The new reality of TV: All Trump, all the time

US President-elect Donald Trump recently appeared at a Carrier furnace factory in Indiana and explained why he was there, having worked out a deal to keep some of that company's jobs from moving to Mexico.

It all happened because he saw something on television: Himself.

"About a week ago, I was watching the nightly news," he said. "I won't say which one, because I don't want to give them credit." (It was NBC.)

A Carrier worker had challenged Mr Trump to keep his promise to stop the manufacturer from leaving the state. This was news to Mr Trump, who didn't believe he had made the promise until the newscast showed video of him doing it. There it was, on TV. So here he was.

It was a striking admission. And it captured, in miniature, what it means to have a president-elect who is so thoroughly of, by and for television.

Yes, the former host of The Apprentice is a TV performer. He is an instinctual TV producer, with a gut sense of what keeps the red camera light on. (He is also, by the way, still an executive producer of The Celebrity Apprentice on NBC, whose longstanding, icky entanglements involving Mr Trump will now extend to the presidency of the man its news reporters will have to cover.)

But he's also the ultimate TV viewer. Last year, he told NBC's Chuck Todd that he got his military advice by watching "the shows" - that is, political talk shows. He scarcely reads, he sleeps a scant few hours a night and, by all reports, he watches TV constantly, preferring programmes about himself. At this point, what isn't?

President-elect Trump visiting a factory in Indiana after he saw news footage of himself promising to save its workers' jobs. The former reality TV host of The Apprentice is said to be obsessed with television, preferring programmes about himself. PHOTO: REUTERS

So to understand Mr Trump is to realise that he is not just a TV celebrity; he is, in a strange, meta way, a spectator of his own performance. For the next four years at least, we are living in a TV show that Mr Trump is simultaneously starring in, consuming and live-tweeting.

His Cabinet vetting has been as much The Bachelor as The Apprentice, complete with luxurious backdrops (Trump Tower, Mr Trump's golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey), public sniping among associates about the suitors and even a candlelit dinner with Secretary of State hopeful Mitt Romney.

The whole process reflects Mr Trump's worldview, which was reality TV before reality TV even existed: to see life, even within a team, as gladiatorial combat.

On The Apprentice, he relished letting candidates go crabs-in-a-barrel on each other in the boardroom. Now it was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, an early supporter of Mr Trump, calling Mr Romney a potential "disaster" on Fox News.

But beyond a point, the presidency-as-reality-TV analogy breaks down. Reality shows have structure, cohesion. As a reality star, Mr Trump had producers and editors to retrofit logic onto his decisions.

In an October feature in CineMontage, former Apprentice staff members recalled that Mr Trump would often "fire" contestants for reasons having nothing to do with their performance. Mr Jonathon Braun, a supervising editor, said: "Our first priority on every episode like that was to reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality."

Today, we're seeing Mr Trump unedited; it's the raw feed, the Big Brother 24-hour livecam.

The most surreal symbol of the presidential transition has been an actual webcam: The C-Span live video feed from the brass-and-marble- sheathed lobby of Trump Tower, which is open to the public from 8am to 10pm.

Tourists and holiday shoppers gawk and gossip with the bored camera crew. Occasionally a big name drops by - Al Gore, Scott Brown - and the chatter builds. The Naked Cowboy, a street musician who's lately taken to wearing Trump underpants, boards a lift; Senator Heidi Heitkamp squeezes into the car with him. It's a window on the imperial capital as luxury mall, gilded, full of whispers and intrigue, subtle as a ton of brass.

Outside this 1980s-chic aquarium, cable news has become a dog pack chasing the brightly coloured balls that Mr Trump throws in every direction. He holds a greatest-hits-tour "thank you" rally and the news networks go wall to wall. On Twitter he attacks the cast of Hamilton and lobs a bogus charge that "millions" of people voted illegally, setting the agenda for the day's news.

Critics of Mr Trump have ascribed all manner of 3D-chess cunning to his outbursts. He's trying to distract us from his conflicts of interest, or he's luring liberals into unwinnable culture fights, or he's turning his Twitter feed into a state propaganda outlet.

Maybe. But even as Mr Trump pushes the news cycle, he also seems to be pulled by it. Look at how many of his Twitter outbursts, just since his election, have been about something on TV that made him mad. He's slammed Saturday Night Live, again and again. (A tip: If Trump calls something "unwatchable" - SNL, CNN - it means he watches it obsessively.)

He suggested that flag burners should be stripped of their citizenship, shortly after a related Fox News segment ran. He re-tweeted supporters blasting a CNN reporter for questioning his baseless voting-fraud claims. He slammed a CNN report about his continuing role with Celebrity Apprentice - a tweet about a TV story about his TV career, perhaps the most Trumpian act imaginable.

Mr Trump and cable news have the same metabolism. Cable news demands a steady stream of excitations and "breaking" updates, a constant instability that keeps you tuning in.

Mr Trump is glad to supply that, and cable news is glad to respond. This creates a perpetual-motion machine. Mr Trump sees something in the news; he gets mad; he tweets; that becomes the news; repeat. He's the Hate-Watcher in Chief.

The last president with a history in entertainment, Ronald Reagan, came from the movies by way of the California governor's mansion. He knew how to read a script and had already learnt to marry politics to smooth stagecraft.

Mr Trump, on the other hand, is all stream of consciousness, improv, roll the cameras and we'll clean it up in post-production. It's unsteadying, disorienting. The national narrative becomes a reel of explosions and contradictions with no thread. Controversies follow one another too fast to remember any of them. Last week seems like a year ago.

This chaos may benefit only the president-elect because when there is no certainty, when there is no logic, there remains only the leader - only Mr Trump.

Before Nov 8, there was speculation that he would found a Trump TV channel after the election. It turned out a bit differently: This is what Trump TV is.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2016, with the headline 'The new reality of TV: All Trump, all the time'. Print Edition | Subscribe