Trump’s Reality Television Approach to Foreign Policy

Last year, Patrick Radden Keefe chronicled how Mark Burnett, producer of The Apprentice, resurrected Donald Trump’s career as a businessman. In light of the president’s recent photo-op in North Korea, this portion of that story is revealing.

Burnett has never liked the phrase “reality television.” For a time, he valiantly campaigned to rebrand his genre “dramality”—“a mixture of drama and reality.” The term never caught on, but it reflected Burnett’s forthright acknowledgment that what he creates is a highly structured, selective, and manipulated rendition of reality…

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. During the making of “The Apprentice,” Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.” Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”

Much as Burnett created a manipulated rendition of reality that he referred to as “dramality,” Trump created a made-for-television moment with Kim Jong Un by meeting him at the demilitarized zone, complete with photobombs for Ivanka.

As was the case with The Apprentice, the president didn’t bother to prepare for the meeting, but simply dreamed it up on Twitter. As a result, he and his enablers are engaging in an attempt to “reverse engineer” reality to make the photo-op appear consequential. That process began immediately afterwards during a press conference in Seoul, where Trump said this:

They couldn’t have meetings. Nobody was going to meet. President Obama wanted to meet, and Chairman Kim would not meet him. The Obama administration was begging for a meeting. They were begging for meetings constantly. And Chairman Kim would not meet with him. And for some reason, we have a certain chemistry or whatever.

I suspect that even Burnett would shy away from that attempt to not just manipulate reality, but construct a completely false one. The meeting between Trump and Kim was totally meaningless, but to pretend that it was substantial, the president simply lied to suggest that he had accomplished something where Obama had failed.

If Trump had just left things at that, we could simply ignore a meaningless photo-op, after acknowledging that the president had once again given a murderous dictator a platform of respectability on the world stage. But given that this is now the third time that Trump has met with Kim, the administration has decided that they actually need some results to tout as the president begins to campaign for reelection. What would Mark Burnett do in a situation like that? He would, of course, move the goalposts to make it look like Trump had achieved something.

[A] real idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that officials hope might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations.

The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.

It falls far short of Mr. Trump’s initial vow 30 months ago to solve the North Korea nuclear problem, but it might provide him with a retort to campaign-season critics who say the North Korean dictator has been playing the American president brilliantly by giving him the visuals he craves while holding back on real concessions.

That is reminiscent of the Trumpian pattern identified by Brendan Nyhan months ago.

  1. Present a distorted version of status quo.
  2. Create a crisis over the distorted version of status quo.
  3. Restore the status quo (often at substantial cost).
  4. Take credit for status quo.

When Nyhan suggests that Trump’s restoration of the status quo often comes at substantial cost, this example fits the pattern. The consequences aren’t confined to accepting North Korea as a nuclear power. They will also be found in the message that is sent to Iran.

In other words, both Trump and Kim got their reality television moment on the global stage, but the rest of us got the potential of two nuclear headaches for the price of one.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.