Opinion
Subscriber Only

Fintan O’Toole: Trump never stopped being a reality TV star

Drama and conflict are not mistakes – they are the lifeblood of the genre he inhabits

Reality TV is to reality as sexting is to sex. It is a genre of fiction and like all genres it has its own conventions. The central one is that one of the mainstays of most drama – the suspension of disbelief – is turned on its head. If you go to see a play or a film, and if it’s any good, it draws you into a state of mind where you accept that these people are behaving “as if” they actually exist.

But if you sit down to watch Extreme Makeover or Say Yes to the Dress, there is no “as if”. The convention you accept is that what you’re seeing is merely a filmed record of actual events. And therefore that “reality” is reality. You don’t suspend disbelief. You suspend belief, specifically belief in the difference between reality and invention.

Donald Trump is not a former reality TV star. There is no former about it. Under pressure, we all return to our comfort zones and Trump's is The Apprentice. His business career is largely a kitsch facade, a glitzy edifice infested with the dry rot of bankruptcies and frauds. But his reality TV career is an authentic success. He initially turned down the job because, he told the producer of The Apprentice, reality TV is "for the bottom feeders of society". He found, however, that he was very good at feeding the bottom: he got 14 seasons (and more than $200 million) out of The Apprentice. It is his life's work.

This matters because the people who made their peace with Trump – most importantly the Republican establishment – don't understand it. They, too, mostly think of reality TV as being for the bottom feeders of society. They don't comprehend its conventions and how much Trump exists inside them. Specifically, they don't understand that there is no "as if" in reality TV. They know that Trump is not fit to be president but they thought he would behave "as if" he were presidential. They thought he would be like an actor who takes on a pre-existing role and follows the script as written (Ronald Reagan being the prime exemplar). But that's just not the way the "reality" genre works. The model for Trump is not Reagan but Ozzy Osbourne. The more outrageous the antics the better.

Living and dying by ratings

Reality TV isn't a metaphor for Trump's presidency. It is his presidency.  His demented insistence that he "really" won the popular vote; his obsessing over the size of the crowd at his inauguration; his breathtaking use of the National Prayer Breakfast to boast about how his ratings on Celebrity Apprentice were much higher than Arnold Schwarzenegger's, his announcement of his Supreme Court nominee as a season finale reveal ("Was that a surprise – was it?") – these are not aberrations. They are the legitimate concerns and actions of a reality TV star who lives and dies by the ratings.

If you understand this, you also understand that the conflict and drama of Trump’s season opener are not, as the conventional view would have it, products of incompetence and inexperience. They are successful applications of 14 seasons of reality TV experience. Trump is the victim of a category error: he is being judged by the rules of a game he is not playing.

Speaking on National Public Radio last week, Tom Forman, one of the biggest producers of reality TV shows in the US (Extreme Makeover, My Five Wives, Gigolo) pointed out that Trump is part of his world: "He uses tools we use every day to tell and shape a story – conflict and drama . . . What he's talking about is nuts, and certainly less important than the actual policy discussion, but he's made it understandable, he's made it personal, he's added a conflict-driven narrative. Those are the techniques we use every day because they work."

Red-meat conversation

Forman acknowledged that the last thing reality TV shows allow to get in their way is reality itself. “We think about that a lot in our business – you don’t want to get bogged down in an argument over facts when you make a reality TV show. You don’t want to convey a ton of information because people get bored or lost or change the channel . . . You want to be directionally correct, you want to amplify what your viewers already believe to be true, what they know in their bones, and that means keeping the conversation at a pretty red-meat level. It’s stuff I can grasp quickly, talk about at the dinner table. I think Trump gets that . . . He’s doing it and he’s gonna continue doing it . . . He’s really good at it. You’re not gonna stop him.”

In the conflict-driven narrative of reality TV, conflict is not a mistake. It is your very life’s blood. Only if you miss this point can you imagine that Trump will settle down into pragmatism. His job is to generate the conflict that keeps the ratings up and to do so by amplifying the existing prejudices of his audience, feeding them the red meat of simplistic drama. Like the shark, if he stops moving through the sea of outrage, he will die. If once he lets reality intrude on his “reality”, the show is over.