Pundits have been comparing presidential politics to the unseemly rituals of reality TV for a few election cycles now. The metaphor morphed and so here we are: Donald Trump, official celebrity and star of reality TV (thanks to a decade’s worth of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice”) is now a leading star of reality itself.
What happened here? Was it abject fear of globalization? The years of sinister messaging and media manipulation? The hostility toward elites? Or was it truly the fact that reality TV, with its bad manners and skewed morals, finally conquered real life? We could charitably call reality TV a mirror, but it’s more like a series of mirrors — fun-house mirrors that distort the way we view our fellow citizens.
Rewind a few decades. In purporting to show us ourselves as we actually are, reality TV began (unwittingly) to turn us against one another. In nearly 30 years worth of “Cops” episodes, the TV audience came to understand that the minority and/or low-income motorist, who has always just been thrown to the ground by two or three police officers, is, at the very least, in violation of one law or another (no vehicle registration, a broken taillight) and — looky here — carrying just enough drugs to bring serious trouble. The messier the house (the apartment, the trailer), the more likely the handcuffs.
From there, reality TV began to confirm one subliminal prejudice after another. The young-adult occupants of MTV’s primordial “Real World” lofts and beach houses were the first to exploit the flammability of racial and class conflict in their midst, learning to dislike one another as types. They were encouraged to argue about it, encouraged to storm out of the room about it, encouraged to insist that someone has to go because of it. Reality TV sorted its stereotypes into eventual archetypes: the Angry Black Woman, the Bigoted Southerner, the Insecure White Man. The Schemers, the Punks, the Princesses, the Preening Adonises.
Put them in a house and see what happens. Put them on a deserted island and encourage them to ally against one another. Put them in a competition to see who can sing the best, dance the best, win the bachelor’s heart.
Fifteen years ago, we could still pretend to wonder if the producers were pushing and manipulating things one way or another (they were), intentionally causing conflict and tears. Now we are not nearly so naive — and still not jaded enough to switch it off. Perhaps the most surprising thing about reality TV was its power to turn just about anyone into a star, not just another boldface name but also a billion-dollar brand.
The subjects of reality TV could become famous, going from zero to 60 in a matter of episodes. Fame disengaged itself from professional talent and career achievement; in the 2000s, you could become famous for being the guy or gal on the hit reality show — especially if you were the guy or gal that nobody liked. In fact, the more despicable, the better.
“I didn’t come here to make friends!” Those words became reality TV’s cri de coeur, the final answer to the 1990s plaint “Can’t we all just get along?” (no), repeated so often and by so many of the genre’s participants that the words eventually sank in. Whether you watch reality TV or not (perhaps you say you don’t even if you do), one thing seems to have become clear: None of us are here to make friends. Not anymore.
Out of this comes the celebrity status enjoyed, constantly cultivated and maintained by Donald Trump. Had it not been for reality TV, Trump might have gone on as a fixture of New York tabloid life, his fame limited to casinos and golf courses and divorces and the occasional misfortunes of fortune. He, of course, wanted more. His decision in 2003 to star in “The Apprentice” brought him into American living rooms and certified all that he stood for — the gaudy opulence, the symbolic wealth, nothing but “the best.”
To watch reruns and clips of the show in its early days is to understand fully the initial appeal and to also see a tamer and possibly more convincing version of Trump as leader. In “The Apprentice’s” first few seasons, he is the master of sure and swift business decisions, as contestants scramble to please him and win a one-year, six-figure contract in his employ. The contestants came as a ready-made assortment of reality TV’s standard Americans: Angry Black Woman fought with Entitled White Man and Bitchy Blonde while Aggrieved Minority worked another angle.
Over time, Trump’s comb-over gets stranger and his skin more Martian valley in hue, but here, he is an articulate, if brusque, decider. He is someone who means what he says and finishes his sentences. He despises liars and disloyalty. He loathes self-deprecation and lack of confidence. He fires people for not shutting up. (“She saved your ass with her own stupidity,” he said to the dejected teammates of one dismissed competitor who wouldn’t stop interrupting him.)
