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Presidential Apprentice: Reality TV and Performance Legitimacy

History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America
by Bruno Maçães
Oxford University Press, 2020, 248 pages

Some, perhaps Donald Trump himself, saw the Trump campaign as an infotainment experiment from the beginning. Others, especially his most passionate critics and fans, still resist this conclusion. Re­gardless, there is an analytical utility to viewing the Trump presidency as a multi-season television series called Presidential Apprentice, an extension of the Trump reality TV franchise. After all, Trump’s polit­ical trajectory has followed the genre’s familiar plot arcs.

In season one, “Descending the Escalator,” Trump faced off against various American politicians in a Survivor-style elimination-contest format. Launched in September 2015, the first season ran through November 2016. Season two, “Fire and Fury,” (December 2016 to August 2017) followed the typical format of Trump’s Appren­tice franchise, featuring Trump hiring and firing a cabinet. Who would pass the test of government? Casualty one: General Flynn. Romney had dinner with Trump but didn’t make the cut. Bannon was in; Bannon was out. Did Tillerson diss Trump? What would Scaramucci say next?

Trump would televise cabinet meetings, negotiations with mem­bers of Congress, and roundtables with CEOs using the familiar mise‑en-scène of The Apprentice. He would sit in a big chair in the middle of a long table and employ his practiced gestures and expressions to dominate the camera even when he wasn’t talking—a hand wave here, a furrowed brow there. As those who were close to Trump at this time liked to say, what you would see on TV was what you would get in the situation room, too. Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago, and Trump fired missiles at Syria during dessert. The season ended with Trump trying to sound presidential by equivocating about a rally of what looked like teenage enthusiasts of Nazism. Tasteless to be sure, deadly at its nadir, but at the same time, hard not to get worked up about, and harder still to turn off.

By season three, “Russiagate: Collusion,” the show, like most shows do, jumped the shark. The plot—Trump struggles to prove that he didn’t collude with Russia—was pretty far-fetched and clearly stolen from a late season of the U.S. version of House of Cards. Lame characters from previous installments of The Apprentice made lengthy cameos: Omarosa Newman, Roger Stone—viewers weren’t getting Kanye West or the CEO of Exxon anymore. Even so, it continued to pull in the audience on msnbc.

Season four, “Diplomacy,” focused on foreign policy after Trump’s party had lost control of the House of Representatives. The plot was pretty tedious: Trump tries to prove that “trade wars are easy to win,” and Jared Kushner negotiates the usmca (a name which sounds sus­piciously similar to “YMCA,” the title of a song Trump often plays at his rallies). It followed a predictable logic. The stock market would go up, Trump would threaten tariffs against China or Mexico, the stock market would go down, Trump would ease up on the tariff threats. And so on. It seemed like the show was out of gas.

And then, quite improbably, following the biggest stock market swoon of the trade war subplot (December 2018), Presidential Ap­prentice had a second wind. In February 2019, Trump embarked on a season called “Winning Streak.” The new plots were rapidly cycled, self-contained, and generally resolved themselves happily. The new attorney general brought the Mueller Investigation (somehow still running, but with falling ratings) to a close. ISIS was for all intents and purposes defeated. Fed chair Jerome Powell, a minor character in early seasons, started listening to Trump and cutting interest rates, lengthening the economic boomlet that had been stoked by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. China surprisingly agreed to buy irrational amounts of American commodities, to let BlackRock and Bridgewater own more assets in China, and to let Trump keep most of his tariffs. There was a slapstick string of episodes featuring a guy with a ridicu­lous moustache, a Ukrainian comedian, and another easily repelled effort to impeach Trump (“Witch Hunt”). The Supreme Court ruled that the president could use the general defense budget to build a border wall. The Germans agreed to pay more for NATO. The Taliban came to the negotiating table. Trump ordered the killing of an Iranian general and nothing particularly bad happened. Every­thing was looking good.

Surely none of it mattered that much. In reality space, China was posting record trade surpluses with the United States, the Middle East was not that much less of a problem than it had been before, and the economy was booming but not restructuring. Trump never even got around to building his wall, though he did outrageously double down on the decade-old strategy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. Still, even with these caveats, the winning streak was impressive, no matter how improbable.

