On all those points, he may have convinced very few people today, Democrat or Republican, but his lucrative consolation is another season of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
That’s why his prospective candidacy — as it was treated in the media — took the “tease” to a new level. That’s the honeymoon period in which a figure dangles the prospect of a run, but doesn’t actually get into the race. For an established public figure, the attention elevates their status beyond that of mere celebrity. It’s helped Sarah Palin sell books and Mike Huckabee pitch history lessons. On the other side of the spectrum, Warren Beatty was the subject of speculation back in 1999 that he was weighing an independent presidential bid, and although he wasn’t ever really serious, he used the platform to try to promote a pet cause, campaign finance reform.
What Trump did is maximize publicity to the fullest with a fortuitous sense of timing. Remember, the ratings for the aging “The Apprentice” were rather dismal last year; at the upfronts today, he was cheered by advertisers. The very idea that the tease could be used as a negotiating tactic was not lost on a past presidential contender.
For the media that covered it all — cable, print, blogs, me — it goosed ratings and spiked hits. Trump’s non-candidacy capitalized on a void in the otherwise slow-to-move 2012 campaign. The reporters are in place and anxious to get out on the trail. All that is missing are the candidates.
“Trump was never a potential presidential candidate. He’s a hustler with a knack for gaming the infotainment machine,” says Martin Kaplan, director of USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center. “The ‘tease’ was nothing more than a play for free media. The Trump difference was that he used the attention windfall not just to hype his own brand, but to inject poison into the political bloodstream.”
The “poison” is what turned out to be Trump’s signature issue of his non-campaign: Doubting that President Obama actually was born in the United States, a move that temporarily seemed to give new life to the birther movement until Obama released his long form birth certificate.
Critics called it “race-baiting,” the GOP mainstream kept their distance, but it was Obama who got the laugh. In what turned out to be the turning point in Trump’s popularity as a politico, the President skewered him at the White House Correspondents dinner. That the guffaws came on the night before the mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden only reinforced the trivialities of Trump’s role on “The Apprentice.”
Regardless of whether he was still riding high in the polls or had he laughed at Seth Meyers’ jokes, a bid would have been unlikely, says Alan Schroeder, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and author of “Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House.”
Trump is “not the first person who has done this, but as an outsider, he has taken it to new heights,” Schroeder says. “I don’t think that his talk of running for president was plausible for the reason that this was the third time he has done it. All of that got lost in the discussion this time.”
Unlike other prospects who have dangled a run and then decided against it, figures like Colin Powell come to mind, Trump’s image does not necessarily come out all the better, Schroeder says.
Trump floated a presidential bid in 1988 and 2000. This time, Schroeder notes, he risked the taint of racism, and realized “he was hurting his own name, his own brand.” A speech in Las Vegas, loaded with expletives, seemed to be like a self-unraveling, he adds. By getting out of the race he is “trying to salvage his career and his name.”
“This alleged presidential campaign of Trump’s really makes a negative statement about the news media in how they were willing to suspend disbelief,” Schroeder says. “It shows the power of celebrity and how someone with high name recognition can command the stage. It is taking advantage of the institutional bias of the media, which favors celebrity.”
More than likely, Trump’s tease won’t do long-term damage to his image. As the man who tells contestants, “You’re fired!,” his negatives already were high, as the man you love to hate. And by the time “Celebrity Apprentice” returns next season, this period may very well seem like ancient history. The media will have moved on to many other presidential prospects. The carnival of the caucuses and primary will be ripe with surreal moments. And chances are Trump will have done something else outrageous that will surely help us forget.