Donald Trump ran for president as our first reality-show candidate.
He positioned himself, early and often, as the Republican primary’s villain, the guy who wasn’t there to make friends, the one you “love to hate.”
He stepped back from some of this in the general election, but he did, notably, manufacture a reality show-style cliffhanger in the third debate over whether he would accept the outcome of the election (back when most thought he would lose), and there was a brief hope on the part of some liberals that cut footage from The Apprentice would surface and tank Trump’s chances.
Now, however, he’s actually going to be president. Surely he’ll drop the reality show shtick as he moves toward governing, right?
Of course not! If anything, the way in which he’s picking his secretary of state — by establishing a “top four” pool of candidates, then putting them through assorted “challenges” (like a dinner with rumored candidate Mitt Romney) — is even more like a reality show, if a frustratingly opaque one, which the American people don’t get to see the ins and outs of.
Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 16, 2016
Newt Gingrich even drew a direct comparison in a quote given to the New York Times: “In a lot of ways, what you’re seeing is the continuation of techniques and lessons he learned from doing what was, at one time, the No. 1 TV show.”
(Sidebar: Though Trump often claims The Apprentice was “TV’s number one show,” it never actually was among all viewers, except for a handful of episodes at a time. The highest it rose in the season-ending Nielsen ratings was 7th.)
How the way TV shows rise and fall might be relevant
In sheer terms of cultural calculus, Trump’s reality show election ploy was a smart one. (It won him the election, after all.) But it also ignores a truism about how reality TV shows — or TV shows in any genre that attempt to outdo themselves with major twists in every new episode — tend to operate after their first seasons.
But let’s start with why pitching the campaign as reality TV was smart in the first place. The grammar and storytelling tricks of the early reality shows, which roughly sprung up in the wake of Survivor’s debut in the summer of 2000, have popped up everywhere on TV, even in scripted shows.
If you love a series like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, where a new character dies in seemingly every episode, both the existence of those shows and their networks’ willingness to have such a high body count can be directly traced back to the “one contestant leaves every week” structure of reality. Yes, both were based on source material — but networks’ willingness to embrace both series’ bloodier traits only really sprung up after the rise of reality.
But the struggle with reality — and even with these wilder scripted shows — is always that in trying to constantly top yourself, a show eventually flies off the tracks, and viewers get bored or start to wonder why they liked the series in the first place.
As my colleague Matt Yglesias has pointed out, Trump is mostly following through on the policy proposals he campaigned on — but a lot of his supporters were less invested in his policy proposals and more invested in the vague promises he made at rallies, promises of jobs returning to the United States and an end to crime. Maybe they liked some of the vague substance of Trump’s campaign, but even in the media, what substance there was got lost in all the swagger.
Thus, we can already see the tension between breakout reality TV show hit and show desperately trying to top itself breaking out in Trump’s transition from candidate to president. Where he and his staff admit Hillary Clinton isn’t going to prison, his first post-election rally was interrupted by chants of “Lock her up!”
Trump is more or less heading toward many “normal” Republican policy positions (whatever this means in this case), but his supporters desperately long for the reality show villain who was on their side — the guy who talked tough and promised to wield that tough talk on behalf of his supporters’ interests. But reality rarely pretends to operate by the dictates of reality television, and if Trump has realized anything during his transition, it seems to be that the presidency has no net. It’s why he’s so anxious to get back to the comforting bubble of his rallies.
If I were watching a TV show undergoing this awkward transition, I’d know what to say: The end is near, and the audience will tune out, and the show will just fade away, tossing bigger and bigger twists at the audience but eventually losing itself in the noise. But this, of course, is happening in real life, and in real life, an attempt to constantly one-up your own outrageousness has a tendency to wind up in terrible places.
Donald Trump’s inability to stop framing his political career in terms of a reality show isn’t just a wheezy attempt to keep something that worked in the campaign going — it’s a terrifying suggestion that nobody might be able to stop this train everybody on Earth is now strapped to.