media to shape a narrative. An off-the-record summit between Trump and media figures was described by Conway as “cordial, very productive, very congenial,” as well as “very candid and very honest.”
“But after details of Mr. Trump’s hectoring leaked in The New York Post, it seemed the meeting was being used as a political prop, especially after Trump-friendly news outlets trumpeted the session as a take-no-prisoners move by a brave president-elect,” the Times reported.
“Donald Trump’s media summit was a ‘f–ing firing squad,’ ” read the New York Post headline.
– Back for the finale
From Gingrich to Sarah Palin, the transition has served as a veritable reunion of people you thought would have been gone from the spotlight by now. Just as so many reality stars make careers out of showing up on season finales (such as “Bachelor” and “Real World/Road Rules” alums who appear like clockwork every year), we’re seeing cast members from previous seasons of Republican politics do the same thing in Trump’s transition reality show.
To the elevator cam! Well hello there, Dan Quayle …