On ‘Big Brother,’ America Gets the Reality-TV Politics It Deserves
Posted February 9, 2018 3:50 p.m. EST
Omarosa Manigault Newman, a three-time contestant on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” volunteered to enter a surreal house in which minor celebrities, acting out under constant media surveillance, conspire to eject their rivals one by one.
Then she went on “Celebrity Big Brother."
That it took the second experience (a CBS reality show) to get Manigault Newman to open up about the first (her tenure in Donald J. Trump’s White House) may not be the model of civic discourse that the founders envisioned. But it’s the one Americans voted for and maybe the one we deserve.
Thus, one of the most dramatic exit interviews of this year-old administration transpired on a cushy sectional couch in the “Big Brother” house, between Manigault Newman, the former director of communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison, and Ross Mathews, aka “Ross the Intern” from Jay Leno’s “Tonight” show.
As Mathews pried, in full-on Oprah mode, Manigault Newman broke into tears. She described being wracked with guilt over the fears the administration has stirred up, “haunted by tweets” from a volatile president and stymied in her efforts to be a calming influence.
“We are worried,” Mathews said. “But I need you to say, ‘No, it’s going to be OK.'”
“No, it’s going to not be OK,” Manigault Newman said. “It’s not. It’s so bad.” Once one of Trump’s most loyal boosters — she told a “Frontline” documentary crew before the election that “every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump” — now said she wouldn’t vote for him again “in a million years, never.”
Her confession was punctuated by the kind of distant-thunder soundtrack that played during boardroom smackdowns on “The Apprentice.”
It was a Frost/Nixon interview for the Trump era, when politics and reality TV have become inseparable and indistinguishable. Television, from “Fox and Friends” in the morning to “Big Brother” at night, is now a fourth branch of government.
In a “Good Morning America” interview in December, after she was escorted off the White House grounds after reports of clashes with senior staff, Manigault Newman made only a tepid reference to “uncomfortable” situations on the job.
But she opened up in the company of her peers. One of them, actress Keshia Knight-Pulliam of “The Cosby Show,” was also once a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” where she was fired by Trump for not having called Bill Cosby to help with a challenge.
When Knight-Pulliam criticized Manigault Newman for standing by “the hate that that campaign kind of incited,” Manigault Newman compared her loyalty with Knight-Pulliam’s supporting Cosby through numerous accusations of rape. “Only you know the inner workings of your relationship with Mr. Cosby,” Manigault Newman said. “That’s the same thing with me and Mr. Trump.”
I would not have pegged “Celebrity Big Brother” as the show where, in the Trump and #MeToo eras, America would work through the ethics of enabling powerful men accused of abuses. But here we are.
There is a kind of literary symmetry to Manigault Newman’s smiting her former boss with the very tools he taught her to use. Omarosa was the villain of “The Apprentice,” but she played the game in the most Trumpian way.
She recognized that the show was a contest not of business acumen but of getting and leveraging attention. She created conflict in the belief that chaos yields opportunity. She denied mistakes even when she’d made them on camera. She didn’t win the season, but she won the greater prize of fame.
She was so successful that Trump had her back two more times and also produced, and appeared on, a TV One dating show for her — “Donald J. Trump Presents the Ultimate Merger” — all before hiring her for a White House position whose duties few people were able to describe.
A few caveats are in order about Manigault Newman’s “Welcome to the Resistance” moment. Reality shows are edited for maximum sensation. Her warnings were dire but unspecific. As a contestant on “The Apprentice,” she learned that drama is what saves you from the editing room floor. She might be interested in making a book deal, or simply in repairing her public brand. As Mathews put it: “I don’t know if it’s real. Would you trust her?”
Those might have been stronger rebuttals to Manigault Newman’s comments than what the deputy White House press secretary, Raj Shah, offered Thursday to a reporter from — of course — CBS.
“Omarosa was fired three times on ‘The Apprentice,’ and this is the fourth time we’ve let her go,” he said. It was a boomerang insult that suggested that the Trump administration is part of the same long-running narrative as “The Apprentice,” and raised the question of why she was hired in the first place.
But to suggest Manigault Newman might have been playing to the cameras would have required the administration of Trump — who campaigned on the decisive-leader image that “The Apprentice” stage-managed for him — to recognize that reality TV can convey an inaccurate impression of people.
How much more Manigault Newman has to say, and how much time she’ll have to say it, is yet to be seen. But she’s safe from being voted out of the house for now, having conveniently won immunity from the first ejection.
The network, if not the White House, must be happy. The Wednesday premiere of the three-week series was the highest-rated show of the night. During the 2016 Republican primary, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said of Trump’s campaign, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
He was more right than he knew.