News & Politics

How Reality TV Elected Donald Trump

Donald Trump, seeking contestants for "The Apprentice" television show, is interviewed at Universal Studios Hollywood Friday, July 9, 2004, in the Universal City section of Los Angeles. Trump is casting for "The Apprentice" the third season. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

Trying to explain the Trump win to anyone unfamiliar with American reality television is pretty much impossible. Toss out the notion of being a Hillary supporter and just try to imagine explaining how American political discourse in its revered state (election trash-talk aside) succumbed to the popularity of an ’80s has-been turned reality TV D-lister. All you see are jaws hitting the floor.

I remember when Survivor made it big. I was a college freshman majoring in Radio, TV and Film. My friends who were seniors suddenly found it hard to find internships and were growing scared at poor job prospects. A writer’s strike caused production to all but screech to a stop in New York and L.A. Reality TV became the strikebreaker, the evil shill that walked through the picket line to give viewers cheap entertainment and get workers who hadn’t accumulated enough credits for union membership paid. Do we trust it? Can we trust it? We didn’t, but we needed to get paid.

Back then we knew the industry was in for some permanent changes. Over a decade later prime time television is only starting to recover from the dearth of cheaply produced reality programming that has all but destroyed the content of basic cable. Reality television has also had a huge impact on print and digital media, making stars out of everyone from pornographic pop culture princesses to Christian car dealers embroiled in sexcapades. Partnering with its slightly younger sibling, social media, reality television has bequeathed P.T. Barnum’s mythical promise of fifteen minutes of fame to an entire selfie-obsessed generation.

That is why, of course, it was so easy to elect a narcissist to the White House. I’m talking about Barack Obama, of course. Bill Clinton may have played the sax on MTV, but Obama mastered the art of social media, turning black into a brand and making it completely okay to cast a vote for a candidate solely based on the color of his skin. Only now are Obama supporters realizing that this notion doesn’t play so nicely in reverse. Pegging working class whites as the new black, Trump capitalized on Obama’s color-over-character strategy, exchanging one demographic for the other while keeping the messaging the same. Black Panthers supported Obama. The KKK supported Trump. This is why you never, ever vote for people based on the color of their skin.

But, that is all we’ve been taught to think of; what we see, the show placed before us. Does it look good? Does it feel good? Is it sexy? Is it tantalizingly cheap and easy to produce? Reality television acculturated us to favor a Donald Trump presidency. Social media’s narcissistic nature sealed the deal. Voters who turned out for Obama in 2012 supported the Donald this time around. Okay, maybe that means they aren’t racist at heart. It also means they have no problem with racists and anti-Semites if they make for a good show.

Interestingly enough, Hillary’s campaign wasn’t any less superficial. “I’m With Her” played like an outdated second wave feminist motif up against the simpering, spandex-clad Trumpettes. The most asexual woman in politics, a grandmother in pantsuits whose own husband doesn’t even find her sexually appealing, went up against Mr. Vegas and thought she stood a chance, because premium cable hags Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham had something to say about it? Didn’t she get the memo that “feminism” is dead?

No one has a harder time branding themselves as vibrant and connected to the culture as a woman over forty. Bill Clinton made the soccer moms feel sexy; Hillary reminded them of the menopausal has-beens they’d become. Up against the likes of Melania and Ivanka, Hillary was doomed. Not because of her questionable ties to Russia, her private email server or even her role in the Benghazi incident, but simply because no one could look at a scorned grandmother in a pantsuit and see her playing the role of president. That’s how far we’ve fallen as a culture; we’re evaluating someone’s political credentials based on whether or not she could satisfy a casting call.

This is how reality television gave us Barack Obama, ruined Hillary Clinton and elected Donald Trump: By teaching us to look at life through a camera lens and trust that we’re being shown the objective truth. Any television professional will readily tell you that “reality” television is as scripted as you get. Very few viewers will ever believe them, though, because human nature instinctively causes us to revert back to trusting what we see with our very own eyes regardless of how that image is being produced. Reality television has made narcissists of us all.