Donald Trump: Celebrity-in-Chief - NBC Bay Area
Decision 2016

Decision 2016

Full coverage of the race for the White House

Donald Trump: Celebrity-in-Chief

Commentary: How a master media manipulator went from reality show punch line to the most powerful job in the world.



    Donald Trump Claims Presidency

    Donald Trump claimed victory in the United States presidential election early Wednesday in a stunning upset that shocked political observers and polling predictions. (Published Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016)

    On April 30, 2011, after secretly giving the go-ahead to the Navy SEAL operation that would take out Osama bin Laden, President Obama killed at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

    The primary target captured in his comedic sights: Donald Trump.

    Obama poked fun at Trump's "Birther" campaign – and mocked his hiring and firing of D-listers on "Celebrity Apprentice.”

    "These are the kinds of decisions that keep me up at night. Well handled, sir, well handled," Obama chided.

    Trump Booed Leaving New York Times

    [NATL] Trump Booed Leaving New York Times
    President Elect Donald Trump is booed as he walks through the lobby of The New York Times Building after a 75-minute meeting with Times journalists. The lobby of the Times building is open to the public, and a large crowd had gathered by the time he departed.
    (Published Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016)

    Trump, in the audience, smiled as he squirmed. Obama had portrayed him as the thing he hated the most: a loser.

    Maybe he decided to run for president that night. Or maybe he’d long harbored the idea. It's impossible, of course, to get into Trump's head, but far easier as Obama – and eventually Hillary Clinton – found, to get under his orange-tinted skin.

    Trump enjoyed the last laugh early Wednesday as he celebrated a once-unfathomable victory – denying Clinton’s shot at history and making some of his own by going from reality show punch line to commander-in-chief.

    But the 70-year-old Republican also got the job he’s been running for all his public life: celebrity-in-chief. Now Donald Trump is the host of biggest reality show of them all – one with far, far more serious ramifications than fallout over sacking Gary Busey.

    Perhaps that’s a commentary less on Trump than on times where a familiar loud voice offering simplistic quick fixes to complex problems can rouse enough voters to beat a seasoned, if polarizing, political figure.

    Trump's black-and-white, hired-or-fired showman's theatrics couldn’t obscure the demagogic scapegoating at the root of his appeal to many – or his dubious record as a businessman and alleged serial accoster of woman.

    Trump Takes Meetings at His New Jersey Golf Club

    [NATL] Trump Takes Meetings at His New Jersey Golf Club
    President-elect Trump interviewed more than a dozen candidates for his administration at his New Jersey golf club over the weekend, including Mitt Romney, Rudy Guliani, Chris Christie and Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, who has been tough on immigration, and others.
    (Published Monday, Nov. 21, 2016)

    The blustery developer won, in part, by framing the endless campaign as a fight for attention, by any means necessary – including pandering to base xenophobic, racist and misogynist instincts and reflexively insulting critics as if he were feuding with Rosie O'Donnell.

    Slurs extended not only to opponents ("Little Marco"), but to the likes of Sen. John McCain, a former P.O.W., and Gold Star parents. Trump, meanwhile, lauded Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, a stance once unthinkable to both parties.

    Then again, we’ve never had a U.S. presidential candidate who defended his hand size and publicly bragged about his, um, manhood.

    Trump’s tough-guy, easy-answers spiel didn’t employ facts and details as much as cast blame for the country's woes on some of its most vulnerable residents and outside boogeymen. The trash-talking New Yorker got plenty of coverage by giving the news media unfettered access – until he blamed the press for helping “rig” the election he’d eventually win.

    The handsome John Kennedy may have been the first telegenic president. Former movie hunk and California governor Ronald Reagan may have been the Great Communicator. Obama may have spent more time on entertainment television than any other sitting president.

    But Trump, more than any of them, instinctively grasped how to use the media, in its various, morphing forms. He expertly commanded a spotlight driven by a voracious 24-7 Internet and a Kardashian-influenced television landscaped littered with symbiotic pseudo-celebrity “news” and Reality TV.

    Trump also knows how to work a crowd, even if on the campaign trail he regularly contradicted his own past statements. He became a tweeting machine, pumping out put-downs, innuendo, hyperbolic boasts and outright falsehoods at all hours.

    He turned candidate debates into ratings-friendly rules-free spectacles to the point where he wanted CNN to pony up $10 million for charity to secure his participation in the GOP verbal slugfests.

