Donald Trump will probably get kudos for not self-destructing entirely in Sunday's debate. But in a way that television illuminates, he sealed his fate.
From the pre-debate photo-op with a group of women who are Bill Clinton's accusers to the interruptions, to the "you're going to jail" threat, to the physical trolling of Hillary Clinton onstage, to the petulant, "She went over a minute over, and you don't stop her. When I go one second over, it's like a big deal," Trump became an irredeemably defined but familiar figure.
Even the casual observer of reality-TV shows knew where this was going.
Douchey guys do not admit defeat. They double-down with a couple of extra dick moves. It's the douchey way. That's Trump's way.
The Republican Party has been toying with the toxic energy of the reality TV thing for years. It started in 2008 when Sarah Palin was plucked from obscurity to be John McCain's running mate. Palin was put on the ticket to inject sassy vitality, appeal to women and, most important, represent authenticity – just as truck drivers, hairdressers, janitors and bartenders represent compelling authenticity on The Bachelor, Survivor or Big Brother.
The Republican Party was attempting shrewdness by absorbing the strategy used by TV networks – the more ordinary, unthinking and unsophisticated the characters are, the better. Palin took to her role like the fame-addicted creature she was and is.
Trump, already famous, has no such hang-ups. A major takeaway from Sunday's debate is his deftness with threatening behaviour. He paced, pouted and sighed, the male disappointed with "her," the guy who says "she" with a sneer.
For all of the surreal attempts at substance in the debate, it is the body language and subtexts that will resonate. That's how TV works. And the most surreal and telling moment came at the very end with the very last question. When the two candidates were asked what qualities they admire in each other, Hillary Clinton was shrewd in talking about Trump's children – it evoked family without giving Trump credit for much. Trump, on the other hand, failed to realize the trap he was entering. Being the type of guy he is, he acknowledged Clinton's toughness and resilience. In so doing, he gave the viewers the reason to vote for his opponent. Guys who like to think they're tough acknowledge toughness.
The Trump phenomenon has always seemed a bit different from the Palin episode, but barely so. The engine that has driven so much of reality TV is the belief that ordinary people, with all their messy baggage and lack of sophistication, are more authentically American than the fictional doctors/lawyers/detectives and, ultimately, polished traditional politicians, who appear on TV.
What the Republicans got with Trump was, ultimately, a vital and ubiquitous reality-TV figure – the douchey guy. It's a fact that the drawing card of a lot of reality TV is the presence of douchey guys. The underpinning of The Bachelorette franchise is the tension involved in the viewers watching to see if the bachelorette actually falls for the douchey guy.
Trump's downfall, such as it is so far, was the revelation that while being a billionaire alpha-male in an expensive suit and pastel tie, he's still a common or garden jerk of the kind that thrives on TV. A narcissist no different in attitude than the loudmouth on Big Brother who steals the show because he has, you know, the cojones to berate a female contestant about her weight and her breasts, and then smirk about it.
Your douchey guy is always surrounded by bro-dudes who imagine themselves to be manly men but are in fact witless flunkies. Trump has a bunch of those. Chris Christie has the gormless demeanour of a witless flunky dressed up as bro-dude. He's a guy totally familiar with the dick move, apparently having authorized one of the all-time great ones in causing a massive traffic jam as a screw-you to a local New Jersey mayor. Now that pales beside the dick move of inviting Bill Clinton's accusers to the debate.
Television does very strange things, especially when it serves to warp the common narrative of real life into a heightened theatre that is simultaneously absurd and faux-authentic. Real life is full of jerks and douchey-guys. It's just they don't get the spotlight and attention TV delivers. There's no point in condemning TV for this. Just as there is no point in condemning Hillary Clinton for not doing a dick move like whipping out a box of Tic Tacs as Trump was blathering on. It is what it is, this reality-TV thing and amounts to a cautionary tale if you pay attention to it – people will accept stunningly appalling behaviour if it's colourful and forcefully done.
All that douche and body language, though – that's what the viewers and voters, especially women, will absorb. No matter what the political pundits say.
The tape released Friday of Trump's misogynist boasting would get most guys barred from a strip club. It didn't get Trump too embarrassed to withdraw from running for president of the United States. It emboldened him, and this debate subtly destroyed him.