Remember when then-President Donald Trump hurled a plate at a White House wall, spattering it with ketchup? You didn’t see that moment. You didn’t even know about it when it happened. But when Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, told that story before the House select committee investigating the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021, odds are pretty good you could picture it.
The ketchup wall was just one of many damning details in Hutchinson’s testimony, delivered on June 28. She also testified that Trump seemed intent on allowing heavily armed people to march on the Capitol, that he reportedly attempted to seize control of a vehicle from a Secret Service agent who wouldn’t drive him up to the Capitol, and that he was obsessed with the size of the crowd listening to his speech on that day. (With Trump, some things never change.)
Those were all big, shattering revelations. But in the moment, as Hutchinson was testifying, what seemed to garner the greatest buzz on social media platforms was the ketchup. It was so ridiculous, so overly dramatic, so campy. Even though Hutchinson says it really happened, it nevertheless had big reality TV vibes, a sense that what was real had been turned up a couple of notches. And that was what made the moment stand out.
Sources close to Jared and Ivanka say that privately the couple opposed Donald Trump’s decision to throw ketchup at the wall.— New York Times Pitchbot (@DougJBalloon) June 28, 2022
Dear Mar-A-Lago staff,— Don Winslow (@donwinslow) June 28, 2022
Hide the plates and the ketchup. Now.
We probably should've known that presidency would end with ketchup dripping down a wall, but then, Heinz sight is 2020.— Justin Chang (@JustinCChang) June 28, 2022
Reality television made Trump, both literally (he built considerable fame atop The Apprentice) and figuratively (he seemed to subconsciously fashion himself as a reality TV character on the campaign trail). And even though Trump is no longer in office, reality TV remains a compelling way to understand him and his administration. With the hearings set to resume this week, the “narrative” surrounding them — at least among casual observers — increasingly has the feel of people discussing a reality show around the water cooler, too.
Now that his presidency is over, the January 6 hearings stand as a kind of last-minute reunion special, one where the former star has removed himself from the proceedings by refusing to testify. No less a former Trump luminary than former chief of staff Steve Bannon is set to testify this week.
Since Trump won’t be testifying, he misses a chance to set the narrative and define its “characters” going forward. He has lost control of the story, as it were. As such, we’re left with the stories we didn’t hear about in all those years of the Trump White House. And in the midst of that vacuum, of course we’re picking on the most ridiculous details.
Donald Trump has always been our reality-show president. These hearings prove he still is, even without his usual tricks.
In the summer of 2015, as Trump began his rise to the top of the Republican presidential primary polls, many political observers wrote him off as a flash in the pan. But his TV presence was fascinating.
In the early Republican primary debates, he kept finding ways to make himself the story and to pull the camera’s focus back to him. His many years on the reality show The Apprentice had served him incredibly well. Trump had so internalized how to be on television that none of his opponents seemed to be anywhere near as comfortable. Being good on TV isn’t the primary skill that wins presidential races, but it helps considerably. And Trump was really good on TV. “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,” I wrote at the time.
The idea of understanding Trump as a scheming reality show contestant, willing to do whatever it took to win, only grew as he won the Republican nomination and the presidency. He quite willingly took on the role of “reality show villain,” which wasn’t really a negative. In reality TV, the “villain” is just the person who drives the story forward through their scheming, whom the cameras are always pinned to, who does and says the most outrageous things to garner attention. The archetypal example is likely Richard Hatch from the first season of Survivor, who won the whole game by being as unscrupulous as possible. Whether Trump thought of himself this way is impossible to know, but he quite obviously understood what made good television.
“Donald Trump is starring in a TV show where he is the protagonist” turned out to be an incredibly useful way to understand Trump’s rise to power. (The New York Times’s James Poniewozik wrote an entire book about it.) It didn’t help blunt the occasionally catastrophic effects of his policies, but it did explain why he seemed so comfortable with complete and utter chaos. Indeed, he seemed most at home amid it.
Trump seemed comfortable playing a reality show villain, the guy whose behavior was so unbelievable that you had to keep tuning in to see what he did next. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and disrupted every aspect of American life, Trump’s desire to be at the center of his own TV show ran aground — but it wasn’t as though he lost the 2020 election in a blowout either. To plenty of people, the Trump show was one they wanted to keep watching.
