By the standards of a traditional campaign, Donald Trump is breaking all the rules. He’s constantly doing the unthinkable: referring to some 9/11 mourners as “losers”; mocking his female primary opponent for “that face”; and trashing Hispanics with apparent disregard for the Election Day consequences.
Most candidates are obsessed with their likability, but Trump is often mean, egotistical, and so unconcerned with projecting credibility he dismisses policy questions with non-answers like “I’ll just do it.” Voters seem to love him for it.
Beltway insiders are rending their garments and wailing that it’s not supposed to work this way. Where have our standards gone?
The problem is, they’re all studying the wrong rulebook.
To anyone familiar with the reality show genre, it’s plainly evident Trump is playing politics by the rules of reality TV.
Reality Show Rule One: Tell Viewers What to Think
Have you watched The Apprentice? The contestants constantly narrate their own story. They give interviews talking about their standing in the competition and why they’re better than everyone else.
Trump does the same. His speeches are about what’s happening to him, what’s happening to the other candidates (contestants), how he feels about his opponents, how he thinks they feel about him, how he—and you—should believe he’s doing, and what to expect next.
Most political advisers would consider this a violation of a campaign commandment: Thou shall not talk process. But in reality TV, this isn’t process, it’s sharing. The ones who share best survive.
Trump intuitively understands it. He is actor and narrator in his own story.
Reality Show Rule Two: Give Them a ‘But Wait, There’s More!’
Todd Lubin, former executive producer of a long top-rated reality show, The Biggest Loser, says that in a good reality show the contestants must give the audience new “Holy smokes I can’t wait to see what’s next” moments. “You need the ‘but wait, there’s more!’” he says.
The master of the genre, Trump endlessly keeps us on the edge of our seats, providing unexpected turns of the dramatic screw. After the Fox debate, he did it by picking the “blood” fight with Megyn Kelly. That got him mileage for days. In the case of the upcoming CNN debate, he’s ratcheted up the tension by calling on CNN to hand over its profits to veterans. His nasty attack on Carly Fiorina’s looks serves the same purpose. If the debate were an episode of a competition reality show, you could imagine this log line: In Episode 2, Carly Fiorina hits back, but The Donald has a new surprise.
Reality Show Rule Number Three: The Simplest, Loudest Soundbite Wins
Reality characters are always competing for airtime. To get it, they have to master the art of delivering pithy, outrageous soundbites that won’t be left on the cutting-room floor. The rude character, the one who stirs the pot and says the craziest things, gets the most visibility.
Think Omarosa from the first season of The Apprentice. Trump is playing the Omarosa role. He’s a genius at delivering a no-he-didn’t soundbite, calling Hillary Clinton “a birther,” Jeb Bush a “low-energy guy,” and Ben Carson an “only OK” doctor.
One reality producer who begged not to be named to avoid alienating Trump describes the Apprentice boardroom as the perfect training ground for the pithy putdown. “It’s an absolute bloodbath in there. People go after each other. It’s personal. It’s about saying it louder, brevity is critical. It’s almost unfair [Trump] spent years and years in those boardrooms competing with bright people all barking to get the attention. That skill, that training, I don’t know how anyone could beat that.”
Lesson: You don’t win a reality show by acting likable. You win by saying whatever puts you at the center of water cooler gossip tomorrow. In that game, Trump is a gifted player.
Realty Show Rule Four: Stay True to Character
One of the most surprising aspects of Trump’s popularity is voters’ willingness to accept his bullying, even cruel, attacks, and celebrate them as refreshing and courageous. This can also be explained as a reality show conceit.
Every cast member on a show is an archetype. As long as the cast member stays true to the type, the audience accepts the behavior. It’s authentic. In the most basic sense, Trump’s “type” is the bully or the grandiose egotist. He’s not just forgiven for being outrageous and rude—he’s rewarded for it. Within this frame, he’d be considered inauthentic if he showed weakness, indecision, or regret.
There’s another dimension to Trump’s public persona. He’s a special kind of modern-era hero: the media-savvy guy who always knows where the cameras are, plays to the audience with a wink, and makes sure we’re in on the joke. When Gawker posted Trump’s phone number online, he changed his voicemail message to say, “This is Donald Trump and I’m running to be president of the United States.” You can’t help but smile at this jujitsu win. We forgive a multitude of sins from a guy who makes us laugh. And Trump makes the viewers/voters feel like we’re in all in on the joke.
Rule Five: The Bully Rarely Triumphs
Here’s the tricky part for Trump, and an opening for the rest of the field. In reality TV, the jerky white guy almost never triumphs in the end. That guy entertains us, infuriates us, keeps us watching. But in the end, an underdog almost always emerges to slay the bully. “Omarosa doesn’t win. She gets the spinoff,” says one producer.
The trick for the competitors is to survive long enough to become the Trump-slaying hero in the end.
Right now Trump is playing to an audience that understands modern campaigns are nothing if not reality shows: carefully scripted, highly managed facsimiles of real life filled with conflict, stakes, and big personalities. The voters—or viewers—are conditioned to expect archetypes, constant narration, and teases that keep us watching.
The person who can convey their point of view clearly and simply, stay authentic to their persona, and dominate water cooler talk is the one we want to watch. Trump is ideally suited to play this game. When the other candidates figure that out and start adapting to reality show rules, then we’ll have a real competition.