A Reality TV Star Becomes President, a Governor Becomes a Reality TV Star

Only a few days to go before Trump opens in the biggest reality show of them all.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (center), his nephew Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger and Tyra Banks in “The New Celebrity Apprentice,” just launched on NBC in the U.S.
Luis Trinh, AP

Brace yourself, folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride starting a week from now, when the erstwhile host and current executive producer of a certain hit reality TV show opens in the starring role as a showrunner in the real-life version of “The West Wing.” This is our last week as digits in ratings data, as viewers of fiction, before we become mere specks of dust on the vast playing fields of history in the making – or breaking.

This is when the fantasy of “E.T. call home” becomes “DT lives in the White House.” Donald Trump, that is, not delirium tremens (DTs), defined as “a rapid onset of confusion usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol,” or a rude awakening from a bad dream. The penultimate week before the end of the world as we (thought) we knew it gave us an interchange of tweets that encapsulate what has been happening on the TV screen and in real life for the last dozen years – and where it all may lead.

In 2004, Donald Trump was a real estate magnate and a celebrity of his own making, and Mark Burnett was a British-born American TV producer who created a game show called “The Apprentice.” In it, aspiring business people and entrepreneurs compete with one another, performing tasks that test, mainly, their business acumen. Their skills are judged by a jury of business pros chaired by a godlike figure who relishes shaming those he doesn’t like. Their painful ordeal, presumably lots of fun for viewers, culminates with the line, “You’re fired,” uttered by the host, Donald Trump, with obvious glee.

Trump was the guy who called the shots on the TV screen, and for more than a decade he was there, offspring in tow, projecting the infallibility of a pope. Somewhere in the back of their minds, millions of viewers knew that this was not reality TV, with real people put into a hypothetical situation, but actually a scripted and edited show. It was heavily manipulated behind the scenes for emotional effect on both participants and viewers (what goes on in the production of reality TV can be seen in the “UnReal” series). “The Apprentice” was offered as a game pretending to look like reality, which shook the whole notion of “reality” to begin with. In a way, it trained a whole generation of TV viewers to “willingly suspend their own disbelief” (to borrow Coleridge’s immortal phrase describing what happens to a theater audience) while watching TV, whether it is showing “reality TV” (a game) or the reality shown in newscasts.

Post-truth era

Part of me sees it, in essence, as a good thing. Being a confirmed Sherlockian, I believe that more often than not, things are not what they seem to be. It is safer to assume that a process – a game, TV reality show or election – is rigged and someone somewhere is calling the shots and pulling strings. On the other hand, if one assumes that everything – including one’s own reality – is being manipulated, it makes a kind of sense to vote for someone who is good at playing the game, and aware that it is a game. Better to vote for someone who doesn’t take “reality” too seriously than for someone who is dead serious about it.

That is one way to try to explain how a character who proves almost daily that he lacks the personality, temperament and basic skills to serve as president was voted in, and will assume office in a week’s time. I’m sure there are many other explanations as good or bad as mine. But true to my Holmesian faith, I keep reminding myself of his dictum: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” However improbable, the fact that Donald Trump is going to be the 46th president of the U.S. is an “unpresidented” truth (the misspelling was by DT in a tweet) – even if we live, according to the OED’s Word of the Year for 2016 in an era of “post-truth.” (Merriam-Webster opted for “surreal.”) Trump’s own handle on Twitter is – I kid you not – @realDonaldTrump.

A mere two weeks before the Firer-in-Chief from the reality show becomes the Commander-in-Chief in reality, “The New Celebrity Apprentice” was launched on NBC in the U.S. (we don’t have it in Israel at this time). The PEOTUS is billed as executive producer and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the host, with the tagline “you’re terminated.”

The moment the ratings data were in, the executive producer and former host fired off a series of tweets: “Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got ‘swamped’ (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT. So much for being a movie star – and that was season 1 compared to season 14. Now compare him to my season 1. But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary.”

As has become customary when quoting DT utterances and tweets, some reality check is in order: Donald Trump ratings for season one, in 2008, were about 11 million. His ratings for the opening of season 14, a year ago, were 6.1 million. Schwarzenegger’s ratings were a mere 4.9 million viewers; but ratings data are dwindling for all TV shows faster than one can say “you’re fired and/or terminated.”

Schwarzenegger – who has more experience in public office than Trump, having served as governor of California (he cannot run for president because he was born in Austria) tweeted back with style: “There’s nothing more important than the people’s work. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you’ll work for ALL of the American people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings.”

One last word about WOTY – the Word of the Year. The dictionary sites make their decisions based on words whose meanings were the most sought after, and a couple of weeks after the data were in, the American Dialect Society announced its choice, based on its members’ votes. And the winner is (drum-roll please): “dumpster fire” – “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation,” which got 129 out of 162 votes. The ADS explains: “a metaphor for a situation that is out of control or poorly handled, ‘dumpster fire’ came into prominence in 2016, very frequently in the context of the U.S. presidential campaign. It evokes an image of an uncontrolled blaze in a dumpster, a large trash receptacle that originated as a proprietary name.”

Which brings to mind another expression, attributed to Leon Trotsky; he told the Mensheviks, who in 1917 departed from the Congress of Soviets (having lost), in Russian: “Go to the place where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history!’’

A history dumpster (or is it Trumpster?) fire – well, that could be a working title for the first Trump presidency. It’s up to the man whose claim to fame is based on firing others to come up with a better one.