The Trump who attempted to subvert the election on January 6 — especially the Trump portrayed in the testimony at the select committee hearings — is essentially a man who believed himself to be a TV protagonist who was so intent on remaining the protagonist (or, okay, the president) that he nearly destroyed American democracy in the process of asserting that fact. His efforts ultimately failed, but the reminder of just how self-aggrandizing and destructive Trump could be may be why Hutchinson’s testimony seemed to strike such a nerve.
The January 6 hearings are finally exposing Trump’s reality TV villain persona for the sham it’s always been
There are few formats more poorly suited to riveting television than congressional hearings. The January 6 committee has lots of compelling visual evidence, including some truly gut-wrenching videos, but the core of the hearings are individual testimonies. And just watching someone talk makes for really boring television.
As such, almost every time there are congressional hearings for anything, those inclined to believe those hearings should move the public opinion needle fret endlessly about whether they have “broken through.” If hearings are so boring on TV, why would anyone watch these hearings if they were not already inclined to agree with the idea that Trump’s actions require investigation? And if nobody watches them, will they matter?
A similar dynamic even struck the Watergate hearings, probably the most famous televised congressional hearings of all time. When looking back at reporting from the period, it’s not hard to find folks fretting over whether anyone really cares that Nixon did something bad. Eventually, enough people did, both within Washington and without, that Nixon stepped down. But it took longer than you’d expect. The gap between the beginning of those hearings and Richard Nixon’s resignation was well over a year, and even in terms of his approval rating, it took several months to reach a true nadir.
The temptation, then, is to say that the hearing where Hutchinson testified was only the sixth hearing of this particular committee, and therefore, there’s plenty of time for the hearings to reach a wider audience. But those typical congressional hearing dynamics are all scrambled in the face of Trump. He’s been playing the part of reality TV villain so long that if you’re someone who just wanted him voted off the show back when he was being a garden variety asshole in Republican primary debates and not, you know, possibly committing treason, then the last several years have built an ever more frustrated sense of urgency. Something — the Mueller report, the first impeachment, the second impeachment — has to take down Trump. And yet nothing has. If you’re that person, then Trump’s ability to never face accountability seems increasingly galling. Ah. Well. Nevertheless.
Yet perversely, I think that’s why “Trump threw a plate at a wall” broke through in a way some of the other January 6 committee revelations have not. Hutchinson’s story, dryly delivered though it was, played into a different type of reality TV villain — not the calculating mastermind willing to do anything to win but the unhinged person who makes everybody’s life hell. (Imagine the table flip moment from Real Housewives of New Jersey and I think you’ll see what I mean.)
This less-controlled reality TV villain can be very fun to watch on TV, but you’d rarely want them in your corner. They are, instead, cautionary tales of what happens when “I’m not here to make friends” boils over into something so antisocial that it burns up on reentering the atmosphere. You definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with this person.
Occasionally, that sort of villain simply removes themselves from the narrative altogether. Perhaps the most famous example of this happening in reality television occurred when Lisa Vanderpump abruptly stepped away from Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the show that made her a TV star, midway through filming its ninth season. (Her employee-centric spinoff, Vanderpump Rules, continues to run.) Her reasons for doing so were varied, but at base, they boiled down to (and I paraphrase) “everybody is persecuting me.” Her castmates were insufficiently nice to her. The editors weren’t making her look good. And so on.
If that sounds at all like the former president’s obsession with how he’s perceived, well, the former president was also a reality TV star. And reality TV is a uniquely deceptive beast because if you’re on it, the process of getting “a good edit” makes it sometimes seem as though you’re literally in control of reality, especially if you’ve got a lot of power over the creative direction of the show, as Trump did over The Apprentice. (There’s one more comparison point to be drawn here: Like Trump, Vanderpump didn’t fare particularly well on the Real Housewives reunion she skipped.)
When watching Hutchinson’s testimony in front of the January 6 committee, I couldn’t help but fantasize about the ways that the things she was saying might have been intercut with the footage of those things happening were this an actual reality TV reunion special, the live audience oohing and aahing at all the big moments from the season prior. I’ve been reading the Trump presidency through a reality TV lens for so long that I can’t stop, even when the events being described are horrifying and sobering.
I say none of this to downplay the seriousness of the charges Hutchinson made against Trump but, rather, to suggest why the January 6 hearings might finally be puncturing the televisual archetype that made Trump such a formidable political force. I am under no illusions that anything will happen to make Trump suffer actual consequences for what he did, but I do think the hearings have finally exposed him for who he is, just a little bit. He’s not a scheming Survivor. He’s a snippy, back-biting Real President of DC.