Donald Trump’s presidency has opened, and the reviews are raves! I know this because of a press release the White House issued on Wednesday morning. It arrived with the headline “PRAISE FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP’S BOLD ACTION” and then a series of quotes — from Fox News, from a Chicago Tribune editorial, from Twitter — explaining what a big hit he is.
For the greater part of my career, I have been an entertainment journalist who has specialized in covering movies and television. I did not imagine that the skills I developed in those areas would ever be of particular use in writing about the president of the United States and his view of the media and/or the universe, but they turn out to come in handy. This PR sheet, for instance, is instantly recognizable to any reporter who has ever interacted with the pop-culture publicity machine, an unreality in which everything, always, is a hit. When you open and bomb — and let’s agree that week one of the Trump presidency, with its delusions about crowd size, endless infantilizing leaks about his poor temper and disconnectedness, coverage of the galvanizing women’s march, and omnipresence of the word “lies” in national headlines, was not the entirely seamless rollout for which he might have hoped — you just ignore the bad news. You dig as deep as you have to into your clippings or links, you extract any quote that does not feel like the printed equivalent of a thrown tomato (“I Don’t Think I’ve Ever Seen So Much Happen in Such a Short Period of Time” —Sean Hannity), and declare victory.
If we in the press are going to try to understand Donald Trump, it may help to know how he understands us. The satirist Michael O’Donoghue, the first and darkest head writer of one of the president’s most enduring cultural obsessions, Saturday Night Live, once joked, “To quote Adolf Hitler, there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and Trump seems to believe it. In the early 1990s, the New York Post obsessively covered his affair with Marla Maples, including the then-jaw-dropping front-page headline “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had.” The paper did as much as any journalistic institution in America to turn Trump into both a celebrity and a locus of scandal, but more than a quarter-century later, it is said to be one of only two or three newspapers the president reads.
In the 1980s, Trump reportedly lined his office with magazine covers of himself. For him, there is little difference between fame and notoriety as long as the assessment is served up in superlatives. That was the era when Trump’s chief scourge, the Village Voice investigative reporter Wayne Barrett (who died last week, the day before Trump was inaugurated), started going after him hard. According to Politico’s obituary, Trump first tried to bribe Barrett with a new apartment in order to get him to lay off; when that didn’t work, he threatened him with a lawsuit. It was during this period that he also came to believe, not entirely without reason, that the press could be played, and even invented an alter ego to prove it. That pretty much constitutes Trump’s View of the Press: The Origin Story.
That two-pronged approach — cajole with one hand while the other closes into a fist — became Trump’s signature in media dealings. It was refined in the early 2000s, when, after his first two or three bankruptcies, he undertook to remake himself as a professional celebrity. By then, Trump was the best product Trump had to sell, and his self-commodification as a man who had gotten very rich because he knew secrets and tricks that he could then retail to you took two forms. One was The Apprentice, and the other was an endless series of books with titles that promised solutions — The Way to the Top, Think Like a Billionaire, Why We Want You to Be Rich.
Those two approaches, I would argue, have defined, in different ways, Trump’s understanding of the press. For his books, Trump used a series of either ghostwriters or co-writers, almost all of them plucked from journalism, starting with Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote his 1987 best seller, The Art of the Deal (and became, during last year’s campaign, a vocal anti-Trump critic). Doing an “as told to” book is a tricky thing; as a writer, you can challenge the perspective of the person you’re assisting in the act of autobiography, but it’s ultimately his book, not yours, and you’re being paid to subordinate your perspective — you’re there to facilitate, not dominate. For those collaborations to succeed, both partners must actually be collaborative. That may explain why, as Trump kept churning out new books, he had almost no luck in retaining writing partners. By the time The Apprentice launched, he had chewed though at least four and was on his fifth, Meredith McIver, who apparently remained enough of a loyalist to stick with him all the way through last year, when she took the fall for plagiarizing a Michelle Obama speech for Melania Trump’s RNC address.
If getting other people to write his books reinforced, for Trump, the idea that with enough money, you can at least temporarily turn a journalist into a publicist, The Apprentice, which launched in early 2004, seems to have taught him that offering access can be at least as strong an incentive as offering compensation. The boom years of Survivor and American Idol as well as of Trump’s own show were a transitional time for entertainment journalism; as the internet began to grow, outlets realized that reality-competition series were the new soaps, and that much was to be gained in covering them multiple times a week, with previews, inside looks, exit interviews, exclusives on mini-controversies, and so on. That precipitated a shift in the balance of power between these shows and the press that wrote about them — friendly media got through the door (usually via a strongly controlling publicity department) and critical media didn’t. For anyone who wanted to do more than recaps or reviews, covering a reality show became a business predicated so entirely on access that it didn’t really matter what you, as a journalist, thought you were doing. In the eyes of the people you were covering week after week, you were merely an extension of their marketing plan, a “team player.”
Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.
This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access. And his team, many members of which are committed to turning his imagined reality into actual reality, is doing everything it can to support his viewpoint. I thought of The Apprentice on Sunday, when Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, flashing a menacing smile from the White House North Lawn, appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday to insist that Sean Spicer’s lies were “alternate facts” and to drop this bomb on Chuck Todd when he used the word “falsehood”: “Chuck,” she said, “if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms, I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.”
That threat — be nice or we’ll cut you off — should be meaningful to someone covering reality television, but less so to someone covering reality. In the world Trump comes from, access is everything, and a request for it is the start of a negotiation. That belief is corroborated by the journalistic medium to which Trump pays the most attention, cable news — but only up to a point of stalemate: If there’s a permanent blowout between the Trump White House and, say, Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, the White House will always be able to find other newscasts on which to place its spokespeople, but Cooper will always be able to find other on-camera bodies to tell the stories he wants to tell. The truth about TV news and politicians is that neither side has the power to destroy the other purely by withholding, and both sides know it. At least, they used to. Conway seemed to think her threat to choke off Meet the Press carried force. But how could it, coming from a White House that already appears to be the leakiest in recent memory?
Trump’s relationship with journalism is, even at this early stage of his presidency, weirdly bifurcated. Negative press infuriates him; journalists, to him, are publicists, and publicists who sully his reputation are failing at their jobs and therefore must be either punished or retconned out of existence in a world in which (here’s the bifurcation; see today’s press release) everything he is doing is deeply appreciated and winning widespread media praise! The problem is that you can’t execute the latter reality if you keep acknowledging the former one, as Trump feels unable to stop himself from doing. There is no evidence that he has the temperament or self-control not to lash out (or have surrogates do it) when he sees or reads something that he doesn’t like — and there’s ample evidence to the contrary.
This creates what already looks like a pretty vicious inner-circle split between Trump’s mollifiers (“Everything’s going great! The crowds were huge!”) and his rage avatars (“Hit back! Don’t let them get away with their lies!”) In the world of The Apprentice — in all of television, really — a cocoon of delusion isn’t that hard to create: Everyone loves you, the reviews are fantastic, and your show is a gigantic hit up until the moment when it is mysteriously canceled. But in politics, that’s harder to sustain. Trump and his people are already hard at work building a circle of friendlies — journalists, not to mention Hannitys, who, like ghostwriters, will agree to trade away their independence to tell his story his way. They’ll be the ones who’ll be permitted to get over the wall. The trouble for Trump these days is, he suddenly knows it’s a wall. And he can’t seem to stop torturing himself with the knowledge of what’s making so much noise on the other side of it.