Donald Trump and Politics After Reality TV

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by NBC

All week long, Vulture explores what happens to reality-TV contestants after the show ends — and the future of the genre itself.

Donald Trump, whose sex life was dominating the cover of the New York Post way back in 1990, was a reality star before there was even such a thing as reality TV. So the fact that his campaign in 2015 seems like one big reality show — powered by outrageous sound-bites, viral gaffes, and a lead who at any moment could plausibly announce to the camera, “Look, I’m not here to make friends” — is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is how Trump’s presence in the race, specifically in the televised debates, is changing the way the race itself is being covered — in a shift that’s reminiscent of the first Kennedy-Nixon TV debate way back in 1960.

That debate famously was perceived to have ushered in the predominance of television as our national communicative medium, signaling a broader social shift from an oral political culture to a visual one. (Whether it actually did so is another question, but the myth was so powerful, it affected politics all the same.) Kennedy, the candidate, was young, unproven, and inexperienced, while Nixon had just served eight years as vice-president. Kennedy, however, was telegenic; Nixon was not. This visual contrast was exacerbated by the fact that Nixon, who refused to wear makeup and was recovering from the flu, appeared unshaven, pale, sweaty, and underweight. Seventy million Americans watched, Kennedy emerged from the debates with a lead, and regardless of whether it really was his visual savoir faire that turned the election, future candidates adjusted their approach accordingly. “It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically — in this case, in a single night,” the historian Alan Schroeder told Time magazine for a retrospective article titled “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World.”

Have the Trump-versus–Cast of Dozens TV debates changed the world? They have, at the very least, served as a jarring indicator of just how much the world has changed — and how we, the social-media-empowered audience, with our fingers poised over the tweet and “like” buttons, can now slice and dice the media coverage and thus decide which moments, and which candidates, will endure. In politics, the telegenic age, which dawned in 1960, has now officially ended. Thanks to Trump, the age of virality is now entrenched.

Even pre-internet, primitive forms of virality played a role in presidential elections, of course: From the adman-crafted slogan “Let’s be done with wiggle and wobble” in the Harding-Cox race of 1920 to the Shepard Fairey Hope poster in 2012, certain phrases, slogans, and images have always come to represent the larger ideological battles being waged. The big change, post 1960, with the move from radio to TV, was the rise of a sound-bite culture, in which contextless snippets — “There you go again”; “You’re likable enough”; “Binders full of women” — took on an outsize resonance. Trump’s current popularity can be linked to many factors — his brazen nativist rhetoric, his celebrity name appeal; his apparent tendency for straight talk in a field of career dissemblers — but his campaign also signals a further shift from sound-bite culture to something even more ephemeral: a campaign that spreads via memes. So far, it’s proving perfectly suited to a modern media environment in which many voters absorb their news one GIF, Vine, or doctored video snippet at a time.

Carly Fiorina’s assertion that “Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said” was the most memorable quote from the last debate — yet the most widely disseminated images on social media were reaction GIFs of Trump’s impressively elastic face during a gibe from Jeb Bush and the moment that Trump offered Bush an awkwardly enacted high-five. (CNN — I repeat, CNN — ran a post-debate article headlined, “Republican Debate Reactions, Captured in GIFs.” ) In this sense, Trump “won” the debate, not by providing the most cogent positions, or even the most resonant quotes, but simply by providing the most GIF-able moments.

The GIF is fundamentally different from the sound bite in that it represents a hermetic capsule of pure entertainment: Unlike with a sound bite, there’s no need to even parse what the surrounding context may have originally been. These purely visual moments, repeated on an infinite loop, are not just divorced from policy; they’re divorced from politics. “Binders full of women” at least required a knowledge of the candidate and his positions. Contrast that with the very popular “Bing Bing, Bong Bong, Bing Bing Bing” Vine of Trump, where the very lack of context is what makes the whole thing funny.

All of which might not matter if Trump was not also proving to be a huge ratings hit. The enormous success of the debates on CNN and Fox has flipped a traditional media quandary on its head: How can we turn political coverage into a high-ratings spectacle? is now, post-Trump, How do we disguise this high-ratings spectacle as political coverage? CNN’s promos for the second debate — coming as they did after Fox’s debate, which was the highest-rated primary debate in television history — looked more like teasers for a reality-show finale. For years, outlets like Fox and CNN have tried to find ways — ever-more-booming voice-overs, ever-more-rousing theme music, field reports from freaking holograms — to remake political coverage in the mold of reality TV. It turns out all they needed was to recast the lead role with an actual reality-TV star.

This creates an interesting feedback loop — media outlets that were initially reluctant to treat Trump’s campaign as legitimate now have an excellent reason to keep him front and center; this continual coverage confers legitimacy on his campaign, which in turn allows the media to keep him front and center. It’s also worth noting that, after the most recent debate, both front-runners (Trump and Ben Carson) and the acknowledged debate victor (Fiorina) have served exactly zero days in political office. Several other candidates (Mike Huckabee) seem less interested in winning the nomination than in profitably raising their media profiles. This further extends a trend first evident in 2012 (Herman Cain!) while also raising the question: Once you remove (a) political experience and (b) political ambition from a race, what are you left with, exactly? As it turns out, you have an excellent reality show. You could easily pitch the Republican primary as Survivor meets Shark Tank, where notorious (and wealthy) citizens from across the country with no political experience come together to vie for the ultimate prize — which, in this case, really is the ultimate prize.

Trump’s main, and thus far insurmountable, advantage is his truly skilled understanding of what makes for good reality TV: Be controversial, be confrontational, and above all, know your brand. After the 1960 TV debate, it no longer mattered just what you said, but how you looked while you were saying it: A different medium demanded a different message. A new medium — social media — enables Trump to survive with little message at all, beyond a few mutterings about greatness and a wall. He has something else to offer: an unending string of shareable moments that ensure our continued attention. This, of course, is also the exact quality that makes for a great reality-TV star. You don’t have to be experienced. You don’t need to be telegenic. You don’t even need to be coherent. As of 2016, virality trumps all.