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Way back in the dark ages, back when the boob tube was still black and white, contestants vied to see who had the worst sob story for prizes in Queen for a Day. It wasn't until the late 1990s and Big Brother that the genre we think of as "reality television" really took off, though, and The Apprentice took the crowded stage in 2004 as contestants tried to display their business acumen in exchange for a "You're fired" from the show's luridly colored host, Donald Trump.
We sometimes complain about the influence that vapid, meaningless, seemingly endless reality television has on society — how the stalwarts of prime time are being slowly but surely replaced by an assortment of noxious artfully orchestrated competitions to see who's the best singer, dancer, cook, drag queen, wife, husband, model. But we should perhaps be complaining less about the slew of inescapable reality TV shows and more about the fact that someone has finally managed to make the inevitable crossover from the small screen to ultimate real-life challenge.
Is Donald Trump about to be America's first reality TV president?
Vice President Al Gore may have invented the internet, but it took President Barack Obama to turn it into a weapons-grade campaign tool in both 2008 and 2012. He wasn't just the first internet president, but specifically the first social media president, making online interaction such a cornerstone of his campaign that the generation of youth growing up under the Obama administration thinks it's completely normal.
Before 2008, presidents didn't run AMAs, participate in interviews with YouTube celebrities, maintain a highly active and sometimes personal presence on social media, acknowledge and interact with social media memes ("Thanks, Obama"), or hold Twitter town halls. President Obama's highly active online presence — a brilliantly engineered campaign tactic — has set the bar for all presidential contenders since, from the horrific to the hilarious.
We've come a long way from the big block of cheese day. While President Obama (and his staff) and Secretary Clinton (and her staff) have maintained a sense of professionalism on social media, they've also broken down the barriers with whimsy now and then as well. President Obama is a man who takes the power of his office deadly seriously, but he's also a man who's capable of injecting necessary humor into the world.
In an era where Americans expect instant access and gratification, President Obama's social media presence has set and created a standard, recognizing that very few people can afford to be like Trader Joe's, with its determined refusal to maintain a social media presence. It creates a sense of engagement and ownership with the White House that's unlike any we've had before, akin to the moment President Harry Truman delivered the first televised address from the White House.
This is also a moment that calls 1960 and the first televised presidential debate to mind: Nixon and Kennedy faced off on the small screen in much the way that Trump is hoping he won't have to do with Secretary Clinton. Kennedy became a public darling because of his movie star good looks (something President Reagan, an actual movie star, lacked), but also because he understood how to perform for television. While Nixon, haggard from the campaign trail, may have refused the makeup that would make him look less ghastly on screen, Kennedy was quite happy to let the wizards at CBS spruce him up. Trump at least is wearing makeup, though he seems to be making some unusual personal style decisions.
Donald Trump's conduct on social media is routinely appalling, but it also speaks to something deeper: He's a man who rose to prominence not through political or legal acumen, or membership in a powerful dynasty, or military service, but through the fact that he has a lot of money and once hosted a television show. If it feels completely ludicrous to see a man like him frighteningly close to the White House, there are a lot of factors to thank, but one of them is, most definitely, the culture of celebrity and reality television.
Trump's bombastic, outsized, heavy-handed remarks on Twitter are often taken as a reflection of his personality, but they run deeper than that. They're also a reflection of the carefully crafted, stagy orchestration that goes into every minute on reality television — the selective editing designed to turn people into characters, the optimized footage used to develop the suggestion of a rivalry that doesn't even exist, and, of course, the careful rigging behind the scenes that's designed to ensure a show ends with only one outcome.
We collectively created Donald Trump, and it's no surprise that "Who Wants to Be the Republican Nominee?" started with a field of 17 that winnowed itself quickly week by week, taking the chaff out first and then coming down to a smaller and smaller group with inflated rivalries and last-minute attempts at alliances for taking out the frontrunner, culminating in a dramatic, overdone finale that went on far longer than it should have and included some C-list celebrity guests in the hopes of boosting ratings.
Donald Trump's campaign has been successful for a huge number of reasons, but one of them is his uncanny ability to tap into the psyche of an America obsessed with watching people humiliate themselves in a desperate quest for fame and fortune. The only thing better than a reality TV star, we all know, is the judge — and Donald Trump is feeding a public filled with dreams of doing something bigger and greater, with fulfilling the possibilities that unfold on their televisions every night. He's clearly hoping to repeat Republican idol Ronald Reagan in taking his career from the screen to the Oval, though not if Patti Davis has anything to say about it.
People don't care that he's failed at almost everything he's touched: He's achieved the ultimate goal in a reality TV–obsessed world, rising to fame on television not because he's particularly good at something, or offers some particular insight to the world, but because he has a trademark line and he's figured out how to tap into it, how to work the camera, how to completely mesmerize an audience to the point that it doesn't realize it's being duped with barbed lies flung about as casually as tableware on Hell's Kitchen.
Donald Trump realized something his fellow contestants didn't: That this was something that could be artfully gamed by staying controversial enough to turn into a "character" to last through the early rounds of elimination, and honing that persona to the bitter end to develop a loyal band of followers. His revolting personality isn't a hindrance for him, but rather an asset, because in the world of reality television, professionalism and a flash of puckish humor get you sent home, but being a terrible person makes the producers keep you in for the drama.
President Obama's wry wit and intelligence brought his followers out in droves to the polls, and Donald Trump's diametrically opposite personality is having an identical effect. In November, that could mean alarming turnout for people who love the idea of a brush with fame — and they're going to find out after the fact that this is a higher stakes race than winning a leadership position at Trumptastic Trumptown Inc. or Gordon Ramsay's Sea Slug Grille and Arcade Fun Complex, because when the season ends, "Who Wants to Be the President?" is going to be on every channel, 24/7, forever.