Donald Trump’s illusion and reality

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Donald Trump knows himself. Like all top-notch performing talent, he knows how show business works — and how it works for him.

And some kind of crazy “virtual debate” — that’s just not entertainment. And it doesn’t play to what the president fully understands are his performing strengths. It was never going to happen.

Trump is, first and foremost, an entertainer. He’s an actor who over many years created and molded a character called “The Donald,” an enormously successful businessman with a Midas touch and a charming, roguish appeal. That character now appears to inhabit him totally, to the point where it seems even Trump himself can no longer tell where the invention stops and the real person begins. He seems to believe, to the very fiber of his being, that he is a commanding champion stepping off a gleaming chopper — whether onto a Manhattan rooftop in “The Apprentice” or the White House lawn after his stay at Walter Reed.

In a phone interview with Fox Business, Trump called a Biden digital encounter proposal “ridiculous… you have to confront people, you can’t do it over a computer.” He knows: His fans want a smackdown. You’ve got to give them a show. 

In fact, when Trump’s COVID-positive campaign manager Bill Stepian confirmed his boss would pass on the virtual debate, he quickly added Trump would “hold a rally instead.”

Rallies. Now, that’s show business.

Rallies are the president’s happy place. There, he steps on stage to all the trappings of Hollywood stardom: soaring music, bright lights, and the roar of the crowd. Looking at him in that environment, you can tell he feels at home: he’s relaxed, his shoulders drop, his smile is more genuine, the patter and chatter very much like a real conversation, with a packed arena.

But take away those trappings and his talent does not translate. Trump convened a last-minute White House lawn revival Saturday, to combat the depression he no doubt felt recording several lonely videos over the last several days. In those short spots, he seemed tense and harried, like an infomercial salesman trying a little too hard to convince viewers that the operators are standing by with a limited-time offer too good to ignore.

A virtual face-off would have been that much worse.

In his first debate with Biden, Trump used every trick in his performer’s magic bag to grab attention: the interruptions and eruptions guaranteed he got extra camera time, something more precious than gold to someone who craves the spotlight.

But in a virtual debate, his microphone could be cut off. More than that, producers could quickly drop Trump’s camera altogether and stick with a single shot of Biden until the former vice-president finished his response. If the situation really got out of hand, debate directors might literally pull the plug on the president’s feed and end his share of the evening instantly.

And it very well could have gone that way, with Trump alone in a room talking to a single camera, frustrated, seething.

Like any star, crowds feed him but can also control him. That may be one reason why the president was so manic in the first Biden debate: There was no audience to play off of. Every performer learns how to read the room, feel out the crowd and adjust to what’s working and what’s flopping. But in Cleveland, there was no room to read — no audience except for mask-less family members who undoubtedly fed him only encouraging looks and gestures.

With the Tuesday debate now officially cancelled, the next — and last — encounter is set for Oct. 22  — when presumably Trump won’t be contagious. And, leading up to that, just to keep his stage-craft sharp, perhaps more White House lawn parties and a few rallies in friendly zip codes.

Maybe they will help. Maybe the chosen locations will overflow with ticket holders — or maybe COVID will keep many away.

No matter. Trump’s team could perhaps pack the empty sections with cardboard cutouts of eager fans and pipe in sounds of cheers, music, and a guy selling peanuts — If it’s good enough for major league baseball and the professional sports stars he often tries to taunt, it could work just fine for The Donald.

He’s a showman. And for any good showman, the illusion matters more than reality. They are, in fact, often the same.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags 2020 Debates 2020 election Art of the Donald Donald Trump Entertainment and politics performance Trump coronavirus infection Trump COVID-19 Trump rallies Trump rally virtual debate

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