POLITICS

R.N.C. Revives a Trump Persona: Reality-TV Prize Giver

Prime-time TV viewers first got to know Donald J. Trump delivering his catchphrase, “You’re fired,” in the boardroom of “The Apprentice.” But firing wasn’t all that he did on that show. He also gave away prizes: helicopter rides, trips to Mar-a-Lago and in each season’s finale, a job. Later, in the “Celebrity Apprentice” years, he’d grant donations to the winners’ chosen charities.

That was the other half of the brand that the TV magic of “Apprentice” created for him. On the one hand, the blunt, fearsome boss cutting the deadwood; on the other, the beaming benefactor, handing out boons. The recipients would thank him, praise him, compliment him. He was the center of the story; he got a piece of the deal, too.

In a series of taped segments, the Republican National Convention has tried to resurrect that Donald Trump for prime time: the president as gracious, generous host; the benefits of democracy (citizenship, a pardon, a presidential audience, freedom itself) as the prizes; the White House — in potential violation of the Hatch Act — as his soundstage.

Monday night, the program had Mr. Trump meet with a group of Covid-19 frontline workers and a group of American hostages, released from captivity overseas.

Tuesday’s installments used presidential powers even more brazenly as campaign favors. First, he granted a pardon to Jon Ponder, a felon who founded Hope for Prisoners, a group that helps the once-incarcerated re-enter society. Later, he spoke at a naturalization ceremony for five immigrants, welcoming them to “our great American family.”

Both segments were deeply emotional, embodying the chance for reinvention that America offers at its best. They were also deeply cynical, illustrating how willing the president is to leverage the office for his own reinvention, via a TV production.

The stunts were reminiscent of this year’s State of the Union address, an extravaganza of surprise twists, in which Mr. Trump handed out a scholarship, arranged a viral-video-style military reunion and graced right-wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In the R.N.C. pieces, he sometimes speaks off the cuff, sometimes from a script. But in his familiar TV-host role, he seems more comfortable than he ordinarily does reading an address off a TelePrompTer.

Mr. Trump’s series-within-a-series addresses one problem of the R.N.C., whose first night trailed the Democratic convention’s premiere in the ratings. It has one star and not much of a supporting cast. Without a popular ex-president or many Republican luminaries to vouch for him, without vast support in pop culture, Mr. Trump has to be his own Michelle Obama, Barack Obama and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The segments are also conceived to dress up the president’s image, and his reality. After a week of testimonies to Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s empathy, they show Mr. Trump smiling, congratulating, giving. They also smear Vaseline on the lens of his policy positions. His administration has been boldly putting restrictions on legal, not just illegal, immigration — but just look at these five lucky winners!

And putting Mr. Trump in close contact with his guests does visually what much of the convention has verbally: pretend like the pandemic is over. Even the meeting with essential workers took place with no masks, and no real social distancing.

You can say that staging the segments this way is irresponsible for public health. (It is.) That might have political costs, too.

Assuming viewers aren’t ensorcelled into forgetting that Covid-19 exists, they’re seeing the president indulging in the kind of behavior they’ve been asked, for months, to forego for the public good — even lately, if only occasionally, by Mr. Trump himself. (This might please voters who believe mask requirements are tyranny, but it looks like the president already has their votes.)

Still, the staging gives Trump a rare asset in these times: images of him, in a room, close together with other people. It’s an image of before-times normalcy.

You can see his facial reactions, and theirs. It is our accustomed visual shorthand for people listening and connecting — we are wired to look for faces. You can’t erase a lifetime of conditioning to this sort of image, even in half a year of a pandemic.

Of course, putting Donald Trump in a room with other people carries the same risks it did before Covid. Yes, through the magic of pre-taping, his responses can be made more coherent, his attitude easier and more attentive, the same way Mark Burnett imposed structure on his ramblings in the “Apprentice” boardroom.

But even in edited form, Mr. Trump can’t resist making things about him. The meeting with released foreign hostages becomes a round-robin of praise offerings. (Again, much like those “Apprentice” boardrooms did.) Learning that one of the Covid frontline workers is a truck driver who hauled steel for hospital beds, Mr. Trump responds, “I love the truckers. You know, they’re on my side. I think all of them, frankly.”

The reference to political support gives away the game, not that it was that subtly hidden to begin with. All of these displays of generosity and attention came with a condition: Do us a favor, though.

Trump didn’t have the power to make these kinds of deals in 2016. Now he does, but he also has a record. After four years of belligerence, insults and Twitter rages, can you suddenly remake him as Oprah?

Likely not, which doesn’t mean you can’t create Oprah moments. The pardon segment was absorbing, mostly for how it centered Mr. Ponder and his personal journey. Unusually for a Donald Trump production, it let someone else be the star, as Mr. Ponder told us, “We live in a nation of second chances.”

It was heartwarming, especially if you didn’t think about the implicit transaction. The endgame, after all, was a second chance for Donald Trump.

Five years after he left “The Apprentice,” Mr. Trump is executive-producing a vision of the presidency as game show, with one difference. This time, it’s the host who is going all-out to win.


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