So it’s come to this: the most potentially explosive revelations about America’s Fifth Avenue Mussolini, Donald Trump, are behind an entertainment-industry paywall, one that no mere journalistic enterprise has the power or (in all likelihood) the resources to scale. Reality TV mogul Mark Burnett is reportedly sitting on a trove of damning tapes of the unshackled Trump on the set of Trump and Burnett’s long-running NBC franchise The Apprentice, holding forth on the anatomical allure (or lack thereof) of various female Apprentice contestants with full pussy-grabbing brio, while also reportedly freely bandying the N-word for good measure.
This all comes on the heels, of course, of last week’s Access Hollywood leak, which shows the recently remarried Trump on the set of the infotainment blather-fest (which is also, like The Apprentice, an NBC property) back in 2005, regaling preppy junior Mack Daddy Billy Bush with tales of the tirelessly roving Trump tumescence. American political discourse, and Trump’s poll numbers, will never be the same. And that bombshell, in turn, came about in direct response to last week’s AP report on the stream of sexist abuse and general priapic grossness that Trump has been unleashing on the Apprentice set for the past decade and a half.
With all this distressing documentation of the raging Trumpian id, it’s easy to lose sight of the surpassing strangeness of this moment in the media ecosystem. To begin with, NBC’s news division reportedly had the Access Hollywood tape four days before the story broke in the Washington Post; by some accounts, the network was looking into the feasibility of editing out the comments of Bush—who had become, inexplicably, a cohost of the Today show—so as to safeguard its own corporate branding. (Network officials have since denied that report—but then, they would, wouldn’t they?)
Indeed, from beginning to end, the present furor over Trump’s sexual-assault patter (note to headline writers throughout our great republic—discussion of sex crimes is not anything so benign as “lewdness”) is an object study in the moral incoherence of the American entertainment state. What, after all, was Trump—by then a prime-time TV eminence in his own right—doing on the set of Access Hollywood in the first place? Why, promoting a cameo on the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives; indeed, the actress he and Bush spend most of the tape drearily ogling was Arianne Zucker, who played Nicole Walker—a role for which she landed the coveted “Outstanding Villainess” award from Soap Opera Digest in 2001. Future historians will likely not only puzzle over the fateful decision of the 2016 GOP to align itself with a national candidate from the has-been clearing house of reality television; they’ll also be flummoxed by the bottomless craving for televisual validation that sends a grown, allegedly accomplished man flitting about the backlots of both Days of Our Lives and Access Hollywood, all the better to impress Billy Bush, of all people, with tales of his extramarital cocksmanship. Who was this man? the bewildered twenty-second century chroniclers of Campaign 2016 will wail in hapless unison. What was this culture?
The public right to know about a possible future president’s record of misogynistic and racist abuse is now deemed to abridge the sacrosanct “trust” in the reality-television programming community.
To provide them with a fuller answer, it’s randomly fallen to Burnett—a lucrative namebrand of his own, in the spheres of reality programming and religious broadcasting alike—to deliver the behind-the-scenes Apprentice tapes into the public domain. But despite the authority he claims as a culture arbiter in his day jobs, Burnett isn’t about to comply with any reporting requests for the Trump-damning material in question. The reasons, he’s quick to stipulate, are anything but political—like many an entertainment lord, he’s donated to Democratic campaigns, and is reportedly privately disgusted by Trump’s misogynist and racist utterances. (We should note, however, that Burnett’s Democratic loyalties didn’t prevent his blockbuster adaptation of the Bible on the History Channel from featuring a Satan who suspiciously resembled Barack Obama.) To stave off the clamor for the Apprentice tapes, Burnett has issued a largely nonsensical barrage of contract legalese stating the neither he nor his co-producers at MGM really have the rights to make the Trump material public.
This is the sort of lame alibi that’s all but hardwired into the media environment that has produced Mark Burnett, opportunistic stage-manager of real life, in the first place. Despite the generous documentary brief graced by its name, reality TV has precisely zero credible track record in the actual business of reporting the truth. It is, not to put too fine a point on things, in the business of lying about real life—while also driving down the wage rates of workers on production crews, perhaps in a gambit to turn, them, too, into the subjects of future condescending and voyeuristic TV treatments of working-class woes. In this squalid moral environment, the only thing holy is the brand—which is, at bottom, the only rationale for Burnett’s inaction. “Stiff penalties for unauthorized disclosure are standard practice for reality television series,” Todd Purdum writes in his Politico magazine profile of Burnett (one among a wave of flattering accounts of the producer’s cutting-edge brand savvy, in a none-too-subtle media beat-sweetening offensive):
Moreover, as the star—and a partner—in The Apprentice, industry experts say, Trump himself might have the legal right to control the release of any outtakes or other unused material, including written transcripts, which are routinely used as an aid in editing and shaping the shows. ‘Big stars—and here Trump is in that category—are often given that benefit,’ says one top studio lawyer, who is not involved in The Apprentice and has no firsthand knowledge of Trump’s deal with Burnett. Another longtime television executive, involved with a rival reality show, notes that whatever Burnett’s political or personal beliefs, it would be highly damaging to his standing in the industry—where he has a reputation as the sharpest of deal-makers—if he released proprietary material. ‘There’s no upside to it,’ the executive says. ‘You erode any trust anyone ever had in you. Who would ever want to work with you again?’
So yes: In an election campaign that has seen the authoritarian Trump call for the plainly unworkable “extreme vetting”—i.e., strategic banning, via unconstitutional inquisitions into religious practices and beliefs—of would-be Muslim immigrants, the only vetting of consequence in our money-driven polity is that of Trump’s own image as a reality-television brand. We are now at a pass where the public right to know about the depth and frequency of a possible future president’s record of misogynistic and racist abuse is deemed to abridge the sacrosanct, if laughably fanciful, currency of “trust” in the reality-television programming community. The gentlemen’s agreement that now prevents American voters from encountering Donald Trump’s character in full is steeped in market-driven verities of Hollywood: brand speaking to brand, deal-maker speaking to deal-maker. And here is still another insoluble conundrum for future historians: How did the self-appointed lords of the American brainscape fail to rise to the moral standard of the mouth-stimulating brands known as Tic Tac and Skittles?