Lifestyles of the Rich and Useless

Saw this tweet today:

I assume that Red, who is a writer for the progressive politics site Crooks and Liars, knows that it’s more complicated than this. It’s technically fair to call Donald Trump a “failed reality TV host,” inasmuch as the various incarnations of The Apprentice are no longer running. But the show ran for fifteen seasons, with Trump hosting all but the last one (Arnold Schwarzenegger took over after Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2016, and of course Trump blamed Arnold for the cancelation of the show). There were also eight seasons of Celebrity Apprentice, with Trump hosting seven of them. So from 2004 to 2015, Donald Trump was in a lot of living rooms, sometimes multiple nights per week, doing his shtick.

The job description for the Apprentice hosting gig must have leaned heavily on “overbearing, self-centered, and blowhard,” qualities The Donald had in spades, baby. I mean, he was perfect. As the old Buck Owens song goes, “All I gotta do is act naturally.” And people ate it up. We love drama and conflict, the “realer” the better, and reality teevee serves that up by the gallon. We love a villain who occasionally surprises us by doing something nice, and Trump – and the show’s writers – were great at pacing the blowhard with the nice guy.

And we love rich people. Well, maybe not love them as much as want to be them. Most of us would love to have a lot of money so we could stop worrying about how we’re going to pay our bills. We’re often just a few months (or less) from financial disaster if we lose a job or something unexpected happens, like a major home or car repair or a serious illness. So we’ve always loved watching wealthy people on TV (even if their actual “rich person” balance sheet was somewhat questionable). Remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?

For twelve seasons from 1984 to 1995, Robin Leach took audiences inside the palatial mansions and ritzy parties of the world’s richest and most famous people. It was incredible fluff, parodied by every comedian and sketch comedy show, but people kept watching. When Leach signed off each episode with his signature, “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” he knew who he was talking to.

So to pass Trump off as a “failed reality TV host” is selling him way short. He’s been on our gossip radar for forty years now, with never-ending coverage – often by “serious” journalists as well as the tabloids – of his winnings and losings, his marriages and his divorces, his children (and the inappropriate things he’s said about them, especially his daughters).

It’s more accurate to say that Donald Trump is successful at being Donald Trump. He’s never done anything particularly constructive; he’s a real-estate guy who has lost a lot of money, screwed over countless contractors, been taken to court for violating fair housing laws. His decision-making as a real estate developer are motivated less by what would be a good investment as what would garner him the most press coverage. Ultimately, while he still controls some significant real estate in Manhattan and elsewhere, he’s been most successful at licensing the Trump brand, mostly to properties owned by other people, but also Trump Steaks, Trump University, Trump Suits (and Ties, of course, mostly available in Extra Long), and Trump Bedding.

Some people get famous by doing something significant (like doing a heroic deed) or by being very good at something (like athletes and performers), which can result, at least temporarily, in becoming wealthy. Other people start out rich, like Trump did, but never really do anything constructive or helpful in their lives. They’re just famous, basically for being a celebrity. It’s like our obsession with the British royal family (particularly strange since we fought a war to get away from them 250 years ago); while you can argue that the tradition of the monarchy in the U.K. contributes to tourism, the royal family members seldom do anything really significant or valuable. Why do the British put up with them? For the same reason 73 million people voted for Donald Trump a month ago.

So that’s how the “brainwashing” happened. Not overnight, but over nearly two generations. Trump just figured out a way to ride our aspirational desires to national fame. By many accounts, even he was surprised he was able to ride it all the way to the White House. But now that he’s seen the ending of the story, he wants a rewrite, and so do his supporters. The hero, even one with as many flaws as Donald Trump, isn’t supposed to lose in the end. Like his bankruptcies, this ending is more real than the fantasy we’ve been sold. The question is whether his “audience” is willing to move on to the next star or the next show, or whether they’ll take their protests over Trump’s “cancelation” to a level that could cause the end of American democracy and respect for the rule of law.

Now that would be a failure.