Donald Trump: Reality (TV) and Prophecy

By Susan McWilliams

The idea that an actor (someday even an actress) might rise to political power on the basis of their familiarity to an audience and their ease at being on a public stage and projecting a personality has been a fear of recent decades.  It has happened – and it is lurking once again.

Almost fifty years ago, Pat Brown made the mistake of underestimating Ronald Reagan. It was 1966, and Reagan was running to replace Brown as Governor of California. Brown repeatedly dismissed Reagan as “just an actor” and seemed certain that California’s voters would dismiss him, too. But when Brown got smug, Reagan employed art: When Brown lambasted Reagan for having no experience, Reagan responded by saying, “The man who currently holds the job has more experience than anybody. That’s why I’m running.”

We know how the rest of the story goes. Reagan won the governorship that year and again in 1970. Six years later, he ascended to a national political platform and came close to winning the Republican nomination for President, despite another round of criticism that he was “just an actor.” Of course, Reagan did win that nomination in 1980 and rode it to a two-term Presidency, the effects of which still haunt this nation today.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot during the last couple of months, as Donald Trump has ascended to, and maintained his place in, the Republican field of presidential candidates. For although Trump likes to call himself a businessman, and even his enemies have focused on his professional role as a real-estate developer, the truth is that Trump is known mostly to the American people as a reality television star.

And while I suspect, as do most other students of politics, that Trump’s political star is not long for this sky, I also think that those of us on the Left should be careful not to repeat that old mistake of underestimating a screen star’s potential on the political stage.

Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice,” first aired in 2004 and stayed on the screen for seven seasons, during which time Trump produced an equally popular spinoff, “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In both shows, Trump was the centerpiece and star, the creator of the “ultimate job interview” who ran contestants through various wringers with the promise that the winner of each season would secure a job running one of the companies in the Trump Organization. The show’s tag line – “you’re fired,” directed by Trump to the loser of each week’s competition – became a cultural catchphrase.

Like most reality television shows, “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” had plots that were at times exciting, at times predictable, at times grating. But like most reality television shows, the Trump shows were character driven. The job candidates were routinely outlandish, and they all orbited around Trump, the most outlandish one of all, as if his gold-crusted Manhattan apartment were some latter day, highly leveraged Sun.

Well, it was enough of a thing for me to watch on weeknights, anyway, which meant that along with millions of Americans, I spent years sitting in my living room with Donald J. Trump.

There’s something about sitting with someone’s spectral presence, week after week after week, in your home. It’s like reading a book so often that the characters become just as real to you as the flesh-and-blood folks you pass on the street. After so many “Apprentices,” Trump is familiar. Notice that language, how close “familiar” is to “familial.” And think about how you may not adore everything about every member in your family, but how even so, what is familial – familiar – tends to feel safe, just because it is more-or-less known. There’s a way in which Trump, for all his grandstanding and preening and offending, is the candidate in this race who feels to Americans, at least at first pass, as safe, just because he is more-or-less known.

Reality television is a particularly tricky beast. Though it began as an earnest phenomenon – in 1973, Margaret Mead responded to America’s first major reality television offering, PBS’s “The American Family,” by calling the show’s format “as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel – a new way in which people learn to look at life” – it is now largely scripted. Even when you know that the action isn’t entirely real, that the immediate reality is in fact contrived, you have the sense that you are watching something that reflects something deeply real about this strange time in which we live.

My own sense is that reality television mirrors the peculiar spirit of this age. It is at once cynical and earnest, often cruel but on occasion moved by stories of deep courage. It celebrates bald ambition but also passion and sometimes even love. It’s a description that also fits Mr. Trump, a fact which begins to suggest to me the reason for his staying power in the presidential race thus far.

In 1953, when Kurt Vonnegut published his dystopian novel Player Piano, one of its most ridiculous dystopian details was an American President whose previous job had been in acting. Sometimes what seems like pessimism turns out to be prophecy. It may seem pessimistic to imagine today that Donald J. Trump could go far in this electoral season (or in an electoral season to come), but we should not be too quick to dismiss him. He’s really on the political stage now, really on the screen, and really in the picture – a comfortable place for him to be.