A catchphrase emerged, one that no one could ever forget — “You’re fired!” — and this triggered in viewers a sense of someone cutting through the nonsense of the modern work environment.
Viewers were increasingly seeing their nation as a giant workplace where bosses can do no wrong, coming to believe that business acumen is the only true leadership skill. Chief executives are our highest-paid celebrities. On “The Apprentice,” Trump embodied and yet sharply edited the claptrap of a half-century’s worth of motivational speakers. Meanwhile, ABC’s “Shark Tank” promoted the entrepreneurial heroics of the striving small-business owner, while CBS’s “Undercover Boss” bestowed on corporate executives the power to first spy on their lowliest employees by impersonating one of them then shower the most loyal of them with one-time bonuses and promotions.
Reality TV has been a boon to free enterprise, even as American companies made bottom-line decisions that left millions behind. “The Apprentice” and other competition shows (racing, dancing, fashion designing, cooking — you name it) gave lip-service to teamwork yet almost always celebrated the rogue individual, the lone wolf, the villain. That’s who you root for. Wimps and whiners get shown the door and only occasionally does the bad guy get what’s coming to him. In its 10th season (one of the last of the old “Apprentice” seasons, before the show became the more circuslike “Celebrity Apprentice”), Trump fired a 31-year-old Florida man named Anand Vasudev for cheating on a group project, saying: “This is why the country has gotten into such trouble. This is the kind of thinking we’ve been witnessing on Wall Street for the last five years. Anand, you’re fired. Go.”
In the unfortunately more popular “Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump was able to position himself as a cut above the semi-famous ilk of the entertainment industry. His boredom started to show. His ambition and ego propelled him toward the White House, but as everyone noticed, the rules of reality TV came along for the ride, in which the person who says the worst stuff is rewarded with the most airtime. Trump capitalized on this trope when he took up the unsuccessful cause to disprove President Obama’s U.S. citizenship.
The audience is primed to root for the person who is able to say all the things we only wish we could say. (Or would never say, let alone think.) Snark is the sharpest, most reliable knife. In the summer of 2015, the hosts of our late-night talk shows (most of whom are still finding their way as both worthy satirists and calming influences) basked in the cuckoo fact of Trump’s front-runner status and the outlandish remarks coming either from his mouth or his Twitter feed.
The jokes practically wrote themselves and the ratings soared. Media outlets learned this too: Nothing gets more clicks and eyeballs than Trump. Even NBC, which severed its TV deals with Trump after his speeches grew more divisive (and his candidacy edged past equal-time broadcasting regulations), invited him back to host “Saturday Night Live,” something no candidate had ever done — and a job Trump proved ill-equipped to do.
Only lately has Trump’s campaign seemed like a reality show that has run out of plots to cook up, struggling to choose a willing co-star (vice-presidential candidate) and fill four nights of prime time with suitably A-list cameo appearances, in which case viewers will tune in just to see what does happen.
The candidate has also eluded a self-scrutinizing process now codified on the reality shows that air on the Bravo network, whereby a mediating interlocutor (Andy Cohen) gathers the cast (usually a gaggle of “Real Housewives”) and replays the season’s most shocking moments, asking the stars to account for their worst behavior.
Bravo understands the viewer’s need for closure and catharsis by staging these no-holds-barred reunions, which sometimes last for three acrimonious hours. “Go to the tape” is a familiar refrain here. Fingers may be pointed and some may even rip off their microphones and stomp out at the maximum speed their stilettos will allow. But Cohen always presses for answers and we always go to the tape.
Going to the tape, in Trump’s case, has often proved futile. He evinces no shame or remorse when confronted with the tape; his followers (loyal viewers) never back down. Comeuppance no longer seems to be part of the story line. Whether he becomes president or not, perhaps Trump’s most stunning accomplishment is that he has completely rewritten the rules of fame.
Stuever is The Washington Post’s television critic.