How long can Donald Trump keep this up? When will his fans stop laughing, his big crowds fail to show? Is there a limit to how many times he can go out onto the stage, call into a TV show, attack the way things are in the country, trash his rivals and still get ratings?
That is what we used to call “The $64,000 Question.”
It is, oddly enough, the reality TV show that Trump is producing before our eyes. We tune into him for the fascination of seeing how long he can do what he's doing.
Trump’s presidential campaign isn’t his first enterprise in this distinctive use of television. Look at the long-running success of "The Apprentice." It's based on the same viewer demand out there in 2016 politicking.
People like to see someone under pressure.
It's what the TV networks did with the big quiz shows like “21” of the 1950s. Millions loved watching the nerdy Herb Stempel and the wellborn Charles Van Doren sweat in the "isolation booth." Could they come up with the answers in time? How long could they continue as champions?
Reality shows like "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" have shown the same ability to grab tens of millions of American eyeballs. Just like their forebears, these shows give people what they love, the chance to see recognizable human beings sweat it out for big stakes. Just like on election nights, there's a crackle of victory and defeat. People show joy and misery depending on how the game goes.
Trump is the long-time master of this game. For years he sat stone-faced, the hard-nosed business tycoon deciding the fates of those sitting in that quiet room before him. Then came the verdict -- "You're fired!"
The contestant hated it; the audience at home loved it.
Today he's doing the same to his presidential rivals with the added bonus of being a contestant himself.
Trump wasn't the first politician to realize this power to grab millions of American eyeballs.
In 1952, Richard Nixon exploited the heck out of the new medium with his “Checkers Speech.” For 30 live minutes, the country could see him under fire for charges of running a “slush fund” and fighting back. We saw a young politician facing the heat, fighting for his life.
Most liked what they saw. More people watched Nixon that night than any TV program before. His defiance of the political establishment, maudlin as it was, saved his place on the Republican national ticket.
John F. Kennedy, his future presidential rival, was also a quick study of how unscripted TV drama could enrapture the public.
Kennedy’s thinking shown brightly in an article he submitted to TV Guide in 1959. It described how television allowed a politician to give millions of voters an on-air experience they couldn’t refuse. He pointed to the Army-McCarthy hearings four years earlier and the Rackets Committee sessions that targeted labor leader Jimmy Hoffa.
Kennedy called them “political TV spectaculars” that could create heroes and villains alike. “Many new political reputations have been made on TV – and many old ones have been broken.”
He was referring to how Army counsel Robert Welch destroyed the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, and how his brother Robert, the Rackets Committee chief counsel, exposed Teamster’s president Jimmy Hoffa.
The future president said these events showed how unscripted TV drama was capable of shifting public attitudes.
The good news, he argued, is that the political establishment no longer controlled the game, certainly not the one of picking presidents.
“Party leaders are less willing to ride roughshod over the voters’ wishes.” No more backroom boys getting to pick an unpopular nominee and shoving him at the voters.
But Kennedy also warned of the trouble this new political opening threatened.
“It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogues, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.”
“Political shows, like quiz shows,” he said, “can be fixed – and sometimes are.”
He was referring to the recent congressional probe of “The $64,000 Question” and “21” which showed that contestants like Stempel and Van Doren were given the answers. (Stempel would testify how producers even turned off the air-conditioning in his isolation booth so he would sweat as he appeared to be searching his brain).
Now we’re in the advanced age of reality television, The Age of Trump.
No need for fakery here. Donald Trump is a grand master at this game.
But reality TV always holds the prospect of surprise. This explains Trump’s fight with Megyn Kelly during and after this season’s first Republican debate. The Fox moderator did to him what he’d done to others, casting Trump in the role of hopeful “apprentice,” taking for herself the stern role of interrogator and judge. She won; he lost.
Trump has, in recent weeks, recasted himself into a new role: executioner. Instead of watching him for a verdict we now watch to see how he will slam the next opponent. We wait to see which rival he will “fire.”
All the while he’s been constantly raising the heat level in this on-air contest. Like the producers of the old quiz shows, he wants us to see his rivals sweat.
It was much the same in the 1960 “Great Debate.” The Kennedy people did whatever they could to get on Nixon’s nerves. One thing the Democrat did was conduct himself during an initial microphone check like he’d never met his associate of 14 years. It was all taped; you can see Nixon was shook by it.
Another ploy was to head-fake Nixon out of accepting make-up by refusing to take it himself. Back in his holding room, and out of sight of Nixon, Kennedy had his media guy, Bill Wilson, sponge on the powder.
Kennedy’s final trick was to hold back on entering the studio until the very last moment. Only when the clock about to hit the hour did he come rushing back onto the set.
Nixon didn’t help himself. His people demanded that CBS producers give him an equal number of “reaction shots.” When Kennedy was making a point, the camera should show Nixon’s face, scared.
What millions saw at home was Nixon sweating worse than Herb Stempel in his isolation booth.
The Nixon people were dead set on this not happening a second time.
When Jack and Bobby Kennedy entered onto the NBC set in Washington, home for the second debate, they thought they’d walked into a meat locker. Nixon’s people, it turned out, had gotten there early and turned down the thermostat.
Kennedy’s media guy, racing down to the basement, engaged in a confrontation with a Nixon operative that got the temperature piped back up.
It’s all about the human drama of live TV, the ability of television to convince viewers they have truly gotten to know the person they see on camera.
As president, Kennedy would make the most of this with his decision to televise his press conferences live. It would show his ability to respond on a wide range of subjects, his wit, and yes, his unparalleled charm.
“I think, no matter what the defenders or detractors may say,” Kennedy argued, “that the television public has a fairly good idea” of what people are really like.
Trump is making the bet that people will (A) like the image he projects and (B) believe that the performer they see on the TV screen is who he actually is.
We’ll know he’s failed when we start to see him sweat.