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Donald Trump’s secret political weapon is his mastery of reality TV

Donald Trump attends a media event for the latest season of The Celebrity Apprentice in February 2015, before he announced his candidacy for president.
Donald Trump attends a media event for the latest season of The Celebrity Apprentice in February 2015, before he announced his candidacy for president.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Donald Trump has a better shot at winning the Republican nomination for president than almost anybody will allow right now. Yes, he's on the same trajectory as a lot of fly-by-night candidates from the 2012 cycle, and it's easy to imagine he'll collapse sooner rather than later.

But I don't think his collapse is imminent. I think he's in this for the long haul, and the reason I think so is a little weird.

One of Trump's seeming weaknesses — his long association with reality TV — is, I'm convinced, actually a strength. He's a terrific TV presence, and he seems to be adapting his "role" within the campaign, in real time, no less.

He's aware of the storylines, and he reacts to various challenges to his authority as if they're just weird turns the producers came up with behind the scenes. This should come as no surprise. This is how you win in reality TV, a format Trump is eminently comfortable in.

Donald Trump's true antecedent isn't Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, or even Mitt Romney. It's Richard Hatch, the guy who won the first season of Survivor.

How Survivor explains the rise of Trump

Hatch really doesn't get enough credit for how monumentally influential he was to television. (I was originally going to say "America," but I didn't want to push my luck.) That first season of Survivor was like nothing television had seen up until that point, and by essentially overturning all of the rules of the game in a handful of calculated moments, Hatch gleefully styled himself as the contestant you loved to hate and invented reality TV as we know it. The producers were only too happy to follow along.

Hatch invented the alliance — the voting bloc that would carry a contestant to the finals. He double-crossed others with impunity. And he generally seemed to get a huge kick out of behaving like a total asshole on TV. Hatch understood, on some intuitive level, that we wanted to see people give in to their own worst, most amoral impulses on our TV sets, and where he went, reality TV followed. Reality TV wasn't for the nice or pure of heart. It was for the nasty, and in that first season, Hatch alone seemed to grasp this.

The most important thing about Hatch — and the thing he has most in common with Trump — was his unflappability. You could throw literally anything at the man, and he would seemingly shrug it off with a smile. Yeah, that was probably an invention of editors, who smoothed out moments when Hatch might have blown his cool. But Hatch still gave those editors lots of great material to work with.

What's also notable here is the way Hatch drew to himself a coalition of people who wouldn't necessarily have kept company with him in other situations, simply because he rarely blinked and seemed like he knew what he was doing in a most unusual situation. (Remember: Survivor is, for all intents and purposes, the birth of a TV genre. Hatch was inventing the template.) In particular, the elderly ex-military man Rudy Boesch, who indulged in casual homophobia, immediately fell in line with Richard's plan, even though Richard was, indeed, gay.

Richard was the one guy who seemed like he could see the whole picture, simply because he didn't let things throw him, and that caused others to gravitate toward him, even as they were fairly certain he would stab them in the back eventually.

Survivor made the American career of its producer, reality TV impresario Mark Burnett. And for one of his next tricks, Burnett turned from the wilderness to the boardroom with his next mega-hit,The Apprentice — the show that would return Donald Trump to the American limelight.

Trump's campaign is legitimately masterful political performance art

Watch again, if you can, Trump's confrontation with Megyn Kelly over his previous misogynistic statements. Try to ignore, if possible, how horrible those statements are. Instead, focus entirely on how Trump carries himself.

For starters, Trump doesn't shrink from Kelly's challenge. He stays ramrod straight at the podium, and he doesn't shift or move around. That's pretty basic stuff, but you'd be surprised how many politicians who are under the gun forget all about it.

Now notice how he uses his hands. His gestures are kept close to his body, so they don't fly out too far from the audience's attention or distract from the speaker at hand. He's essentially keeping the center of the screen focused entirely on him, even when the Fox News chyron pushes him into the left half of the screen. This is, again, something politicians know to do (keeping your gestures small and forceful conveys control over your own emotions), but it's hard to remember when in the middle of a stressful situation.

But also look at how good Trump is at sliding what he wants to say in between what Kelly is saying. He holds up a single finger, the universal symbol of "My turn." He waits for just the right pause to jump in. And he doesn't let Kelly continuing to speak deter him. He knows exactly how to do this, because, in so many ways, Trump is just back on reality television at this moment. If anything, he makes Kelly seem like she's out of control of the situation, on a night when Kelly's performance was generally very good. And that's to say nothing of how quickly he comes up with this little quip to turn the audience to his side.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump knows exactly how to play to the camera. (Fox News)

Yes, some of what makes Trump good at this sort of thing is that he's got ample business experience. But even more than that, he's got ample reality TV experience, and he learned from Burnett, who learned from Hatch, that someone who seemed a little imperious, aloof, and utterly unconcerned with what others were doing around him could make for riveting television.

NBC actually promoted The Apprentice in this way for years. You won't believe what Trump does next! But despite his frequently strange decisions, he rarely was ridden down as out of touch. Part of that is the simple suspicion most of us have that reality TV is heavily controlled by the producers (and thus Trump was as well). But just as much is due to the fact that Trump held court in the boardroom in a way that made everything he did, no matter how out there, seem like a perfectly logical decision.

Indeed, watch this famous firing of (as the YouTube description says) not one, not two, not three, but four people, and you'll see glimpses of the Trump who took the debate by storm.

Reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV

We have a tendency to write off reality TV in America as lowest-common-denominator entertainment, because a lot of it is. But the specific storytelling forms and cinematic tricks of reality have more or less become central parts of our current cultural vernacular. Is it any wonder they've entered politics as well?

When people talk about Trump as a reality TV personality, then, they're trying to ride him down, to suggest he's unserious or simply there for entertainment value. And all of that may well be true.

But this ignores that reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV. And, more specifically, the skills he learned on reality TV make him better equipped to handle tough challenges and big pushback than other candidates who've gotten in similar hot water. The usual way to deal with something like what Kelly accuses Trump of is quick contrition, followed by a pivot to a talking point or two.

But Trump is, as Ezra Klein has noted, without shame, because he's a reality TV character who's escaped into a presidential race. He avoids the contrition and jumps straight to whatever he wants to talk about. It's the debate equivalent of the reality TV confessional, where the contestant tells us what he's really thinking.

That's what makes him more dangerous than many political observers will allow. As we saw with Richard Hatch, unflappability plays beautifully on television, and it makes for wildly entertaining viewing. The contents of Trump's message are loathsome to many, including many Republicans, but the package Trump is selling them in is market-tested and ready to ship. Compared with many of his competitors, especially, Trump seems to be playing at a whole other level when it comes to live television.

The smart money is still on Trump eventually self-combusting, crumbling under the weight of his own hubris. But, then, the smart money in that first season of Survivor was on the fellow members of Richard's alliance realizing he didn't have their best interests at heart and tossing him overboard — and that simply never happened.

On television, never look for the person who's playing the game best. Look for the person who's realized the rules are only a suggestion. That's the person the audience wants to watch — and that's the person who just might win.