In 2004, Omarosa Manigault shot to stardom as the unequivocal villain on the first season of NBC’s “The Apprentice.”
Previously a lower-level event planner in the Clinton administration who had bounced around several jobs in the office of Vice President Al Gore, Omarosa embraced the idea of conflict as an essential component to her political maneuverings in the world of “reality TV.” She was equal parts combative, manipulative and insulting to teammates, and while she did not win the competition, her self-possession clearly seemed to win an admirer in the boss himself, Donald Trump, who likewise recognized the importance of conflict to a great story arc.
Omarosa went on to star in several other reality shows, including recurring appearances on two subsequent “celebrity” seasons of “The Apprentice,” where she maintained high-profile feuds with Piers Morgan, LaToya Jackson and others. Her website credits her with being “the first and only contestant to ever compete twice on [‘The Apprentice’].”
Today he threatened to run as a third-party candidate, making it clear that Donald Trump intends to play the part of Omarosa in his latest reality TV show, the 2016 presidential race. The toxicity of his recent comments, including those on immigration, John McCain’s war record and Lindsey Graham’s phone number have won him few allies within the GOP establishment. Yet, the viewing audience can’t seem to turn away from the conflict.
It is fair to say that Trump’s iconoclastic persona resonates with a substantial portion of the conservative base, frustrated over years of capitulation to the Obama agenda. They crave an unapologetic, uncompromising figure who is ready to fight back against the socialist incursion. Thus, Trump has managed to open up a double-digit lead in the crowded field of GOP contenders, not by virtue of the substance of his message but for its tone.
Like Omarosa, Trump also may have his sight set on the long game and not the short one. He’s ready and willing to enter into an all-or-none gambit, speaking his mind at the risk of a campaign-ending scandal, because his goal is not the prize we think it is. A look back at his own actions and comments, in fact, offers insight into his true motivations.
Though many in the GOP field and the media seem flummoxed by his positions, some (including Ari Fleischer and Karl Rove) already have begun to question Trump’s previous support of Democratic candidates. Although he’s been known to hedge his bets in political donations, his substantial donations to Democrats including Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid would seem to be at odds with his self-declared identity as a staunch Republican. In fact, when first analyzed in 2011, Trump’s campaign contribution records revealed he had given 54 percent of his donations to Democrats over more than two decades.
Trump has offered explanations, including that his cross-party contributions were to close personal friends and that, as a New York businessman, he had no choice but to give to Democrats. Since 2012 he has changed his donation habits to favor GOP candidates, but as recently as March 2012, he reaffirmed his close personal ties to the Clintons and expressed a level of optimism about Hillary’s 2016 prospects.
It is also important to look not only at Trump’s previous donations but at his words. When pursuing the nomination in Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 2000, he ran as a centrist, going so far (in typical bombastic fashion) as to call fellow candidate Pat Buchanan “a Hitler lover.”
While it is the prerogative of political figures to switch allegiances and evolve on their positions, there typically is a consistency in their beliefs and voting records that accompanies such a switch. (Reagan famously quipped that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, “The party left me.”)
Trump, on the other hand, has no bonafides to support his credibility as a strong conservative leader. All evidence, in fact, points the opposite direction. As a close friend of the Clintons and having formerly courted the Reform Party nomination, it would be easy to regard his endgame as being that of an election spoiler. Like Omarosa, he may not win the obvious prize of the presidency by playing the villain, but he will reap the long-term benefits, be they greater exposure for his personal brand or favorability and access within the Clinton White House.
His particular motivations may not yet be entirely clear, but it is obvious that his current message is disingenuous. We can look to the lessons of history — the strategies of Omarosa and other reality TV villains — to see where he’s drawing his tactics from. As for the outcome, we can look to history as well: 1992 to be exact, when Perot’s 19 percent of votes gave Bill Clinton the plurality he needed to win.