When Bravo launched “The Real Housewives of D.C.” in 2010, the results were almost immediately disastrous, though not in the way that makes for great reality TV. The women willing to star in the show weren’t actual power players. And yet, despite their distance from official Washington, they were largely unwilling to engage in the kind of high drama that has made the “Real Housewives” franchise so horribly, compulsively watchable. The exception was Michaele Salahi, who with her then-husband made embarrassing headlines for crashing a 2009 state dinner, an event captured in an episode of the series. The show was canceled after a single season, making it the only “Real Housewives” chapter not to earn a renewal. D.C., it seemed, was simply too buttoned-up to make it on Bravo.
How wrong that was. Nine years later, it’s clear the problem with “The Real Housewives of D.C.” was that it was too early and not nearly audacious enough. It was Donald Trump, star of another reality-television franchise entirely, who created the environment that made a truly spectacular “Real Housewives of D.C.” possible, cast it perfectly and then set it in motion in real time.
Trump’s central innovation as maestro of the reality-television spectacle that Washington has become is to make it perfectly acceptable for prominent people in the nation’s capital to behave like lunatics. While the Salahis’ grasping contrasted poorly with the Obamas’ poise and style, casting a tacky shadow over “The Real Housewives of D.C.," Trump’s behavior has cratered standards in Washington so dramatically that it’s possible to imagine almost anything happening in, or at least proximate to, the White House. And Trump’s taste in staff is perfectly calibrated to stoke that appalled fascination: The “best people” appear to be the ones most eager and capable of providing explosive story lines for a constantly churning news cycle.
If the “Real Housewives” franchise runs on an endless supply of couples (and the occasional single woman) who are willing to expose themselves for potential profit, then the uncontested stars of this installment of the franchise are Kellyanne and George Conway. Kellyanne is a pollster who served as Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign manager and then became a counselor to the president, mostly on the strength of her willingness to go on television and mount ludicrous defenses of the president while staying utterly calm. (In both the “Real Housewives” show and in reality, “housewife” is not always a literal description of what of these women do.) George is an attorney who appears to despise his wife’s boss, slamming Trump on Twitter as possibly mentally ill.
Their bizarre tango has, in classic reality-television fashion, taken a screwball dynamic like the one between between political consultants James Carville and his wife, Mary Matalin, who previously set the standard for political feuds as marital schtick, and turned it into something raw, toxic and maybe a little bit contrived. The president himself got into the act this week, tweeting that George is a “husband from hell” bent on undermining his wife. Kellyanne has responded by defending her boss over her husband. On an actual “Real Housewives” show, the Conways might be staging the drama in the service of promoting a restaurant mini-empire. Here, it’s tempting to believe they’re doing all this for a future dual-tell-all deal. It says a lot that it’s less depressing to imagine the Conways as conniving, hopeful sellouts than to believe we’re watching the vicious public dissolution of their marriage.
The Conways are hardly an aberration in this cast. Like New York “Real Housewife” Bethenny Frankel, who turned her marriage into a spin-off series, “Bethenny Ever After,” Omarosa Manigault Newman, who herself rose to fame on “The Apprentice,” turned the White House into a backdrop for her wedding photos, only to bump up against one of the few norms to remain intact in Washington and to discover that she would not be allowed to release the images. First lady Melania Trump is the inscrutable figure who alternately inspires sympathy and contempt.
Trump’s sharp eye for reality-television casting extends to men, as well as to women. In short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, Trump flirted with the Italian American stereotypes that have defined “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” In the ignoble tradition of using reality television for a career makeover, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, seems to be using his time in the Trump administration to attempt to recast himself as a sophisticated diplomat.
Even Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who was supposed to be the sophisticated check on her father’s more maniacal impulses and a player on serious issues such as paid family leave, quickly turned out to be just another cast member in it for the branding exercise. Last year, during her father’s trade dispute with China, that country’s government granted the younger Trump a batch of trademarks in what seemed like a case of suspicious timing. Ivanka’s clothing brands may not yet have taken off the way Frankel’s Skinnygirl liquor brand did, but her ambitions are global.
Even more than Trump’s personal spotty marital record and tally of infidelities, perhaps this is the administration’s degrading legacy when it comes to marriage: making it look like nothing more than a cheap reality-show marketing enterprise.