Just as Trump used “The Apprentice” franchise to burnish his image as a hard-nosed businessman, he and his team used some of the functions and trappings of his office to recast him as a man of compassion, instead of a callous jailer of children or a TV addict who spends all day tossing racist bombs on Twitter. Issuing a full pardon and conducting a naturalization ceremony in the White House might have been effective stunts if Trump was merely playing the president on a television drama. As an effort to spin his record, which ranges from warning White suburban women that Black criminals are coming for them to trying to lie away a pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans, it was grotesque.
If you could look past that, the segments themselves were relatively inoffensive. Jon Ponder, a former bank robber and the founder of Hope for Prisoners, gave a compelling account of his conversion to Christianity and his friendship with the federal agent who put him in jail for the last time, demonstrating more charisma and decency than the man who granted him a clean slate. At the naturalization ceremony, Trump ran through brief biographies of the citizens he was swearing in, an unremarkable moment save for the president’s self-deprecating joke that Rima Gideon, who studied psychology, can “figure me out.”
But there’s a fundamental tension between Trump’s attraction to competitive reality television shows and the message he needs to send in convention segments such as these.
If you want to seem like a champion of criminal justice reform, you can’t stage a contest between former prisoners, eliminating them one by one and giving out a single pardon to the one who most successfully flatters your vanity. That sort of sadism might make for reasonably engaging television when the stakes are a contract with the Trump Organization or a donation to charity. But it’s hard to sell a setup that requires celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West to lobby for individual prisoners’ sentences to be commuted as substantive reform.
On immigration, the Trump administration needs to conceal the fact that it has made access to the United States a brutal competition. The sight of young children caring for each other in detention, isolated from their parents, is sickening, not uplifting. A naturalization ceremony for less than a half-dozen lucky “winners” made something that is virtually impossible look easy. (It is a rather delicious irony that Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary, is only playing a government official on television since the Government Accountability Office has determined that he was appointed to his position illegally.)
But as much as reality shows sometimes thrive on drama and ugliness, at their best, those weeks of challenges serve a higher purpose. As they work through their tests, we get to know the casts, we gauge their strengths and weaknesses, and we understand the ambitions and personal struggles that have led them to pursue this opportunity.
None of that was on the agenda Tuesday. The “contestants” were mere props; they existed only to reflect glory on Trump. Their value was less to the country’s future than to its showrunner’s.
The Tuesday convention programming had other little stylistic touches borrowed from reality television. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began his address by announcing that “I’m speaking to you from beautiful Jerusalem,” with all the pep of “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison kicking off a travel episode to a romantic location. That President Trump did not, as initially planned, escort first lady Melania Trump to the podium for her speech will inevitably prompt plenty of Wednesday-morning speculation.
But these convention moments mostly revealed that Trump doesn’t understand that when you’re president, there’s only so far you can go to create your own reality.