It’s a stellar example of the kind of television you can make if you have zero interest in journalistic standards and pay no attention to quality. It is visually quite ugly, thanks to both production values apparently imported from a 1987 VHS tape and the lamentable interior design of president-elect Donald Trump’s penthouse in Manhattan.
It is a reality TV special — the first few minutes provide a preview of what’s to come, the stock footage and sourced interviews are used and re-used with impunity, and the music scoring the background seems designed for any other show (possibly the reunion episode of an obscure competition program about tattooing, or competitive travel).
Or, no: Perhaps instead, it is an infomercial. “OBJECTified” was filmed on September 15 — the same day that Donald Trump would tape the “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” appearance featuring the Muss — and features TMZ’s Harvey Levin walking around Trump’s residence, picking up strategically placed items that serve to provide humanizing tidbits about Trump’s past.
In hindsight, it was perfect timing: After his anointment by the Republican National Convention, and before the debates, where he was soundly defeated, and the “Access Hollywood” tape, which delivered him his worst poll numbers of the campaign. The items discussed include pictures of his father, the boardroom chair from “The Apprentice,” a letter sent to him from President Richard Nixon after he defended that president’s policies on “Donahue,” and his son Barron’s motorized car — a miniature Mercedes, of course, which in one photo is parked askew in front of Melania Trump’s gilded writing desk.
There is nothing Levin asks that Trump isn’t expecting, and nothing that Levin points to that Trump’s people appear to have not gotten at already. In one shot, when Trump opens up his high school yearbook, bookmarks left by unseen assistants can be spotted marking the relevant pages. Trump is not exactly rehearsed in his responses, but his rhetoric falls into the same repetitive loops that are familiar from his speeches at rallies and (rare) on-air interviews. It’s both simplistic and endlessly monologuing. He describes positive things, such as his parents, in the broadest possible terms: “great,” “good heart,” “tough,” “strong.” He married Melania because she is a good person; he likes athletes because they win.
I’ve noted before that Trump’s Achilles heel is the ability to have a conversation, and across Levin, he looks like a stuffed shirt missing a few seams: slightly off-kilter but stolid, with a gaze that wanders from questioner to camera and back again. Trump has a tic in which he has to remind himself to say the name of the person he is conversing with, to make it sound as if his response has anything to do with them; in “OBJECTified,” he does it with “Harvey” and in a 1988 interview with “Oprah,” with the exact same inflection and delivery. Oh, it’s Trump all right: The performance of disinterested harmlessness, which runs counter to everything he has chosen to do in his career.
At any rate, there is precious little specificity to anything Trump discloses, and Levin, smoothly ingratiating, helps Trump gloss over whatever else is left over. There is a long segment about Trump’s apparently noble choice to not drink because his brother was an alcoholic; Levin lionizes the way Trump raised his kids. He asks the leading questions of a game show host interviewing the contestants about what their hobbies are — with an eye toward what will cut to a soundbyte, what will play well to their target demographic, and what will squeeze into their allotted amount of time.
It’s hard to fathom why “OBJECTified” exists — why it is hosted by Levin, broadcast by Fox News, and agreed upon by the Trump Organization; why it was kept in someone’s back pocket until two weekends after the election. To be sure, it’s too boring and partisan to be on broadcast Fox — and not even enough footage to fill the hourlong segment allotted to it.
But it’s also barely journalism and definitively biased, wallowing in cherry-picked elements of Trump’s past that are convenient, nostalgia-soaked milestones in a narrative that has been debunked by Trump’s own ghostwriter and the work of reporters during the campaign. Fox News doesn’t have an incredible journalistic reputation, but in airing this, they appear to have enthusiastically made themselves over as a platform for Trump’s positive spin on himself, exchanging their purported conservative values for a tour through the many possessions of a rich man.
Levin’s motivations appear to be simpler. “OBJECTified” is a scheduled hour, with commercials, of professional sucking-up. (Levin is openly gay; Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, is one of the most anti-LGBTQ governors in the country.) And though the special is maddening, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It normalizes and neutralizes president-elect Donald Trump — a figure that a large swathe of the country finds impossible to take seriously, let alone trust — by shifting the conversation away from his controversial (if not downright terrifying) political statements towards that which “humanizes” him. It places him in the context of money and family, as if that somehow makes what he has said any better or more palatable.
And worst of all, it just ignores what Trump has himself said he is — a man who intends to radically restructure American politics, and journalism’s role in it — to instead fawn over his meanly won possessions and questionable reputation, as if these trappings of controversy indicate, in some way, actual value.
One of the final revelations of the special is that Trump wanted to attend film school, but his father pushed him into business. As Levin observes, Trump has done his damnedest to get closer and closer to film — through living a life of public spectacle that started with television and is now taking him to the White House. If it were not so scary, given the policies he endorses and the statements he’s made, it would be tragic.
As it is, a 70-year-old man — accompanied by an interviewer who his own running mate would deny basic human rights to — took a camera crew through a tour of his absolutely ghastly residence, without a single chair that looks comfortable to sit on anywhere in it, to show off the fact that he was once young and handsome, and even received a trophy or two. He then said that one of his favorite films was “Sunset Boulevard.” If this is some kind of ironic bait-and-switch — a joke setup — I have not yet witnessed the inevitable punch line, and no one seems laughing.
To be fair, though, it was amusing to see “OBJECTified” followed up directly by “The O’Reilly Factor,” with its infamous “No Spin Zone.” There was nothing but spin in Levin’s hour with Trump; nothing but smoothing out the unpalatable parts of a man who has the highest unfavorability rating of a president-elect since Gallup began measuring the statistic in 1992.
The last question Levin asks is, “Who are you? Who’s Donald Trump?”
The president-elect responded: “I mean, always a very tough question. But, I’m somebody that likes to help people. I like to see things done right. Above all I want to make life good for a lot of people, not just myself. I’ve won enough for myself, I want to win for the country now. I hate, Harvey, seeing what’s happening to our country.”
Yes: “OBJECTified: Donald Trump” is the puff piece to end all puff pieces. Not, perhaps, because it is the pinnacle of what this medium can accomplish — better production values and closer attention paid to the expressions on Trump’s face would have probably made for a more humanizing product — but because if journalism becomes, under the Trump administration, what the Trump campaign relegated it to, then there will be no distinction between puff pieces and reported facts. The false logic of advertisements and counterintuitive appeal of slogans will take on the bizarre ring of incontrovertible truth, with men like Trump creating their own convenient realities while men like Levin scurry ahead of them, paving their path with inoffensive questions.