In the Trump era, cable news programs aren’t the only places where politicos go to secure lucrative contracts that capitalize on their White House exposure. In many ways, this other type of revolving door is not new. Over the past 70 years, entertainers have made their way into politics — and back into entertainment — in ways that have reshaped both worlds. This collaboration has resulted in a dramatic shift in political values, creating a culture in which those who entertain us and those who lead our public affairs have become one and the same.
Given this link, and the unique tenor and tone of reality television, the fact that figures from the divisive, norm-shredding Trump administration are migrating to this platform is not surprising. This particular type of entertainment helped pave the way for Trump’s presidency, and now producers are cashing in on his discarded cast.
It was Dwight D. Eisenhower who first recognized the benefits of recruiting personnel from the entertainment industry. Aware that television, a relatively new technology, was gaining a following in America, Eisenhower brought actor Robert Montgomery into the White House as his television adviser. A longtime Republican, Montgomery was eager to share his expertise on camera angles, makeup and on-camera performances with the new president, who lacked experience with television. Together, they created a production studio in the White House and ushered in a “prime-time presidency,” in which Eisenhower relied on television not just to win campaigns, but also to govern.
The White House position gave the aging actor relevance in both realms. He hosted the television show “Robert Montgomery Presents” until 1957, using it as a platform to boost Ike’s reelection in 1956. When he left the White House, his film career faded, but he attempted to remain relevant by penning a book with insights from the two worlds his career had straddled. In his “Open Letter From a Television Viewer,” Montgomery explained the importance of television to democracy, and then critiqued the growth of network power and the way it threatened civic life by limiting programming options. By appealing to the “lowest common denominator,” lamented Montgomery, networks believed “people are basically too undiscriminating and of too low taste to want or deserve anything” else.
What Montgomery saw as a problem in entertainment, however, the GOP viewed as political opportunity. Republicans saw network programming, and particularly the prominence of older film reruns, as a new way to reach voters. And so, the party recruited actors like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan into its ranks. Their movies, though a decade or two old, were played on late-night television, giving the actors an intimate connection with audiences that politicians could only dream of.
While Montgomery faded from the national scene, an ambitious television producer launched a career that would incorporate an even more consequential revolving door. Having met Richard Nixon during the filming of an episode of “The Mike Douglas Show,” Roger Ailes soon joined the public-relations team that helped the former vice president finally win the White House in 1968. In an effort to win a spot in the Nixon administration, Ailes constantly proposed innovative initiatives, like his “Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News” that included a service that would have enabled the White House to control the news by providing “pro-Administrative video tape and hard news.”
Ailes never did gain a job in the administration and would remain a campaign consultant rather than an administration official. But he kept a foot in both the political and entertainment worlds over the next two decades. He started his own political consulting firm, while also gaining entertainment experience in theater and cable television.
And then, like Montgomery before him, Ailes found ways to combine these two roles. His blend of news, entertainment and politics came together with the launch of Fox News, which over the past 22 plus years has blurred the line between politician and celebrity even more. It helped to transform the network news model that Montgomery critiqued by offering ideological diversity, but Fox News ultimately fueled division rather than empowering television viewers as the actor-turned-Eisenhower adviser had once imagined.
And herein lies a crucial difference between the political and media norms Montgomery and Ailes helped to create. The two men’s experiences and their newfound authority helped to validate and legitimize the importance of entertainment in the political world. But from the days of Hollywood studios and Ike to the era of cable television and Trump, entertainment itself also changed.
The Hollywood box office depends on mass appeal, navigating differences between consumer audiences and finding a common interest. The connection between Hollywood stars and the political realm, from Montgomery to Reagan, brought these values into politics: performance, stagecraft, imagery and an ability to connect to broad audiences.
By contrast, reality television, a product of the new cable television era, had a very different ethos and style, and it pushed the entertainment industry even further away from these norms.
As executives searched for ways to fill 24/7 airtime at the lowest possible cost, “Reali-TV” emerged in the late 1980s, taking place outside of polished production studios and relying instead on new labor and production tools. The work took place in cheaper arenas of life that relied on nonprofessional actors. At its core, it was a cost-cutting strategy that also allowed producers to bypass unions, which were strong in Hollywood. In fact, a 22-week Writers Guild Strike in 1988 helped to boost reality TV’s prospects. (Something that happened again during the 2007-2008 writers’ strike.)
Reality television’s appeal reflected this changed aesthetic: it thrived by producing cult followings, creating loyalty to individual brands, eliding crassness and authenticity, and shocking and awing audiences. Like Ailes’s brainchild Fox News, it divides audiences rather than finding common ground. Both by deeply polarizing Americans between reality television fans and those who see it as vapid and trashy, and by creating bitter disagreements among devotees rooting for different heroes and villains on the shows, this programming has a very different cultural impact than the fare that Hollywood pumped out for decades. And this, in turn, has influenced our politics. Our political and our entertainment values don’t just coincide — they co-create one another.
And so, reality-TV-stars-turned-politicos (like Trump) and politicos-turned-reality-TV-stars (like Scaramucci and Omarosa) are now validating a different type of celebrity and different production values.
With a reality star in the Oval Office, that influence is visible every day in new and previously unimaginable ways, as are its costs. To a large extent, we wouldn’t have the political soap opera saturating the news in the age of Trump without Americans eager to tune into “Celebrity Big Brother” to see how the Mooch will fare.