And how improbable! The show’s star power had really been re­duced, and the Presidential Apprentice contestants were a mix of geriatric stock characters like William Barr and Wilbur Ross, once-regular guests on CNBC’s cancelled off-prime-time vehicle The Larry Kudlow Show (Peter Navarro, Kudlow himself), or hicks from the sticks like Mark Meadows and Mick Mulvaney. But as is the case for many TV shows that make it to a fourth season, with syndication on the horizon, the viewers had grown comfortable with the main character and supporting ensemble (Donald, Melania, Ivanka, Jared). They were mainly watching to see what new drama might unfold before inevitably resolving itself comfortably, leading to the familiar ending featuring Trump smiling at one of his rallies to the sound of his preferred exit music, the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Reality TV as the Future of Reality

Of course, it didn’t end so well. From March 2020 onwards, the show embarked on a new and much darker run of episodes called “The Cure Can’t Be Worse Than the Disease.” The season finale (one can only hope that it was the series finale), “Storming the Capitol,” was surely a most depressing spectacle. No characters left the stage as beloved old friends who would be happily revisited in reruns. Pretty much everyone watching, even the show’s most die-hard enthusiasts, rapidly got tired of winning even if they hadn’t tired of the president’s brand of winning long before. A plot arc devised on a niche fan literature webzine called Democracy Dies in Darkness—in which Trump is not a man who plays a businessman on TV in turn playing at being the president, but rather an aspiring tyrant, commander of illiberal hordes, and herald of state collapse—received more and more airtime.

The year 2020 presented terrible novelties: a novel coronavirus that increased America’s underlying death rate by around 15 to 20 percent for the year (“Invisible Enemy”), resultant closures of most schools and businesses in the country (“Slow the Spread”), an economic depression only reversed by roughly $4.5 trillion in fiscal spending packages (“Stimulus”), protests against police violence in most large cities, and throughout a blundering president whose act almost imme­diately wore thin.

None of Trump’s efforts to impose the conventions of Presidential Apprentice upon the real life events of 2020 succeeded. Daily episodes of a miniseries called Taskforce had to be canceled when the president realized that he came across as a fool and the ratings were not holding up. Efforts to seem tough amidst the protests left Trump looking ridiculous and cruel (the themes of “Law and Order” had not been popular for decades). Even bland and saccharine characters like Dr. Fauci became at least relatively likeable.

His star power fading, Trump proved incapable of using Presidential Apprentice as a vehicle to promote and advance pivotal initiatives that would prove to help the country, like the vaccine effort (“Opera­tion Warp Speed”), an actual accomplishment of fairly stunning proportions. Instead, Trump railed about the specter of socialized medicine amidst a health crisis that was discrediting America’s health care system and exposing massive holes in its medical supply chain. The best Trump could do was to advertise a handful of experimental drug treatments he received while convalescing from his own Covid infection (“Regeneron”). New narratives and characters like “Spy­gate,” “Stop the Steal,” and Hunter Biden fell totally flat, or rather were disregarded by all but the most devoted viewers. The hardcore audience of fans remaining at the end, like the audience for professional wrestling, couldn’t be counted on to buy the products adver­tised on the show.

It’s not that Americans had been confronted with the harshest of realities to jar them out of the comforts of reality television: it wasn’t a world war or something. The policy response to the virus surely represented the largest disruption to American life since the conscription and social unrest around the Vietnam War. But thankfully, the death toll from the virus, while lamentable, didn’t meet the worst fears of the epidemiologists. The lockdowns, for many, amounted to playing video games, with work moving onto computers and stimulus checks being plowed into brokerage accounts run by the stock-trad­ing-entertainment app Robinhood. The protests had also been a fairly low-risk affair as they addressed an issue that nearly all Americans agreed about: the inequity of excessive police violence particularly targeting African Americans. The protests were thus endorsed by local mayors, accommodated by the police, and hence generally oc­curred in a fairly safe space. (There were, however, reports of a Big Law corporate lawyer throwing Molotov cocktails in Brooklyn, significant property damage in some cities, and a disputed number of deaths.)

Still, even if Americans were not exactly summoned back into real­ity by the events of 2020, they were no longer as interested in the reality TV presented on Presidential Apprentice, either. By the end, Donald Trump continued to be the president of Twitter, but that was all, and fewer and fewer people paid attention to his antics. Trump was eventually banned from Twitter as well, causing him to almost disappear from national life.

The entire ordeal was confusing. The reality TV President failed to win reelection largely because the voters who mattered were unhappy with reality. In America’s manufacturing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, unsurprisingly, electorates wouldn’t support Trump in adequate numbers amidst an economic depression, the closure of schools, places of worship, and businesses, and civil rights protests.

