In the online version of The New Yorker on Wednesday, editor David Remnick wrote about “Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms.”
True and well put. But the specifics of the apt description resonate in a particular way. When did behaviour described as “vanity, arrogance, recklessness” become normalized? I’ll tell you when – back when reality TV became a powerful force in the popular culture.
Most readers of this newspaper have never met a reality-TV star. I have. They are a strange breed, stunning in their immodesty and strangely un-self-conscious about their blunt egotism. They swagger. They are champions, and champions don’t need to do much explaining. President-elect Donald Trump was an ideal, ready-made reality-TV star when Mark Burnett concocted The Apprentice to fit Trump in 2004.
Six years later, the cultural force that was behind reality TV – the appeal of immodest, egotistical, reckless people unleashed – entered the political mainstream when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket.
By choosing Palin, the Republican Party was relying on impulses learned from the success of the reality-TV genre – that impulsive, inarticulate people with major attitude captivate viewers who want to see the authentically ugly parts of themselves discharged and venting on TV. Reality-TV stars swagger because they know that they are famous and famous because they do what most people are too modest and sheepish to do.
While it’s a widely held belief among the educated bourgeoisie that reality TV has coarsened culture and isn’t worth attention, ignoring it is a grave mistake. I give you president-elect Trump as evidence.
The term “reality TV” is used as a dismissive term by people whose consumption of the popular culture is limited to reading novels, occasionally going to the theatre and watching such TV shows as Mad Men with relish.
They look down on reality TV as crude and unseemly. This is a mistake. It’s a patronizing attitude and it’s why the term “elites” is widely and rightly applied to the mainstream media and others who disdain what entertains the mass audience. Ignoring powerful emanations of the popular culture is simply elitist and myopic. See, we live in a Kardashian world. The number of people who pay attention to the Kardashians is vastly larger than the number of people who watched Mad Men with enthusiasm. And the people who lap up the Kardashians get to vote.
All reality-TV culture is, in a way, part of a vendetta against an imposed culture of refinement that the masses are entitled to reject. But why did Trump’s reality-TV method in particular appeal to many voters? In part, because his attitude, mannerisms and crude behaviour became normalized in the popular culture ages ago. He does what gets attention and admiration.
Now it’s possible to claim, as the New York Times did, that “Trump marshaled blue-collar white and working-class voters disaffected by globalization and multiculturalism.” And there’s some truth in that. But it is the way he delivered his message that mattered. That was particular to him.
It’s a method refined on The Apprentice. The boasting and blustering, the revulsion at any sign of weakness in others, the crudeness and male aggression displayed as honesty and perpetuated as a leadership quality. The Apprentice was a hit. And Trump’s persona on the show was little different from that of the reality-TV champs who emerge from Survivor or Big Brother, as winners.
This is not a phenomenon that television inflicted on the general culture. Reality TV is not a genre cooked up in a network boardroom to lower the tone of discourse in society. Most reality TV – and this is why it is worth studying – is anchored in age-old or primordial impulses and parables about that. Survivor, the first juggernaut of reality TV, is based on Robinson Crusoe crossed with Lord of the Flies.
The TV origins of Survivor are in Sweden, where a broadcaster came up with the show Expedition Robinson first, 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. Often they revert to their most crude, arrogant, animalistic, reckless instincts, which is where William Golding took the Robinson Crusoe story with his Lord of the Flies.
At an allegorical level, a lot of reality TV is about our social organization – living by rules, peacefully and in harmony – being utterly flimsy and easily giving way to the vicious will to power and, as the editor of The New Yorker put it, “disdain for democratic norms.”
All of that umbrage thrown at Trump, and the reasons for the scorn, is not explained entirely by reality TV, but in part it is. Everything that is shocking about him was normalized years ago, via reality TV. That’s why he’s president-elect Trump. It’s just that some people weren’t paying attention.
Airing this weekend
60 Minutes (Sunday, CBS, 7 p.m.) will have the first post-election interview with Trump. The interview will be conducted by Lesley Stahl, who will also speak to the Trump family at the Trump’s Fifth Avenue residence in New York.
Blood and Water (Sunday, Omni, 10:30 p.m.), Canada’s first trilingual (English, Cantonese, Mandarin) crime drama, returns for its second season. And it remains messily terrific: Part soap opera and part high-grade police procedural, it is richly atmospheric and tense. There’s a new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Barron (ably done by Aidan Devine), who lets Jo Bradley (Steph Song, the show’s true star) and Detective Evan Ong (Byron Mann) investigate the murder of victims-rights advocate, Jennifer Liu (Lily Gao). As a moody drama about corruption and revenge, the series is vastly superior to CBC’s ultraslick but empty-headed Shoot The Messenger.Report Typo/Error