There seems to be no shortage of individuals and institutions being blamed for Donald Trump’s political ascent. It’s the news media’s fault for exploiting Trump’s ratings rather than fact-checking his speeches! It’s angry white men who can’t adjust to the changing demographics of a country which they once thought of as their own! It’s the Republican Party that is finally getting its due for its covert history of race baiting.
Me, I’m a television producer, and I’m inclined to blame my own profession. But I don’t point the finger at the TV news business as much as I blame the creators of reality television and the corporations that profit from a genre that has poisoned the body politic.
A wise TV director friend of mine once said, “No matter what else TV does, it always teaches.” Viewers learn mimetically: They copy what they see. What’s presented on television becomes acceptable—even desirable—behavior. Thus the self-obsessed tantrums of reality TV performers give license to those watching to behave in the same way.
After all, this boorish behavior is rewarded: Reality TV participants briefly become “stars.” They’re lionized in People magazine. They’re interviewed by Andy Cohen on Bravo. They become the one thing that it seems every living soul wishes to be: famous.
It comes as no surprise, then, that some voters indulge in a kind of magical thinking: Why not take this behavior to a different venue? It works on TV. So why not let Trump bring the heightened emotionality of The Real Housewives and the narcissism and intellectual vapidity of the Kardashians to the White House?
The problem, of course, is that what happens on reality TV is fake.
As most viewers by now realize, reality TV performers are just that—performers. The drama on these shows is invented. Reality producers, as they’re called in the business, seek out emotionally unstable individuals. The producers encourage their cast members to act out in larger-than-life ways. Feuds are created. Confrontations are staged. (A producer friend reported a cast member asking, “Can you remind me why I’m supposed to be mad at my boyfriend?”) Everything is personal and emotional. Serious thought is entirely absent.
In other words, it’s like the Trump campaign.
And just as the behavior of reality TV performers has become acceptable, Trump’s histrionics have become acceptable to many voters.
Trump, of course, was literally a reality TV star before he was a candidate. That’s where he polished his act. He has repeatedly told us that he is “really, really smart.” He certainly is a gifted student of reality TV. He sees what plays; he understands what’s rewarded; and he copies it, behaving like some sort of a deranged, right-wing mob wife—or, more precisely, the atavistic, bullying mobster to whom a mob wife is married.
Like Kim Kardashian, Trump the candidate is relentlessly self-obsessed. (His post-primary victory speeches are weirdly autobiographical.) And like Kardashian, Trump is being rewarded for putting on a shameless, vulgar, but memorable show.
My wise director friend has also said, “Without tension, there’s no TV.” No matter what one thinks of Trump, it has to be said that he provides tension as soon as he enters a room or TV studio.
Watching Trump, television viewers see their own baser instincts writ large. Trump insults his rivals (“little Marco,” “Liar Ted,” etc.) and degrades their families and wives. He speaks in angry generalities. (“We don’t win anymore.”) Trump is pure id. For those of us who can’t behave like Trump without consequence—because we’re adults—it can be fun to watch the very public display of naked aggression. It’s sort of riveting, but so is a fistfight in a supermarket parking lot. And neither leaves the viewer feeling very good about his or herself, or the state of society.
Trump certainly isn’t the first TV star to aspire to the presidency. Ronald Reagan honed his act on screens large and small before the White House. But I doubt if Reagan would have had the chutzpah to presume to go directly from Death Valley Days to the Oval Office. He did, after all, stop along the way at the governor’s mansion in California for eight years. Trump, though, sees no problem making the leap. And his presumption is in keeping with the way reality TV functions.
Whereas most politicians work incrementally toward a goal—running for higher and higher office—Trump doesn’t want to bother with all that. Because despite his clear lack of qualifications for office, he feels he’s special. He’s a star. In this sense, Trump is like the untalented contestants in the early rounds of American Idol who, despite a lack of talent, believe they can become rock stars through an act of sheer will. But whereas everyone laughs at the bad singing in the early rounds of American Idol, not everyone is laughing at Trump’s off-key performance. They’re actually voting for him.
Or perhaps the better analogy is between Trump and Kim Kardashian. Like Trump, Kardashian is as notorious as he is famous. Kim had her sex tape; Trump had his marriages and affairs. Kim continues to outrage with nude selfies and the like; Trump continues to outrage with his sexist statements and insults. The goal in both cases is to keep the spotlight on themselves.
Kim, of course, has no obvious qualifications for celebrity: she has no demonstrable talent other than her unembarrassed audacity, her gift for self-promotion and her idiosyncratic physical appearance (that butt). Similarly, Trump has no obvious qualifications for high office other than his unembarrassed audacity, his gift for self-promotion and his idiosyncratic physical appearance (that hair).
One more thing about reality TV. More often than not, it’s an exploitative genre: The producers capitalize on obscure, emotionally needy, innocent performers who are desperate for attention. The result is TV shows that make the “stars” look like foolish monsters. The stars are quickly discarded when the ratings sag. They are no longer stars.
But if Trump survives his recent stumbles and becomes president, the pattern will be reversed. Trump’s voters will be the exploited innocents. They will be like naïve reality TV performers with hurt feelings who suddenly realize that they have been misused by producers masquerading as their friends. But the presidency is unlike Celebrity Apprentice: If Trump makes it to the White House, he can’t simply be fired.