President Reagan celebrated the incorporation of film into politics, using lines and roles from movies to frame and popularise his presidency. Likewise, when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, he drew on his acting in the Terminator movies, and was nicknamed the ‘Governator’. Donald Trump has not appeared as the main hero in any blockbuster movie but he has made numerous cameo appearances in films and television programs. Invariably, he has appeared as himself. He plays no other role because he has made himself into a character.
Trump’s celluloid fame was consolidated by the reality-TV show The Apprentice, which he hosted for fourteen seasons. It involved contestants competing to be hired as managers in Trump’s businesses. During the election campaign, Trump would redirect his infamous screen line, ‘You’re fired!’, at the Washington establishment. Recently, he even called the candidates for his future administrative positions ‘final contestants’.
Reality TV has profoundly changed television programming. Its formats are now transforming politics. As a genre, reality TV emerged in opposition to fictional narratives as audiences demanded ‘unscripted’, real-life situations. However, reality TV developed its own theatre of the everyday, with unknown individuals gaining acclaim and notoriety by performing themselves. More accurately, they were invited to over-perform to keep up ratings.
Television’s set fictional scripts could be abandoned only because they had become hidden and internalised by viewers. Ordinary individuals were made co-stars in dramatic performances whose seeming spontaneity was a signature of their authenticity. Here, reality television appears to celebrate common folk: their work skills, athleticism, discipline and judgement, which can be tested in competitive arenas. At his rallies, Trump often made the audience part of the drama, inviting folks to throw out heckling protesters, thus performing what he and they would do to other undesirables (illegal immigrants, Muslims).
Critics kept trying to find the real Trump. They dismissed his abusive, sarcastic taunts as a search for free publicity or sign of immature temperament. They could not see how hyperbole, a revelling in extreme exaggeration, has deep roots in popular culture—in mass entertainment, like wrestling matches, where fighters are caricatures who leap from the ring to continue fighting among the audience. Overstatements are also part of barroom banter and other everyday forms of comic repartee that delight in upsetting established forms of order.
Reality television is often not about ‘reality’. Frequently, it places participants in situations that are artificially contrived, then coaches them into hyper-performances of themselves as judge, spouse, parent, cook, builder, athlete or competitive shopper. It invokes drama, creating and featuring theatres of conflict, resolution, defiance or breach. Trump was trained in the hidden, drama-filled scripts of reality television, which can feature sledging as a legitimate tactic for putting opponents off.
Another politician could not have gotten away with Trump’s indiscretions. Some tried to copy his populist provocations, as when Republican rival Marco Rubio joked about Trump’s hand size. It backfired, with Trump suggesting there was nothing wrong with the size of his penis.
Politics has never previously taken this crude form. Trump could pull off this kind of rough political repartee as true to his character and because of his incorporation of reality TV into politics. Trump’s supporters knew how to read him. They revelled in his theatre of indiscretions, his ‘spontaneous’ provocations and parody of a mainstream adept at using high moral truths to silence blunt popular truths.
What critics saw as bloopers and blunders actually endeared him to followers. He played the role of a modern jester, baiting opponents with his transgressions of ordinary politics. His outrageous behaviour worked to increase his popularity among the many ordinary people critical of establishment politics and seeking another voice. Trump gave them that other voice, not just in the content of his promises but also in the hyperbole of the reality-TV format that turned ordinary people into co-stars of his show.