The Real Housewives of Donald Trump
“Like good bad TV – a medium Trump has been milking for over a decade now – it’s that which has yet to be revealed that keeps us all tuning in to a grotesque flesh sack of rejected TV pitches, whose fact-checks always bounce.”
I was walking with a friend through Chelsea toward a party, discussing the presidential election, what else, when the line came to me: “Omarosa could be the next Valerie Jarrett!” This took some explaining, since my friend had never watched The Apprentice, and I did a poor job of it, because I have no memory for the plot points of reality TV shows. I would say it’s because I “have a life” but honestly I’ve forgotten the plots of hundreds of reality TV shows. The best I can conjure is that Omarosa Manigault didn’t win, but is still the most famous cast-member in the history of our future overlord’s NBC-produced business acumen gauntlet. She was ruthless, or her character was edited as such, and she always wanted to be “project manager.” (Google it, life-haver.) In one episode, a small piece of plaster dislodged from the ceiling of a worksite she was supervising, hitting her in the head and causing her to lose focus in the competition.
12 years later, Omarosa is publicly supporting Trump’s presidential bid in “real” TV interviews, including one where she told her interlocutor, “Donald says I’m his Valerie Jarrett.” Since then, Omarosa has gone so far as to say, “Every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump.” Kind of makes you yearn for the days these TV personalities barely left Trump Tower.
Omarosa is not the only woman whose personal and financial relationship to Trump conveniently bleeds the line between truth and well-drafted lies. As the conversation progressed, my friend and I moved onto Trump’s alleged history of sexually abusing women.
“By the way,” my friend said, “did you hear that Trump maybe sexually assaulted someone?”
“Yeah,” I said, “his wife, right? She says that in some biography.”
“No someone else.”
“Woah, how did I not know about this? Show me.” She looked it up and the story turned out to be from a few days ago.
“Must not be real then,” I said, my assumption being that it would have been big news, therefore I would have heard about it.
“The Atlantic reported it.”
“Did the New York Times report it?”
“Then it doesn’t seem real.”
Of course by “real” I had meant, shamefully, “real news” not “what really happened.” The former you can know with the touch of a screen, the latter you may come to know merely as unease, depression, and slimeball sciamachy. What’s important is that my brain had, with a single word, elided the difference between the two. This is what it’s like to watch the Trumpian presidential election, and I’ve been watching the women in Trump’s orbit in particular to try to piece together what, if anything, “election news” means to me anymore.
I’m learning, first of all, that my friends are always right and I’m an idiot. In early June, around the time of that conversation, an anonymous woman, “Jane Doe,” filed a lawsuit, which includes witness testimony, alleging Trump raped her in 1994. She was 13 years old at the time. The defendant says she was a fixture of Joe “Billionaire Pedophile” Epstein’s sexually predatory party scene, hence her alleged connection to Trump, who bragged of attending Epstein’s ragers throughout the 90s, before the public scandal hit. Another woman, Jill Harth, accused Trump of sexually assaulting her in 1997. Harth and her partner had been collaborating on some Trump business deals, during which time, she alleges, Trump took every opportunity to grope her and leer at her. In one instance, he attempted to rape her.
Then there’s his ex-wife, Ivana, who stated in a divorce deposition that Trump raped her in 1989, an allegation Harry Hurt III details in his 1993 book “Lost Tycoon.” Per Hurt’s brutal account of the incident, Trump attacked Ivana over an uncomfortable “scalp reduction” procedure he’d had to excise a bald spot. Ivana had recommended the plastic surgeon. Trump denied the rape allegations and, while he was at it, the surgery. Ivana amended her statement ahead of the book’s publication to suggest that she had not meant rape “in a literal criminal sense,” but that the interaction with Trump had left her feeling “violated.”
These allegations have not been particularly important in the coverage or outcome of the election, nor are they widely known. One reason might be sexism, and what some call “rape culture,” or the lazy assumption that most powerful men rack up their fair share of sexual assault actions and allegations, and who can even sort through the difference between the two. Another is that Trump and his associates shamelessly hunt and kill the stories they don’t want to survive, while embracing spinoffs and proteges, like Omarosa. In July, Trump’s legal counsel Michael Cohen issued a vicious warning to the Daily Beast for daring to write about Ivana’s retracted allegations. “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly,” Cohen told the Beast, “because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?” Nothing keeps Trump’s legal team employed quite like accusations of sexual criminality. Except for reports that he’s been defrauding people left and right for decades, or that he doesn’t make as much money as he says he does.
