The pinnacle of Donald J. Trump’s TV career lasted one night, and he has never stopped trying to relive it.
The finale of the first season of “The Apprentice” in 2004 was the top-rated show on TV. Afterward the host, finally a mass-media star after decades of courting fame, believed that giving people twice as much of him would be twice as good.
NBC agreed, scheduling the show for two cycles the following year (and then a spinoff with Martha Stewart). The “Apprentice” that returned was more Trump-centric, the host more brash, loud and insulting, his boardroom firings more dramatic and stunt-filled. Mr. Trump himself took to the talk- and comedy-show circuit like a starlet in Oscar season, appearing in ads and on red carpets delivering his trademark “You’re fired” finger-point and sneer. He was everywhere.
It didn’t work. The ratings declined, first gradually, then precipitously. While competitors like “American Idol” topped the charts for years, “The Apprentice” declined until Mr. Trump was left hosting a gimmick version with C-list celebrities. For years after, he would cling to that one glorious stat from 2004 like an Electoral College map, to claim that his reality show was still the biggest thing on TV.
The host, of course, rebooted himself, parlaying his network celebrity into a second life as a political commentator on Fox News, then candidate, then president. But his reality-TV experience is worth keeping in mind as he plans to revive his evening coronavirus briefings, in the apparent belief that rebooting last spring’s ratings hit will reboot his poll numbers.
NBC’s mistake with “The Apprentice” was partly an eternal TV pitfall: milking the prize cow until it runs dry. Donald Trump, it turned out, was no more immune to overexposure than Regis Philbin and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (“Idol,” on the other hand, aired just one season a year, and aimed to make stars of its contestants, not just its hosts.)
But it was also an error distinctive to Mr. Trump, who was both the star and a producer of “The Apprentice”: Since his 1980s tabloid days, he never believed there was such a thing as bad publicity, at least for him. Or as the “Pod Save America” host and former Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer put it in a Tweet on Tuesday: “Trump always thinks more Trump is the solution when it is always the cause of the problem.
Sure, attention is an asset, in politics as in reality TV. Mr. Trump’s willingness to feed the news beast in 2016 earned him billions in free media and effectively made him the election’s protagonist.
And as I wrote during Mr. Trump’s first run of briefings in the spring, they offered him an opportunity he hadn’t had since he started “The Apprentice”: a regular TV platform in which he could speak to a mass audience beyond his loyalist base. For a moment, they allowed him to create the visual impression that he was acting on the pandemic, by going out and speaking on it. For a moment, his approval ratings — and TV ratings — went up.
But what you do with the attention turns out to matter, at least when the stakes are hundreds of thousands of lives, not a game-show prize. It matters if you suggest that household disinfectants could be a medical treatment. It matters if you go to war with your own medical experts. It matters if you minimize, on Page 1, a terrible reality that everyone can read about for themselves in the obituaries.
Judging by the president’s decision, he doesn’t see this as the problem. Instead the problem is not enough him on TV, giving the people what worked for him before — zinging, blustering, pointing fingers and fighting.
His plan to return to prime time was not accompanied by an announced shift in public-health policy. The thinking simply seems to be: People want to see the president doing something. And to Donald Trump, going on TV is the doing-somethingest thing of all.
Thus we saw him on Sunday, sitting for an excruciating interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, doubling down on blatant disinformation — like his claim that the United States has the lowest Covid-19 mortality rate in the world — in the face of ruthless fact-checking. As in his “You’re fired” days, he fell back on his trusty catchphrase, calling Mr. Wallace “fake news” as if the words could dispel the interviewer from the boardroom.
At one point, Mr. Wallace brought up the president’s past criticisms of him, asking if he understood that it was a journalist’s duty to interview the president’s rivals, too. A more blunt way of putting it would be: Does the president think it’s Fox’s job to help him win the election?
He seems to think so. He tweeted a complaint in May that Fox was “doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected.” But in a broader sense, he has suggested that TV itself owes him payback for all he’s given it. TV networks, he has said, will miss the ratings he brings if he is voted out of the White House.
He may be right, but he also assumes that TV viewers think like TV networks. He acts as if Americans would suffer anything rather than the boredom he imagines they would endure without him. Thus his preferred epithet for his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr. — “Sleepy” — which may not be the killer burn he imagines to a populace tired of staying up all night in anxiety.
And yet Mr. Trump is, if you trust the current polls, currently losing to a challenger who is running a quasi-incumbent-like media strategy, avoiding making big splashes and letting his rival do the work for him. Mr. Trump seems resentful of this — “Let him come out of his basement,” he told Mr. Wallace — or maybe just incredulous. Why would any sane person not get as much media attention as possible?
Mr. Trump seems to believe that Americans are yearning for a TV star more than they are yearning for a leader — or, at least, that they do not recognize a difference between the two.
Criticize his approach, of course, and there is a ready answer: The “Too much is never enough” strategy worked for him in 2016. It worked in 2004, too, in the first season of “The Apprentice.”
It always works until it stops working. Until someone decides that too much, in fact, is enough already.