Reality clearly still mattered. And yet, at the same time, reality TV, which in the late 1990s was presumed to be the future of TV, looked more and more like the future of reality.

History Has Begun

History Has Begun is the traveler, statesman, political theorist, con­sultant, and Twitter personality Bruno Maçães’s effort to describe what he sees as an emerging American politics of imagination, possi­bility, and fabulism. He situates this new American politics in contradistinction to European politics, which he characterizes as the carrier of the Western liberal rationalist tradition, and a Chinese politics of statist, authoritarian, technological rationalism. The book is about three things: about Trump, about new political ideas, and about America. In being about these three things, it is also about their opposites and opponents.

Like Maçães’s other two books, The Dawn of Eurasia and Belt and Road, History Has Begun is written, if not esoterically, at least with characteristic esoteric nods hiding in plain sight (“The reader may wish to turn to page 63 for the first reference to the secret of American civilization”). It is written in very good humor: it adheres to the dictum that if you can’t find the jokes on most pages, you don’t understand the book. How can one be anything but eager to read a book whose epigraph features the following quote from Bob Dylan: “Is there anything more American than America?” (This quotation is even funnier if traced to its origin.1) Among other delightful impieties, Maçães rips on Tocqueville for failing to understand America, surely a sign that Maçães himself sees things as they are. Indeed, Maçães is at the crest of a rising wave of authors employing methods derived from the history of political thought and applying them to new frontiers and arenas, doing so with a sense of vitality, adventure, and indifference to established ways of thinking (a vein that runs richly through Harvard, where Maçães did his doctoral studies).

Along with Maçães’s previous two books, History Has Begun also explores an emerging world with poles in America, China, and per­haps Europe—the post-unipolar world that is forming before our eyes. In his growing oeuvre, Maçães travels through that world, pro­viding observations from its focal points and some of the interesting places in between. He is a traveler, but like all great travel writers, he provides not so much a travelogue as an intellectual tour.

The book’s basic contention is that America is beginning a history separate from the political rationalism born in Europe and which suffused American government and society from its beginning. For Maçães, history has begun in the sense that the Western rationalist project has reached both its telos and its finis: as seen in the harmonious and prosperous modernity in which Americans live; as seen in the emergence of China as a technological power with its own version of a prosperous and harmonious modernity; and as seen by the low rates of economic growth and general “fear of success” endemic in Europe and increasingly in parts of America.

The Hegelian end of Western political rationalism may have ar­rived, but even on Hegel’s terms, that only means that the end of Western history has arrived. Hegel and his followers believed that Western history was universal history because of the West’s discovery of history and development of the historical sense. But that is not a logical derivation, and it is possible in any case that the discoverers of the historical sense might not follow its logic. Western history might be subsumed into other history; it may not meet the challenge of the historical sense; the historical sense may pass elsewhere. In our day, it is probably most alive in American and Chinese (or “Eura­sian”) history. Maçães says, in effect: it’s not the end of history; it’s just the end of you. History has begun.

The history that Maçães claims has begun in America is that of a “society of stories,” the organization of life into narratives that allow the setting of personal and even societal goals without concern for their rationality. This new beginning arises because the rationalist society of Europe has grown too skeptical of the merits of “grand narratives” and new ends to commit itself to any difficult or large-scale pursuits. In the emerging new American political history, gov­ernment dispenses with rational skepticism: it is “uninterested in the question of truth” and instead is in the “fantasy business.”

The Fantasy Business

What is the promise of America? “The promise of choice,” Maçães says. “And not an abstract form of choice as promised by the Euro­pean philosophers, but real choice, which is less a mental faculty than a range of readily available alternatives.” Maçães, even as he takes this seriously, doesn’t take it entirely seriously. He compares the American version of choice to the choice of television channels; the choice of harmless hobbies, costumes, and lifestyles; the choice of fantasies; the choices made in the television show Westworld, in which humans visit a theme park “more real than reality” to engage in fantasies with no moral restrictions, but with the benefit and safety of a kill switch. Maçães describes the appeal of these fantasies, but with his jokes and his nods, cannot himself be accused of being absorbed in the fantasy business.

