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How Reality TV Builds Narrative Is Crucial to Understanding Trump

L-R: Donald Trump, The Bachelorette villain Chad Johnson. Photo: Getty Images, ABC

We are about to inaugurate the first reality-TV president. He may well have been put into office through Russian intervention into our democratic process. He has bragged about committing sexual assault. He has inextricable financial ties to foreign governments, and shows no interest in putting the country above his brand. He is appointing a cabinet of terrifying ideologues whose inexperience, personal bias, and total disconnect from the realities of American life make each one more frightening than the last. There is vitally important work to do to try to save vulnerable Americans from tragic catastrophe in the next four years.

I am also still watching The Bachelor.

I’m not going to make an argument that this is some kind of noble act. But reality-TV conventions and reality-TV storytelling are fundamental to what’s happening to our national politics. They’re fundamental to one crucial part of them, at least. Our international landscape may actually be The Americans, and our congressional mudslinging may be an uncharacteristically unfunny Armando Iannucci project. But our president-elect is most certainly still living in his own reality show, and he’s behaving that way, so, naturally, the national discourse follows suit.

Consider some Trumpian patterns and their matching reality-TV paradigms:

Personal brawls as stand-ins for personal beliefs.
We know that reality TV thrives on the dramatic potential of massive, dirty, wickedly personal fights. If you’re not in at least one horrible knockdown drag-out with a fellow cast member every three episodes or so, you are not long for TV. The distinctly Trump element of this is the second part — like any good reality TV-villain, he’s defined largely in opposition to others. Consider one of the most memorable recent characters in reality TV: The Bachelorette’s Meat Chad. He came in with one hilariously minor personality quirk (eating), and the rest of his destructive, gaslighting, misogynistic persona came entirely out of his ability to play off the other cast members. He, like all the best reality-TV characters, was not like these other guys.

This is what’s happening when Trump picks nasty fights with individuals on Twitter, or singles out news organizations in press conferences, rather than setting out a large, detailed, logically consistent statement of what he stands for. His character, his brand, is a hazy, amorphous cloud of connotation and suggestion until the moment it comes into conflict with someone. And then Trump — his brand — can easily shift into becoming whatever that person is not. It’s a trope from competition and lifestyle reality shows alike. Personal clashes are never about the fight itself, but about defining who you are. And not coincidentally, the most commonly fought over reality-TV characteristics also line up nicely with the definition-through-difference Trump: He is always classier, wealthier, smarter, more honest, and more authentic.

Constant relitigation of ancient injuries.
The inevitable narrative corollary of characters built through interpersonal battles is that the battles keep coming back. This is less common in competition shows like Celebrity Apprentice, which usually begin with all new casts, eliminating some of the narrative potential of old beefs coming back to light. But on reunion shows and lifestyle franchises (and especially in a Real Housewives situation), reincarnating ancient fights is narrative bread and butter. On RHONY, Bethenny Frankel’s return to the series has heralded a great reinvigoration of all the accusations of hypocrisy, class, honesty, and status that marked that franchise’s early seasons. A gauzier lifestyle show like Sister Wives thrives on replaying early-season footage of tension between the wives to put new arguments into context. It even happens more and more on competition shows like The Bachelor, which has moved to a model of recycling already established personalities through its franchises for exactly this narrative purpose. It’s a good shortcut if there’s no current battle worth fighting, but it’s even more useful as distraction from a current battle you’re losing.

So in moments of stress — in that early GOP debate when he struggled with an answer on women, in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape, now that the transition situation has gotten rocky — Trump leans heavily on this reality trope. Bring up Rosie O’Donnell, dredge up ancient Clinton scandals, and perpetually refight an election that’s already finished. Every political candidate relies on some distraction technique to try to shift a news cycle away from their own flaws, but Trump delights in calling back to long-ago personal drama with all the relish of a housewife who claims to have forgiven but has never forgotten.

Carefully cycling through scandals.
This is a vital part of reality-TV storytelling, and one that Trump has been careful to hew to as much as possible in the last year. In a traditional political-scandal situation, the pattern is usually that a scandal will break, everything will get very silly for a news cycle or two, and then a politician will be careful to stay on the straight and narrow for as long as possible. This is fundamentally unlike how reality-TV storytelling works.

In the aftermath of scandal, good reality personalities (and just as importantly, good reality-show producers and editors) have to be already building toward the new fight. It doesn’t matter why you’re onscreen as long as you are onscreen, and reality-TV survival hinges on your ability to provide sufficiently entertaining material to the editors at regular, easily narrativized intervals. Just look at how Real Housewife Vicki Gunvalson, a pro in this genre if ever there was one, moves carefully through drama with her friendships, her marriage, her children’s lives, her romantic relationships, and then back through the friendships. Each time, she punctuates the end of a story by promising to keep things calm, to have one drama-free meal, to just be positive for a while. The pause, or at least a stated desire to calm down for a bit, is as necessary as the new scandal.

So we get Trump calling out the cast of Hamilton, followed by brief gestures toward doing the country’s business, followed by the reality-show unveiling of a secretary of State pick, followed by a quieter series of meetings and announcements, followed by proudly taking Russia’s side in a debate about the loyalty of American intelligence agencies. The usual journalistic cycles can’t keep up because the churn is too rapid. But at the same time, the Trump team can maintain the appearance of measurable achievements and hard work.

Of course, this is not a reality-TV series. If it ever was one, back in the heady naïve days of the GOP nominations, it stopped the moment Trump became the nominee. But while we’re all trying to remind ourselves and convince each other that this is actual real life and not a Mark Burnett production, Trump is still using reality-TV strategies to drive the story of his presidency. Rather than abandoning the tropes and techniques that got him to this point and taking up the usual mantle of presidential neutrality, Trump is still living inside the explosive part three of a reunion special, swearing to do good things in the future while screaming about media feuds on Twitter.

So, yes, I am still watching The Bachelor, and I’ve checked in with the new Celebrity Apprentice, and I watch an occasional Housewife. I do it for all of the usual mindless entertainment reasons, but also because through that lens, our future president’s behavior does not look shocking. It looks typical. It’s still surprising in the context of the White House and the world stage, but if you put him on a white sofa next to Andy Cohen and a tasteful vase of tulips, Trump’s word-salad pronouncements and his inexplicable obsession with picking fights makes sense.

I don’t know that it helps much, ultimately. The ability to watch Trump’s horrifying press conference tangents and see the parallels with an After the Final Rose special hardly feels like the most useful response to a national crisis. But if nothing else, those parallels feel like a framework to hold onto when everything else is so hard to parse. I could tear my hair out wondering why the president-elect is calling Meryl Streep overrated, or I could remember that Twitter feuds are a vital part of the reality-TV transmedia experience — they build fans into an imagined community of people with shared values and teams. I could watch a disastrous press conference and wonder how any of us will survive, or I could come away with at least one actionable takeaway — if you don’t ask short, simple questions, like a good reality TV host would, it’s too easy for the subject to squirrel away.

It’s also one way to deflate the balloon a little. He is not superhuman, and he’s not untouchable. He’s come into a terrifying, probably calamitous amount of power, but his needs and desires are not that complex. He does not want to throw people under the bus, but he will if he has to. He’s here to win. He is not here to make friends. We should follow suit.

What Reality-TV Tropes Tell Us About Trump