It has often been observed that this era of American politics feels less like reality and more like reality TV. Donald Trump himself, of course, the former star of NBC’s The Apprentice, is a creature of reality TV and the swirling ecosystem of New York gossip news that its stars exist in. Trump even runs his White House on the reality TV model; he tells top aides “to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals,” the New York Times reported in December.
Well, seen through this lens, this season of The American Presidency has certainly upped the ante.
Trump is – he has always been – a creature of pure and unrestrained ego, thriving on limelight. He feeds on attention of any kind. For such a man, any kind of coverage, be it good news or really, really bad news, is better than being forgotten. He is more brand than man.
But, like a moth with a flame, having sought the presidency as the apotheosis of attention, the brightest of all possible spotlights, he now shrivels in it. It is too bright for his bluster. The irreparable and immeasurable damage he has caused to the presidency and to America is a side-effect, brought on by his reality TV instincts: never admit a mistake. Always feed the haters, because the haters are, at least, paying attention. Always hit back, because that makes the best copy. But in the full glare of the presidency and all the attention that comes with it, that approach is collapsing.
Recently, one character has been featuring heavily in this wild and improbable narrative arc: Omarosa Manigault Newman. She is one of those people who are known mononymously, like Madonna or Cher; Omarosa, like The Donald, has self-mythologised, built herself into not just a person but a brand in the Trumpian mould.
But now, following her firing as a senior aide in Trump’s White House, Omarosa has turned on Trump. She has a tell-all book, Unhinged, which was released on 14 August, and tantalisingly, in the book she hints at tapes of Trump, including one in which he allegedly uses the n-word.
It is unclear whether this tape truly exists. Omarosa is an adept student of Trump’s methods, and is no stranger to a little bending of the truth to suit her aims. Journalist Yashar Ali has found a number of contradictions in Omarosa’s story, and pointed out that the first week after her book went on sale would have been the obvious time to release such a tape if it existed – although leaving Trump dangling and panic-tweeting has also clearly helped her shift copies.
But certainly some tapes do exist; Omarosa has been selectively leaking them over the course of several weeks, crafting an elegant drip-drip of stories that add up to the informational version of Chinese water-torture.
She has weaponised all the tricks she learned from Trump and turned them against him, and it is clearly driving the president crazy. He has tweeted dozens of times about Omarosa, calling her “wacky”, a “lowlife”, and a “dog”, all of which will no doubt massively increase the sales of her book. But before all that, Omarosa was Trump’s creation.
Omarosa Manigault Newman, the person, was born in Ohio on 5 February 1974.
Her childhood was marked by tragedy; her father was murdered when she was seven. She studied broadcast journalism and worked briefly at an entry-level job in the office of Democratic vice-president Al Gore. She did not have a distinguished career in Democratic politics; Gore’s former office administrator later described her as “the worst hire we ever made”, and she did little better in her next job at the Department of Commerce; her boss at the time told the New York Times that she was “unqualified and disruptive”. She was fired.
Omarosa, the brand, was born on television on 8 February 2004.
She was one of the contestants on the very first season of The Apprentice, and quickly became one of the show’s most popular heels. She fought with everyone. Her very first line on the show was an attack on one of her teammates, calling her “irrational”. In reality TV, fame and infamy are one and the same, and Omarosa had made enough of a public impression to be the only Apprentice candidate to join the cast of the first season of The Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, where she clashed with, of all people, Piers Morgan.
A career of reality-show appearances followed, including another iteration of The Celebrity Apprentice, the American version of Celebrity Big Brother, and a starring role in a short-lived dating show co-created with Trump called The Ultimate Merger in 2013. In 2009, TV Guide magazine named her the number one “most evil reality TV villain” of all time. Trump kept her around, and she learned from him. She became, quite literally, the apprentice. When Trump won the Republican nomination for president, despite her Democratic past, Omarosa joined him.
She joined Trump’s campaign in July 2016 as director of African-American outreach. After the campaign, she was appointed to be assistant to the president and communications director for the office of public liaison, though, as became common in the chaos of the Trump administration, nobody really seemed to know what she actually did.
She was fired by chief of staff John Kelly in December 2017; the final straw seemingly that she brought her entire 39-person bridal party to the White House to attempt to hold an unauthorised wedding photoshoot. After that, she returned to her natural habitat of reality TV, appearing in the American version of Celebrity Big Brother.
In Omarosa, Trump may have met his match, or at least found a perfect foil. She and he are cut from the same cloth. Like him, she knows how to play the news like a musical instrument. They are both virtuosos of publicity, and they are playing out an operatic narrative of betrayal on the world’s largest stage.
Of course, there’s also Stormy Daniels. The porn star whom Trump has admitted paying, through his one-time attorney Michael Cohen, to stay silent about their alleged affair (because sure, in some theoretical universe he might have paid her to stay silent about not schtupping him) has become a particular thorn in Trump’s side. The same is true of her lawyer, the swaggering, made-for-TV Michael Avenatti, who has developed a particular talent for perfectly sticking the knife in to the president’s weakest spots with twinkling-eyed cruelty.
The fact that Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, has been widely reported to have joined the cast of the new series of the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother, which began airing on Thursday night, has a beautiful symmetry to it. The former lover of the reality star-turned-president turns herself into a reality star. The circle of life is complete. (…If she turns up, that is. She did not arrive in the first episode. But the second episode, scheduled for Friday night, is titled “A Storm Unleashed”.)
In merging politics with entertainment and reality TV, Trump has laid a path for others to follow – and between Daniels and Omarosa, that world is catching up with him. It is notable that the blows that have visibly upset Trump the most have came not from political opponents or the press or even the Mueller investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election, but from characters like Omarosa and Daniels, storylines that followed him from his unreal world of gossip magazines and The Apprentice to haunt him in the White House.
If the Trump presidency is headed for a crash, there is a certain poetry to the fact that it might well be reality TV, not reality, that drags him down.