There is Politics Donald Trump, and then there is TV Donald Trump. For a long time, it was pretty clear who worked for whom. Politics Trump would grab the occasional headline–tweet something inflammatory, question the President’s birthplace, flirt with running for office–but in the end all he did was generate there’s-no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity for TV Trump, a real estate tycoon who was now largely in the entertainment business.
But when TV Trump let Politics Trump off the chain and actually declare a run for the Republican presidential nomination, the balance shifted. Politics Trump became a reality–a crochety, fear-stoking reality raving at a podium about the Chinese and the Mexicans. And he’s starting to create problems for the Trump who pays their bills.
Univision, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster and one of the biggest U.S. networks, severed its relationship with the Miss Universe Organization, partly owned by Trump, because of Trump’s argument that illegal immigration from Mexico means that “they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (“And some, I assume, are good people,” he added. You’re welcome, Mexico!) The network will not broadcast the July 12 Miss USA pageant, whose Spanish-language-simulcast cohosts also dropped out in protest.
Trump, suddenly encountering the reality that the “Universe” in “Miss Universe” includes, well, the rest of the world, lashed out, threatening a lawsuit and claiming that Univision was acting on the orders of the Mexican government. But that’s not his only TV problem. NBC–which has long had an ignore-it-and-hope-it-goes-away approach to the Apprentice host’s foibles–issued a rare public repudiation: “We do not agree with his positions on a number of issues, including his recent comments on immigration.” (The network didn’t take any action, though it said it will “re-evaluate” Celebrity Apprentice, because of equal-time regulations, if it would go into production while Trump is still a candidate.)
Maybe nobody else gets to tell Donald J. Trump Jr. what he can and can’t say. But this would normally be about the time that TV Trump would sit Politics Trump down and tell him to pull it together. Plenty of GOP politicians, apparently, would like that too, as they’re beginning to worry about the first primary debates turning into Thanksgiving dinner with Angry Uncle Donald.
But in the wood-paneled boardroom beneath Trump’s grand mop of hair, there has evidently been a corporate coup. Politics Trump is running things now, and with some recent polls showing him in second place both in New Hampshire and nationally, he probably thinks he’s doing just fine–even if he is going to leave a huge mess for TV Trump after he’s had his fun in the primary.
I do not pretend to be able to know why Trump says what he says and does what he does. Maybe, with TV Trump not commanding the ratings he did at The Apprentice‘s peak, merely teasing at running for President was not enough this time. Perhaps Trump holds many sincere beliefs, and one of them is even that he will someday be the President.
But he is most likely not going to be the President, and the reasons for that explain the difference between TV and politics. Yes, Trump is in the low double digits in some polls, which is a good share in a race with over a dozen contenders. But he also handsomely leads the category of “would not vote for under any circumstances.”
Politics Trump, in other words, is a niche product. He’s appealing to voters who are cynical about traditional politicians or anxious about them damn furriners. He’s a turnoff to everyone else. In a fragmented TV business, that’s great. If your “Yes” number is high enough, the size of your “No way in hell” number doesn’t much matter. The Apprentice isn’t for everyone. Casinos aren’t for everyone. Beauty pageants aren’t for everyone.
But actually winning a primary, and then a general election, means being for enough of everyone to command a healthy plurality, at least as long as we have an Electoral College. Short of a mass-amnesia event, this will not happen for Donald Trump. Being polarizing is good business for reality TV, for Fox News commentators, for the early stages of a primary. It’s the Palin business, basically. But ask Sarah Palin, recently cut loose by Fox News: that business does not last forever.
Which means that at some point, Politics Trump is going to need TV Trump to fall back on. If he enjoys a brief, early-primary run, declares moral victory and retreats to Twitter and the Boardroom, that may still work out. But we’re looking at the possibility that Politics Trump could do just well enough, just long enough that TV Trump will not be able to go back to show business as usual.