Six months before Bill Clinton was elected president for the first time, “The Real World” debuted on MTV, signaling the beginning of the network’s retreat from music videos and its embrace of reality programming. (To be more specific, the series debuted on May 21, 1992, the same day Clinton made a campaign speech that addressed the debate over family values and noted “TV’s crass commercialism and glorification of selfishness and violence.”)
By the time Clinton was preparing to leave the White House eight years later, reality TV was starting to infiltrate mainstream pop culture, thanks largely to the success of CBS’s “Survivor.” In the 2000s, as reality shows swelled in number and transformed from mere trend into a diverse, Emmy-recognized genre, critics repeatedly wondered whether the “Bachelors,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Jersey Shores” of television were debasing our society. In the early days of the reality era, many people were convinced that they could hear the distant clip-clop of the Four Horsemen — or at least a warning that, someday, Honey Boo Boo would come.
In 2016, Honey Boo Boo has come and gone, but reality TV is still a legitimate genre, one we’ve been watching and absorbing for more than two decades. At the moment, another Clinton — that would be Hillary — is six months away from maybe, possibly, being elected president. And thanks to the presumptive Republican nominee, it feels like we’ve reached another milestone for the reality-TV age: The executive producer and former star of a reality competition show is attempting to make America great again by drumming up controversy like a professional “Real Housewives” catfight-starter.
Donald Trump is many things. He’s a business mogul, a real estate magnate, a go-to punch line for jokes about bad hair. But before he got into politics (and even before his adventures in skepticism about President Obama’s birth certificate), many Americans knew him primarily as the host/judge/boss of NBC’s “The Apprentice.” When the entrepreneurial competition show debuted in 2004, it instantly became a top 10 hit. Millions tuned in every week to hear Trump say his signature line, “You’re fired,” and cement his image as a man who played up conflict for the cameras and who never met a self-promotional product placement he didn’t like. He was a quintessential reality star — and a senior Trump campaign adviser, Paul Manafort, said this past week that the mogul is still exactly that: “This is the ultimate reality show. It’s the presidency of the United States.”
Now, barring some 11th-hour coup by the Republican establishment, he looks poised to become the party’s nominee. It’s the kind of thing that “The Simpsons” predicted years ago as a joke and that no one imagined would actually happen, not when Trump toyed with running for president in 2011, nor even when he announced his plans to pursue the office last June. Yet here we are.
And if Trump is the reality-TV candidate, the rules and tropes of the genre he mastered can help us understand both his appeal and his limitations. Everyone may love to watch the villains and the insult-lobbing ringmasters on reality shows, but no one ever roots for them, which, technically, should not bode well for Trump’s chances. Technically.
When Trump’s supporters are asked what they like about him, they often cite his blunt talk and lack of political correctness. That off-the-cuff style, including his insistence on making outrageous claims — alleging that Ted Cruz’s father was buddies with Lee Harvey Oswald, or accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists — is, consciously or not, a play right out of the reality-show-contestant handbook. The people who stick around longest on competition shows aren’t always the ones with the most “skill” at whatever it is the shows make contestants do. Often, they’re the ones who stir up the most hate-watch rage — think the ironically named Jonny Fairplay from “Survivor: Pearl Islands” or the vocally semi-challenged Sanjaya Malakar of “American Idol” — and therefore become most entertaining for viewers. If you’ve seen “Survivor,” or “The Bachelor,” or even “UnREAL,” the scripted Lifetime series that goes behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-esque show, you already know this.
Surely Trump and his advisers know it, too. Blustering his way through rallies and interviews with his mix of insult comedy and unrestrained id has earned Trump plenty of media attention and helped him solidify his reputation as the guy who bucks the establishment and doesn’t worry about policy specifics. He obviously believes that approach will appeal to voters who, as TV viewers, have long been energized by outspoken truth-tellers. So far, he’s been absolutely right.
But what the past two decades of reality TV also teach us is that the loudest, most contentious person in the pack doesn’t always win. On “UnREAL” (which was co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former field producer for “The Bachelor”), the “villain” of “Everlasting,” the reality show within the show, is a Machiavellian beauty named Britney who gets booted off early in the proceedings. She does return to the show for the sake of juicing ratings, but she doesn’t emerge as the victor because, even though she provides drama, the producers and writers realize that’s not what the audience of “Everlasting” wants to see.
Trump’s own show provides another example. Consider the first season of “The Apprentice,” which ran during the 2004 presidential primary race. Contestant Omarosa Manigault became a celebrity — and later, a regular on the reality-show circuit — by constantly getting into arguments and insulting the members of her team. She managed to stay in play for nine weeks until Trump fired her for being too much of a loose cannon. (I’ll pause to allow the irony to seep in.)
But like the man who terminated her “employment,” Omarosa proved she had staying power, returning to compete two more times in the “Apprentice” spin-off, “Celebrity Apprentice,” and appearing on shows like “Fear Factor” and “The Surreal Life.” She’s also publicly supported Trump the presidential candidate; last year, after praising his performance in a debate, she told The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart: “Reality television has now taken over television. People want to see real moments and see life unfold in front of them. Not scripted, but real moments. . . . When you have a big reality-TV star as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, there is no way to separate it. This is the new reality.”
Which all may explain why many people have been observing Trump, and the election in general, with an LOL sort of detachment. The primaries and caucuses notwithstanding, it’s still early, and many of us have engaged with the political theater the same way we engage with reality TV. During the debates, we settle in for an evening of snarky live-tweeting, the same way we do when we watch “The Bachelor.” Trump-isms and Hillary Clinton subway fails become shareable GIFs, popping up on social media alongside moments from “Real Housewives” or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” We laugh about the possibility of a President Trump being inaugurated because even now, it feels as likely as watching Snooki deliver the State of the Union address.
This is how we tend to process most things as a culture these days. And maybe, with six months to go before November, the election still doesn’t feel terribly urgent. (According to a recent Gallup poll, only 44 percent of men and 31 percent of women are “closely following” the contest right now.)
So having a reality-TV celebrity running for commander in chief may subconsciously signal our brains to participate in this election the same way we’ve grown accustomed to consuming reality shows: not as if they’re real, as Omarosa suggests,but instead believing that none of it is genuine, that none of it has any actual consequences. When it comes to deciding who should run the country, though, there clearly are consequences.
The “bad guys” don’t usually carry the day on reality shows, but there certainly have been times when a pompous blowhard has managed to emerge victorious. The conniving Richard Hatch won the first season of “Survivor,” even though he was openly considered to be a snake. Again: That’s a reality show; tribal-council politics shouldn’t reflect electoral politics. But maybe there’s a cautionary tale in that, a reminder that the best man or woman doesn’t always win, even if the majority of those watching wish they would. (In fairness to Trump, he did fire Hatch when he later appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice.”)
Back in 1992, a month after “The Real World” first aired, Bill Clinton appeared on MTV to answer questions from young voters as part of a live town hall broadcast called “Choose or Lose: Facing the Future With Bill Clinton.” When he eventually won the election, his willingness to court the youth demographic on MTV was frequently cited as a factor that led him to victory. It was another example of a politician benefitting from his compelling TV presence, not unlike the way John F. Kennedy did when he debated Richard Nixon in 1960, or how Ronald Reagan built on his persona as an affable movie star.
Presidential elections have always been about celebrity, so maybe it was inevitable that a reality-show personality would eventually find his way into one. Still, to modify the slogan made famous by “The Real World,” it’s time for our candidates — and us — to stop being crude and start being real.