But none of these explanations can account fully for why an assault allegation and a juicy megalomaniacal quote are weighted equally by the media and blow over after a few hours or days. It’s a matter of scale as much as it is sexism and sleazy attorneys. No moment in the Trumpian election can afford to be empty, so any material at hand, something as humble as plaster even, can be spun into scandal before it is quickly swept away. Like good bad TV – a medium Trump has been milking for over a decade now – it’s that which has yet to be revealed that keeps us all tuning in to a grotesque flesh sack of rejected TV pitches, whose fact-checks always bounce.
What does it feel like to tune in? I recently started a part-time writing job, about 40 percent of which consists of blogging about the presidential elections, not because that’s in the job description but because anything can be news if you think enough people will click on it. This is the first rules of Content Club: News is the reality produced when a high volume of people decide they want the same thing at the same time. It naturally follows that blogging about the presidential election throws into sharp focus the scripted quality of the election news cycle from the production end of things. Trump makes X racist, incoherent, or both statement, and his political rival Hillary Clinton (or a surrogate like Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren, since Clinton speaks very little) condemns it a few hours later. Like a completely formulaic episode of Gossip Girl, parties have become the location of conflict eruptions and their swift resolutions. The stories seem big in the moment and fade very quickly, perfect for attentions groomed to hold one glass of champagne, one designer purse, at a time. They are made for content benders, binge-watching.
In a couple of brilliantly entertaining dispatches from the Republican National Convention, n +1 editor Dayna Tortorici watches Trump ascend to the GOP’s primetime throne as if it weren't all actually happening in front of her because, in her words, “For months now, I’ve been unable to think of this election as anything but television.” Having to stomach the speakers in real time and for work doesn’t take away from the hypnotic inauthenticity of the program, suggesting that a mode of repackaging every moment as denouement – perfected on television and distributed by the media – can be adapted to the stage. One speaker “reads” from a teleprompter that just says “seven minutes.”
“Election coverage resembles both an anxiety dream and a reality show,” Tortorici writes, “and it’s possible that people unconsciously believe that watching enough of it, obsessing over the minutiae, playing more or less the same scene over and over with slight variations, will shelter them from the shock of the outcome.” I like the assessment of election media coverage as a structurally sound half-way house for anxiety management, but the nature of that anxiety is much less precise than concern for who will occupy the Oval Office come January, and most of the time has nothing to do with electoral politics at all. More often, viewers wait to see what’s next, to feel sick, depressed, elated, or no way about it – a decent distraction from anything that might keep a person up at night. It’s waiting for more waiting. Trump is by no means the only politician to provide this sort of entertainment. But his performance exploits the audience’s craving for moments of high political drama – usually only achieved through superb acting or by accident – in its manifestation of a transparently chaotic ego. Because he always says the wrong thing, it’s always the right moment for it.
Typically, the drama of an election cycle is easiest to glimpse when a candidate malfunctions. In February, we watched as Marco Rubio failed to put his inner nervous robot on pause and repeated variations of the same talking point four times during a Republican debate, detonating what remained of his campaign in the process. There was the balloon shower at the climax of the Democratic National Convention, where a Clinton aide tucked away his expression of pure, child-like glee and made room for his boss to tap a giant balloon he’d been aiming for. And, of course, there was a recently defeated Chris Christie standing supportively behind Trump in March, looking as if he were wrestling with every decision that had led him to that point and the nauseating fuck-reptile he’d become. Stare at the blank page long enough and the memories start to return.
But with Trump and his cohort everything is a slip, a “gotcha question” without end or answer. And for every Ivana there’s a glut of Ivankas, at least where news volume is concerned. Katrina Pierson is simultaneously one of Trump’s most visible spokespeople and a cast member on the reality TV series Sister in Law, which premiered at the end of March. Pierson has made a name for herself contriving bold statements on cable news shows – claiming Obama led us into Afghanistan in 2002, for instance, and appearing on CNN wearing a necklace made of ammo. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and current wife Melania have both made several appearances on The Apprentice. They now go to bat for their (sugar) daddy on social media, in interviews and speeches.
While the women in Trump’s life evangelize his reality-style, Trump flexes his web of uber-reality. His recent appointment of Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon as his third campaign manager has stoked latent buzz that Trump may have a new right-wing media venture in the works, “Trump TV,” should he lose, especially now that his presidential bid is turning out to be more of a media campaign than a political one. Vanity Fair contributing editor Sarah Ellison reported on the concept in June and raised the additional possibility that Trump had spoken with NBC executives about continuing The Apprentice from the Oval Office, if elected. The idea doesn’t even make me blink. I’ve gotten used to knowing that the only place to catch Ivanka, Omarosa, Melania, and the rest is somewhere in primetime, standing in front of a bunch of American flags. If the cast got their wish (and it looks like they won’t exactly this time), the single discernible difference between 2017 and 2007 would be that Americans watch The Apprentice with their backs bent, on their knees. But even if they fall short, the show is getting renewed.