Which came first, reality TV or Donald Trump?
Obviously, Trump existed as a bombastic real estate developer and wheeler-dealer long before the current wave of reality TV came into focus as an important genre in the popular culture. Trump was a nationally known developer in 1980 when his megaproject Trump Tower was under way, amid controversy, and his social life with his first wife, Ivana, was constant tabloid print fodder. That’s almost a quarter-century before he starred in The Apprentice on NBC.
Yet “reality TV star” is constantly attached to Trump as a label and his rise in popularity as politician, with all its reverberations, is regularly blamed on the existence of reality TV. This is nonsense. Coarse, rabble-rousing politicians existed and thrived before television existed, let alone what we now call reality TV.
The other night on CBC’s The National, Rex Murphy unleashed one of his high-dudgeon sermons about the shocking state of the world today. “Donald Trump is life’s revenge on Reality TV” it was called.
In his sermon, Murphy went willy-nilly in his condemnation. He kicked off with a windy attack on the CBS show Survivor and ludicrously linked it to images of people recovering from the effects of a tsunami somewhere. He called Survivor “the inane antics of exhibitionistic fame-seekers.”
“Survivor wasn’t reality,” he harrumphed. “It was an insult to reality.”
Well, here’s news for the famously well-read Murphy – the origins of Survivor are in Sweden, where a broadcaster came up with the show Expedition Robinson years before, and that show is based on the premise of Robinson Crusoe, the novel by Daniel Defoe and long considered the first actual novel in English. The idea of contestants being put on a remote tropical island and asked to survive without western comforts is a literary idea and one anchored in human curiosity about whether tamed, bourgeois people could survive in the wild.
In his windy screed, Murphy then attempted to connect the alleged dots between Survivor, The Real Housewives franchise, The Bachelor and the rise of Donald Trump. This is a common enough tack to take. Blame reality TV for outbreaks of vulgarity, bigotry, bias and unruly behaviour.
And it is the laziest sort of thinking. The arrival of reality TV did not turn a culture coarse. Reality TV highlights big attitude, lack of sophistication and crudeness. It didn’t invent those attributes.
The engine that drives much of reality TV is the reasonable belief that ordinary people, with all their messy baggage and coarseness, are more authentically American than the fictional doctors, lawyers and detectives being portrayed on network dramas.
Yes, trashy lumpen proles can make for compelling TV. But blaming a TV genre for coarseness in politics is like blaming the Internet for the existence of porn. It existed before; it just got more ubiquitous thanks to technology.
“Coarsen the culture and you inevitably coarsen the politics,” Murphy jeered, connecting the dots to Trump. Mind you, no one can be sure exactly how The Bachelor is responsible for the bluntness of Trump’s policy platforms and their appeal to millions of Americans.
Before there was reality TV, or even television itself, human nature compelled people to cling to fears and biases, to loathe foreigners and speculate about the sexual shenanigans of powerful people. The Bachelor is, for heaven’s sake, simply a matter of some guy choosing a mate from a gaggle of women who want the position.
The same plot exists in the plays of Shakespeare and the operas of Mozart. Time was, powerful men got to choose carefully from an array of possible mates and they chose based on specific qualities – rank, lineage, family, power, wealth, education, appearance, health, upbringing, virtue, intelligence and religious persuasion.
The point, in Shakespeare and Mozart, is often this – love triumphs over rank and lineage and all the other boxes to be ticked. Today, what people really want from The Bachelor is a love match. That’s why they watch and follow the postshow relationship with intensity. It’s human nature.
What reality TV has done is kick open the shutters of an official society of the well spoken and sophisticated, and thrown light on the attitudes and aspirations of those outside the official society. The inarticulate, the crude and the angry. They exist, too.
Reality TV didn’t create Donald Trump. Nor did it create what should have been seen coming and is crystallized in Trump’s success. It simply put it on TV.
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