And yet, Maçães is not simply a critic. Here is what he has to say about the main opponent of the new “the post-truth state,” i.e., “the liberal state, which refrains from affirming the truth of any specific ways of life,” and which, Maçães adds in one of his many illuminating distinctions with a difference, is “anti-truth” as opposed to “post-truth”:

I worry that an overbearing concern with fostering a skeptical attitude towards existing ways of life has already produced a detached attitude preventing many people from directly engag­ing with life. We risk creating individuals whose contact with lived experience is at best shallow and at worst nonexistent. The contemporary European culture of café life and momentary sensation is a greater risk than the dangers of Westworld. I be­lieve the quest for total immersion is the holy grail of modern politics. A society of stories would be able to create new experi­ences and genuine feelings and thoughts in a completely artifi­cial environment. The possibilities are endless. What can hardly be denied is that, independently of its merits, a “society of stories” is the best way to think about contemporary America.

A society of stories must be understood, independently of its merits, on its own terms. For what society, after all, is not a society of stories? Didn’t ancient Minos have a story? This post-truth America might have something going for it. Maçães looks for the hidden impetus and unconscious motive underlying the emerging American arrangement. It promises the possibility of action and a return to history at a time when history threatens to leave America and surely Europe behind. Of course, it will have its absurdities and its contradictions. Yet it offers, Maçães says with a knowing smile, an opportunity for grand narratives and major projects, because otherwise “we can expect every grand narrative to be a direct violation” of the spirit of the times.

Jean Baudrillard—the humorist, absurdist, television critic, staple of 300-level courses in cultural studies at American universities, and trenchant author, whose best jokes bear a troubling relation to con­temporary reality—is lately back in style after a brief hiatus, appearing, for instance, in the pages of this journal with some frequency. Maçães might be thought to be close to Baudrillard given his emphasis on unreality and symbolism, his evocation of pop culture, his reliance on futurism in entertainment and application of it to political reality. This line of thinking is a mistake, however, and entirely unfair. Baudrillard tends to be associated with the extreme Left and in some ways the extreme Right; Maçães, by contrast, can be accused of flirting with neither. Moreover, Baudrillard was both a semiotic critic and a critic of semiotics, while Maçães is neither the former nor precisely the latter. History Has Begun offers a search for the meaning, possibility, and future that American semiotics imply.

One could perhaps criticize Maçães for a lack of originality on this point. America’s literature of self-creation, self-expression, and story­telling is well known to just about everyone who has had to write about The Great Gatsby or Babbitt, two works of literature that figure prominently in History Has Begun. Another great author of this genre is Mark Twain, whose Huck Finn knows nothing and knows everything. Even old Tocqueville managed to come up with some good lines on this subject, calling Americans Cartesians who hadn’t read Descartes—living in a world of individual creation ex nihilo. But Maçães, as an author, is ultimately concerned with bigger game: the emerging geopolitics of America, China, and Europe, and how the future of ideas fits within it.

Maçães’s thesis is probably overdoing it on Europe. Europe’s contemporary political makeup might be rationalist, but rationalism need not be rational. Is Europe the inventor of rationalist political liberalism, or did it just do the best it could to adopt Anglo-American political and business models after World War II? And then there’s the European Union itself. Sure, it has done a good job subsidizing Italy’s debt and giving Germany a cheap currency to bolster its export competitiveness. Credit where credit is due. But Europe’s authority figures, such as Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Emmanuel Mac­ron, Ursula von der Leyen, Mario Draghi, Jürgen Habermas, and everyone’s favorite, Herman Van Rompuy (he may be out of office, but who can forget him?), are hardly perfect exemplars of rationalist competence. Perhaps they carry the torch of the clerks, but of Mach­iavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu? Everyone has their fantasies. Perhaps Europe does, too?

Bottom-Line Thinking: The Smart People Are Clapping

The political rationalism of America’s governmental structure has always lived alongside the social fabulism and storytelling that make up everyday life in America—the open road and open frontier of American imagination. It is the bottom-line thinking, to borrow a term from China, of America’s political rationalism that makes Amer­ica’s fabulist life of imagination possible and even safe. The United States has been able withstand its mass enthusiasms because America’s political system safely balances and checks interests and throws the bums out if they don’t deliver.

America is now suffering from dire endogenous challenges that it hasn’t truly confronted before (or at least not in a long time): a low rate of economic growth relative to its past, a failure to channel capital into productive endeavors, and an inability to solve collective action problems. The U.S. economy is severe­ly misaligned and American society appears listless and confused. If these issues are to be addressed—and here Maçães just tells it like it is—they will likely be addressed by a fabulist with some new deal or another who will be the immediate cause of the change. The true or effectual cause, however, will be a political system that is still capable of churning through politicians and throwing the bums out until finding one to address the issues at hand.

