We’re now slightly more than a thousand days into the reality TV presidency and I would like to take a minute to reflect on the good old days, back when it was actors who became politicians.
It’s funny to think that people used to complain about actor politicians, saying that they were dumb, or unfocused, or intellectually incurious. Remember what people said about Ronald Reagan and Fred Thompson and Fred Grandy? And Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura and Al Franken?
And Antonio Sabato Jr.? (Just kidding. Antonio is actually terrible.)
Once upon a time people complained that actors were dilettantes who had no business being in public life because they lacked the intellectual horsepower to make decisions on behalf of the citizenry.
And today? Each and every one of those guys looks like Cincinnatus compared with what reality television has vomited up into American politics.
Some people say Trump has no values. I disagree. Our reality TV host-cum-presidenté has a firm, sworn set of core values: They are the values of reality televisioning.
Since entering the White House Trump has embraced his reality TV roots with, if we’re going to be honest, no small amount of success. He has managed to distract the public from the fact that he’s achieved nothing legislatively except for a giant, fiscally irresponsible corporate tax cut; the world is going to hell; and he triggered a special counsel investigation (which more or less proved that he tried to obstruct justice); and an impeachment inquiry that’s probably going to force him to cling to his office for dear life, just to be on the ballot next November.
And oh yeah: He’s getting his ass handed to him in match-up polling against his most-likely opponent.
But throughout his bumbling administration, Trump has used the tropes of reality TV to keep people distracted and off-balance.
There’s always a villain for him to fixate on: Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, Bob Mueller, Michael Cohen, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, the mystery whistleblower.
There’s a constantly changing cast: Sean Spicer is out! Mooch is in! Mooch is out! John Kelly is in charge! He fired Jim Comey while he was on the tarmac?!? Why is Nikki Haley leaving? Holy crap, he just hired Super Hawk Neocon Globalist John Bolton. Now he’s fired Bolton. How long can Mulvaney hang on? Who’s going to replace Mike Pence for Season 2?
It is not an accident that Kim Kardashian has been as adept at passing legislation with this administration as anyone on Capitol Hill. She got her Armenian genocide bill passed. Her prison reform is chugging along. As a fellow reality TV star, she speaks Trump’s love language.
What’s funny—or tragic, depending on how dark your soul is at this moment—is the way that the reality TV infection seems to be running in both directions now.
There’s Rick Perry, who went from governor of Texas, to failed presidential candidate, to Dancing with the Stars, to Trump-hating political oncologist, to Trump’s secretary of Energy. There’s Sean Spicer who went from getting paid by America to lie to America to (also) Dancing with the Stars. There’s the administrations favorite villain, Omarosa, who taped everyone and claimed intimate knowledge of Trump’s racism—five minutes after she had a book to promote.
And the president’s daughter, the true villain of Trump World—who learned her bland faux feminism double-speak by appearing on her daddy’s show.
“He likes people who present themselves very well, and he’s very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it’s a very important medium for public policy,” said Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Trump. “Don’t forget, he’s a showbiz guy. He was at the pinnacle of showbiz, and he thinks about showbiz. He sees this as a business that relates to the public.”
“The look might not necessarily be somebody who should be on the cover of GQ magazine or Vanity Fair,” Ruddy said. “It’s more about the look and the demeanor and the swagger.”
Compared to this, the Hollywood actors of America’s political past are practically good-government dweebs on par with Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Why the difference?
Well, at heart it’s about the very idea that merit exists. Actors become famous for acting while reality stars become famous for being on television. These are two different categories. One is a skill. The other is simply a fact. And the proposition that merit exists necessarily leads you to the idea that objective truth exists. To an actor, the evaluation of whether or not you’re successful has something to whether or not you’re good at your job by objective measures.
To a reality star, whether or not you’re good at your job is a function solely of whether or not you’re on television. Truth has no place in this world. Success is more or less just a will to power.
Always remember that there is no barrier to entry for reality stars. Snookie got to be Snookie because some producer, somewhere, decided that she was amusing, in a droll sort of way. Clay Aiken got to be Clay Aiken because millions of middle-aged women from the American heartland had never met a gay man before.
Donald J. Trump was cast in a show based on the conceit that he was a successful real estate developer when he is, in actuality, more or less the opposite. (He’s kind of the Jared Kushner of real estate developers.) And Ivanka got famous by going on TV and pretending to run her father’s nonexistent empire.
The secret of reality television is that the emperor has no clothing at all, not a scrap, not even a gold-lamé thong. Reality television is neither reality (which is real), nor television (which is an entertainment medium), so much as a pantomime of humanity at its worst. Which is fitting, since the Trump administration is a pantomime of the presidency at its worst.
Reality stars are like actors, but without the training, or the talent or—weirdly—the reality of being people who understand what it’s like to do a job.
And it turns out that doing fake “reality” on television doesn’t translate to doing real government very well.
If you had told me ten years ago that some day I’d pine for the intelligence, stability, and work ethic of Arnold Schwarzenegger I would have laughed at you. But here we are.
What scares me is wondering what comes next. Because it strikes me as entirely possible that 20 years from now we might be lamenting the loss of serious figures in American politics like Donald Trump and Omarosa Manigault and Sean Duffy.
President PewDiePie is going to be the worst. Let’s hope the Sweet Meteor of Death gets us first.