    Both Trump and Clinton tapped into the very real concerns of opposite and overlapping constituencies. But their different approaches reflected their worldviews, their personalities and, crucially in this election like no other, their images.

    In his first speech as president-elect shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday, a relatively subdued Trump peppered his talk with some of his favorites superlatives – among them “tremendous,” “unbelievable” and, of course, “great.” Among the crowd that joined him on stage: former “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault.

    Still, Trump offered rare kind words for Clinton, praising her as a worthy adversary.

    Whatever you think of Clinton, there's little doubt the Democratic standard bearer arrived to her three debates with Trump better prepared than him – armed not only with facts, but equipped to battle an unpredictable opponent.

    Trump Holds Series of Meetings With Potential Cabinet Candidates

    [NATL]Trump Holds Series of Meetings With Potential Cabinet Candidates
    President-elect Donald Trump is holding a series of meetings all weekend with potential candidates at his New Jersey golf course as he continues to mull over dozens of positions in his upcoming administration. NBC's Chris Pollone reports.
    (Published Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016)

    She tweaked his considerable ego, goading him into bizarrely insulting O'Donnell and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. He took her bait and even griped about a past Emmys loss.

    That shouldn't have been surprising from a candidate who later would note – erroneously – that both he and Clinton made Barbara Walters' “10 Most Fascinating People” list twice. The opponent he slammed as a "nasty woman" notched the Walters honor four times.

    Clinton also trounced him in celebrity supporter ranks, gaining the backing of Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and most of Hollywood. Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice”-like GOP convention lineup included Scott Baio, “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson and Antonio Sabato, Jr.

    But in the end, no matter how considerable her fame after traveling over a quarter-century from first lady to U.S. senator to secretary of state to the first woman major-party presidential nominee, Clinton couldn’t shake her baggage and the animus she inspired in a significant portion of the populous.

    She also couldn’t compete with Trump in putting on a show – especially a cynical, manipulative exhibition that resonated with enough of a jaded electorate to put self-declared billionaire everyman over the top.

    To detractors, Trump’s unlikely presidential bid started as a comedy routine that morphed into a horror show. To his supporters, reluctant and otherwise, the Trump act appeal ranged from the lesser of evils to a heroic quest to return the country to its yuuuuge past glory.

    Clinton Reflects on Defeat: 'Never, Ever Give Up'

    [NATL] Clinton Reflects on Defeat: 'Never, Ever Give Up'
    Hillary Clinton is reflecting on her devastating defeat, acknowledging the difficulty of her loss for her supporters and urging them to persevere through the Donald Trump era. She is encouraging her backers to "never, ever give up."

    Making her first public appearance Wednesday evening since her emotional concession speech a week earlier, Clinton said: "It's up to each and every one of us to keep working to make America better and stronger and fairer."
    (Published Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016)

    Trump’s "Make America Great Again" slogan effectively tapped into an amorphous notion of a time that never actually existed in the U.S. – but evoked the innocuous 1950s TV shows he likely watched as a boy in Queens while the fight for racial equality roiled the country.

    That's part of the illusion the self-proclaimed master of the deal peddled, in dog-whistling speeches, as he sold his greatest and most flawed product: himself. 

    Trump, whose strength and weakness rests in waging a fearless and sometimes reckless improvisation through public life, played the media however it suited him at any given time. He variously wooed, savaged and barred the press. He hosted “Saturday Night Live” last year – and last month tweeted his displeasure at Alec Baldwin’s withering impression of him.

    For all the reportage chronicling his business missteps and accusations of sexual harassment and worse, little stuck until the public heard him utter those course words bragging of his carte blanche to accost women.

    Yet even lording his supposed sexual privilege over half the population wasn’t enough to keep Trump from winning. The man with the outsider persona succeeded in building a near-impenetrable wall – around himself.

    Trump supporters – and Hillary haters – heard only what they wanted to hear from a great exaggerator, whose most accurate grandiose claim may be, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”

    Now he’s going from New York and Fifth Avenue, where he lived, worked and filmed his TV show in a gleaming tower, to Washington and Pennsylvania Avenue – a different world, with a very different kind of deal-making structure. In January, the one-time smarmy courter of gossip columnists and Howard Stern will arrive in the nation’s capital to be sworn in as the country’s 45th president and the planet’s most powerful human.

    Perhaps Trump already is working on his standup routine for next year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, eager to settle plenty of scores with some zingers of his own. But the script of the ultimate reality show has yet to be written.

    Meanwhile, the worldwide audience Donald Trump has always craved will be watching.

    Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.