There is no question that Trump presented himself as one such pitchman. And he did raise some real issues: had Trump not descended the escalator, America might still be celebrating deindustrialization and California tech monopolies, its Baudrillardian desert. And yet, although Trump became president by attacking the “Clinton-Bush consensus,” did anyone really believe that he was likely to replace it with something else? Indeed, it would be a stretch to say that he even tried. It wasn’t change that you could believe in. And there hadn’t been change to believe in for a while.

Here Maçães understands something about American politics that most commentators do not: its enthusiastic optimism always goes hand in hand with deep cynicism. This combination allows for needed political, economic, and intellectual flexibility, what P. G. Wodehouse called “the big, broad, flexible outlook.” Americans know that behind every great project is a cynical conman selling a dream. This is one of the great themes of American literature. And the fact that America still has not run out of such characters suggests, in Maçães’s schema at least, that it still has a future.

That’s not all there is to America, of course. It is telling that Trump was both elected and rejected in Middle America: in Wisconsin, Michigan, western Pennsylvania—not places known for representing fabulist immersion in virtual reality. His fate rose and fell in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee and Detroit. The open vistas of the West, the Sunbelt, cyberspace, or the American entertainment universe—these were not such important places in the end. This implies that the Trump phenomenon had less to do with the spectacle of Presidential Apprentice than most observers—Trump included, and maybe Trump especially—seem to believe. There was a reality show, but were the smart people watching?

Had Americans been immersed in the new reality created by real­ity TV, they likely would not have elected Joe Biden—in either the primary or the general election—who avoided Twitter, avoided tele­vision, avoided any public appearances at all. Admittedly, Biden appears in the Democracy Dies in Darkness fan literature, in which others have cast this old-line pol as a heroic savior offering deliverance from disease, from fascism, from any number of bad things. But he is at best an unwitting participant in these fantasies, not the pro­ducer or even the star of this TV spectacle. And the show occupies less and less airtime already.

It does seem as though the electorate, or at least the part that determines things (i.e., the part that knows that its votes matter) in its essence remains focused on “performance legitimacy”—outcome-based analysis focused on an assessment of how the country is faring at a given moment. I’ve heard Jake Sullivan say that he wishes he came up with the “America First” economics approach to investment bank­ers gathered at a New York cultural center, where he was met with gasps, awkward glances, and grimaces. And I’ve heard Donald Trump advocate a national-interests-based economic policy to a hall full of businesspeople, the country’s top economists, and financiers. Upon receiving virtually no applause, Trump claimed that “the smart people are clapping.” Of course, the world saw the way that the American electorate (the part that counted) responded to the situation in 2016 and 2020.

This gives some glimmer of hope that performance legitimacy, the necessary though not always sufficient form of political legitimacy, is still functioning in the United States. Even if the average CEO, politi­cian, public policy professional, or professor is slow to figure it out, enterprising political operatives, each in their own way, still try to achieve it. Success, if it comes, will likely be delivered with a story and a circus, and the press will, as the saying goes, print the legend. The legitimating performance might occur in the real world but must be cloaked, as Maçães explains, in a spectacle. All the smart people wear a mask, as it has become popular to advise people to do recently.

Be this as it may, the spectacles and the performances point to a way forward for America as it enters into an inevitable contest with the other major country that is also competing for performance legiti­macy: China.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 2 (Summer 2021): 167–78.

1 This sentence is taken from a commercial that Bob Dylan recorded advertising Chrysler cars which aired during the 2014 Super Bowl, many years after Chrysler had in fact become Fiat-Chrysler following a bailout and administered sale to Italian car conglomerate Fiat S.p.A. supervised by the U.S. Treasury Department. The commercial is set to the music of “Things Have Changed” (2000), but without the song’s lyrics. (The song’s chorus: “I used to care, but things have changed.”) The commercial’s text in full:

Is there anything more American than America? ’Cause you can’t import original. You can’t fake true cool. You can’t duplicate legacy. Because what Detroit created was a first and became an inspiration to the rest of the world. Yeah, Detroit made cars. And cars made America. Making the best, making the finest, takes conviction. And you can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line. You can search the world over for the finer things, but you won’t find a match for the American road and the creatures that live on it. Because we believe in the zoom, and the roar, and the thrust. And when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else. American pride. So let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.

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