Is the US set to elect its first Reality-Television President?

Written by Heather. Posted in News

trump-youre-firedIn the film Back to The Future, Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) is incredulous when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) claims to have travelled back to 1955 from 1985 in a time machine invented by Doc’s future self. Doc Brown tests out Marty’s claim by asking him who the US President is in 1985. Doc’s response to hearing that it’s Hollywood star Ronald Reagan is sarcastic disbelief: “Ronald Reagan?!? The actor?!? Then who’s vice-president?!? Jerry Lewis?!?” However, as Doc learns more about the culture of 1985, he reflects that it makes perfect sense for the President to be an actor, as he has to look good on television.

Like Doc Brown, many of us are looking on in disbelief at the triumph of Donald Trump in the Republican Presidential race and his increasing strength in general election polling. In this post Heather argues that – like Back to the Future‘s Doc – if we reflect on the culture of 2016, we can understand why it makes sense for the President to be a Reality Television celebrity.

Donald Trump, Reality Television and the US Presidential Race

The Republican Presidential race started with a field of 17 candidates. Despite this range of opponents, the rise of Donald Trump can partly be put down to the weakness of the opposition to him. The favoured establishment figures, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, resorted respectively to wheeling out their mum as a character witness and making allusions to the diminutive size of Trump’s penis. However, Trump is also a weak candidate, at least by conventional standards. He has put forward few policy ideas (and failed to flesh out most of those he has). He also shows a lack of understanding of political process and policy, evident in his repeated mistakes, including mispronouncing Tanzania in his first foreign policy speech (see video). Many have linked Trump’s success to his anti-establishment position but I think it owes more to his Reality-Television celebrity for two key reasons.

First, this celebrity secures him masses of free publicity. Trump, or The Donald, as he is known in the US and beyond, has spent far less money on his campaign than any other candidate. For example, in February, Trump spent 10 million dollars on television advertising. This is an enormous amount of money but pales in comparison to the 82 million and 55 million dollars spent by Bush and Rubio respectively. By contrast Trump has access to nine times the free media of either, a cool 400 million dollars worth in February alone. As many have noted ironically, mainstream news media have literally broadcast an empty podium at a Trump rally rather than a live Bernie Sanders’ speech. This is because television networks view Trump as ‘ratings gold’. Given the competitive 24-hour news cycle within which they now operate, networks like CNN and MSNBC need not only constant content but to attract audiences. This has resulted in blurred boundaries between news and Reality Television. In this environment, Trump is their ‘ideal’ candidate. As the head of the CBS network put it, Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.

Second, Trump’s celebrity creates a feeling of trust among the US public. Kim and I have written about how ‘being yourself’, or so-called authenticity, is valued above all other traits in Reality-Television celebrities. This public desire for ‘authenticity’ would seem to disadvantage Trump, who is nothing if not inconsistent. Staunchly pro-choice for most of his life, he became pro-life shortly before entering the race. Previously donating to multiple Democratic candidates (including Hillary Clinton), he is now running as a Republican. However, authenticity continues to be important for him, as we can see in the virulence with which Trump has denied the claims by his newly-appointed convention manager that he is “projecting an image” which will change later in the race. It will be interesting to see how Trump’s supporters respond if he does change his positions. However, it seems that people have of sense of knowing The Donald through seeing him in multiple seasons of The Apprentice and other media vehicles. This Reality-Television intimacy may mean that even if he puts forward inconsistent ideas, this will be reconcilable with an authentic image of him ‘telling it like it is’. Trump himself has suggested that the nature of his support is different from that for other candidates: “Even the really dishonest press says Trump’s people are the most incredible … sixty-eight percent would not leave under any circumstance. I think that means murder. I think it means anything.”

Hillary Clinton, Reality Television and the US Presidential Race


By contrast, Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, comes over as a typical politician. She moved from First Lady, to Senator to Secretary of State and has worked hard within her party to build up the loyalty and support she needs to win. Yet, Clinton too is, in many ways, a Reality-Television candidate. Although, there is no Keeping Up with the Clintons, she has huge name recognition not because of her political accomplishments but because of the real-life Clinton soap opera, the melodramatic and public unfolding of her personal and professional dramas. For example, the US public know in minute detail about her husband’s multiple infidelities and have heard rumours of her own affairs and his cocaine addiction. They have also lived through a bewildering number of scandals and criminal investigations from dodgy land deals to security cover-ups.

In terms of authenticity, Clinton’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, scores more highly. Exit polls repeatedly show that primary voters see Sanders as more trustworthy even in states where he loses the popular vote to Clinton. This is not surprising as Clinton’s past is littered with instances of what she euphemistically refers to as ‘mis-speaking’, some of which the viral video ‘Hillary Clinton lying for 13 minutes straight’ documents (see below). It seems that these inconsistencies and untruths are less important to voters than the sense they have that they know Clinton, but don’t (yet) know her opponent Sanders who, while a seasoned politician, has had little media coverage. Even after declaring he would run for President, Sanders gained less than five minutes of mainstream media coverage during the first eight months of his campaign.

If, as looks increasingly likely, the election is between the two Reality-Television candidates, Trump and Clinton, US voters will be choosing between two people with record unfavorability ratings. Yet, this too may be part of the love/hate relationships that characterise our engagement with the celebrities who fill our screens via Big Brother and other Reality -Television shows.

For those of us who feel that policies and ideologies matter more than personalities, the rise of the Reality-Television politician is depressing. However, there is a ray of light. Young people predominantly are voting for neither Clinton nor Trump but for democratic socialist Sanders. Perhaps this is because they, more than older people, get their news not from mainstream media and the big television networks but from independent media and social networking. Perhaps, even as we watch the political ascendancy of the Reality-Television celebrity, we can also see the beginning of their undoing.

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