Donald Trump and the Political Aesthetics of Reality Television

David Showalter

Donald Trump went from The Apprentice to the Oval Office. What can reality television teach us about governance and resistance under the Trump Administration?

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Michael Vadon

“How the Party convention was staged was determined by the decision to produce Triumph of the Will. The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as the set of a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary… the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality; ‘reality’ has been constructed to serve the image.”

Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism” (1975)

Though he originally made his reputation as a builder and landlord, Donald Trump spent much of the past two decades as a reality television star. Now the man who used to appraise the managerial qualifications of washed-up rock stars and Hollywood has-beens on Celebrity Apprentice is the President of the United States. What is the link between Trump the reality star and Trump the politician? Journalists and biographers have shown how Trump used television to expand and burnish his public presence, and how he follows the reality genre’s melodramatic tropes to manage the news cycle.[1] I argue that the two Trumps share a deeper connection than these, at the level of a unified political aesthetic. First, I sketch the rise and spread of reality television in the United States. Then I turn to how reality television handles politics, with regard to content and, more importantly for understanding Trump, with regard to form. I show how President Trump has incorporated the political aesthetics of reality television in his approach to governance. Finally, I conclude with a reminder of what happened the last time the United States was led by a professional entertainer, and some lessons it offers us for resisting Trump today.

The Rise of Reality Television

Reality television’s roots stretch back more than half a century. Early hidden-camera shows like Candid Camera put ordinary people onscreen and pioneered televisual voyeurism. Game and quiz shows like Truth or Consequences and The $64,000 Question purported to offer ordinary citizens an honest chance at a life-changing prize (at least until their rigged outcomes came to light) and added the biographical melodrama that is nearly ubiquitous in reality shows today. In 1973, PBS broadcast An American Family, a one-season documentary that followed the everyday lives of a middle class nuclear family in Santa Barbara. Producers unexpectedly captured the family’s eldest son coming out as gay, as well as the wife asking her husband for a divorce. The show drew millions of viewers and fierce controversy over its veracity and sensationalism. It would later serve as an inspiration for the quasi-family situations concocted on MTV’s The Real World.

Chad Raphael has shown how the modern reality genre emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s “in response to the economic restructuring of U.S. television.” The proliferation of VCRs, cable channels, and independent stations fragmented audiences and eroded ad revenues, pushing producers and distributors to cut costs. Reality programming slimmed budgets by sidelining or eliminating (unionized) writers, professional actors, and crews. Early reality shows—many of which, such as COPS, covered crime, law enforcement, and emergencies—also embraced cheap, fast, and “low-end” production values as a form of aesthetic realism.[2] Since the premiere of The Real World in 1992, reality shows have increasingly focused on developing onscreen characters, relationships, and narratives that can drive entire seasons or generate spin-off series, creating a lean and self-sustaining production model. In these respects, reality television represented the extension of economic neoliberalism to the realm of cultural production. But reality television remained a small piece of the overall market until a wave of hit shows in the early 2000s: Survivor, Big Brother, American Idol, and The Bachelor, soon followed by The Apprentice. The combination of low production costs and ballooning ratings sent networks scrambling to fill their schedules with reality programs. By 2008, more than 300 were on the air every year in the United States, and reality shows were monopolizing the top of the ratings charts.

Just as reality shows drew elements from their predecessors, tropes and devices from reality television have spilled over into scripted programming and onto other media. Some of the most popular scripted shows of the new millennium (including The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation) are “mockumentaries,” or faux-reality shows, based on the conceit of a crew filming a documentary about everyday people. Alison Hearn has shown how reality television stars pioneered the strategies used today by social media “influencers” to brand and monetize their identities and experiences.[3] American Idol and other competition shows have launched dozens of careers in a range of industries, and people now regularly parlay appearances on reality shows into endorsements, acting roles, even political candidacies—or just an endless sequence of reality gigs. Much of our contemporary multimedia landscape has been shaped directly or indirectly by the rise and spread of reality television.

The Political Aesthetics of Reality Television

Walter Benjamin reminds us in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that the media through which we perceive the world, and hence our perception of the world itself, are shaped by politics and history.[4] How has our perception changed in the era of reality television, and what does it reveal about Trump’s ascendance? In other words, what are the political aesthetics of reality television? With regards to content, on reality shows the political is often reduced to the personal. For instance, in 1994 MTV cast an openly gay, HIV-positive AIDS educator named Pedro Zamora on the third season of The Real World, a decision which burdened the show’s everyday plot points—relations between roommates, arguments over hygiene and manners—with the deep fears of impurity and danger and bigoted calls for segregation and quarantine that characterized the conservative response to AIDS. Zamora won the hearts of all his roommates but one, the noxious Puck, who was eventually evicted from the house by the rest of the cast.

This basically Western, liberal political vision—that through frank exchange, personal understanding, and healthy competition we can overcome entrenched social divisions and class conflicts—plays out again and again in reality television: the traffic in women[5] restaged as an undaunted search for a soul mate on The Bachelor; the exploitative corporate music industry toppled by an audition directly for the hit makers and the public on American Idol; “tribal” conflicts between races and classes recast as a series of teambuilding exercises on Survivor.[6] The Apprentice pulled off this trick too, distilling the vicious labyrinth of corporate capitalism to a face-to-face meeting with the big boss. In books like Better Living Through Reality TV and Makeover TV, Laurie Ouellette, James Hay, and Brenda R. Weber argue that, just as reality programming adopts neoliberal production strategies, their optimistic narratives of self-expression and individual achievement extol a neoliberal ideology of entrepreneurial citizenship. But while the content of reality programs may jibe with the demands of our contemporary political economy, their form has earlier origins.

Aesthetics, Sontag argued, had taken precedence over reality, in the sense that what was essential about the event was not the gathering itself, but how it could be conveyed on film.

In her analysis of fascist aesthetics, Susan Sontag points out that Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) owed much of its success to the willingness of Party officials to design the Party Congress at which it was filmed around the “convenience of the cameras.”[7] Aesthetics, Sontag argued, had taken precedence over reality, in the sense that what was essential about the event was not the gathering itself, but how it could be conveyed on film. Though Triumph of the Will has neither narrator, script, nor plot, it takes place nonetheless in a manufactured world, where human life, from the individual to the mass, is allowed to flow only along paths capable of being tracked by the camera’s eye. Sontag’s description also stands as an account of reality television’s dominant aesthetic: “The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as the set of a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary.” Whether reality shows take place on a set created for the show or out in the everyday world, they tame the actions of their participants into segments of space and time that are legible onscreen, first in real-time through the movement of cameras and crews, and then in the editing room through the selection and arrangement of footage.

Frequently the continuity of cast members’ lives is sacrificed for the coherence of an onscreen narrative. As Mariah Smith has documented in her Jezebel series “Keeping Up with the Kontinuity Errors,” scenes on the Kardashian family’s flagship reality series are often filmed out of narrative order and then reconstructed during the editing process, with the cast obligated to substitute the televised sequence of events for their own temporal experience.[8] HGTV’s home buying show House Hunters is notoriously fake: a former participant revealed that it “is not really a reality show. You have to already own the house that gets picked at the end of the show.”[9] The middle and late seasons of MTV’s hit Jersey Shore included an after-show featuring members of the cast that was livestreamed immediately after each new episode. These segments focused specifically on the events of that week’s episode, to the exclusion of all that had occurred but had yet to air, forcing the cast to temporarily revert back to a prior state of experience to preserve the temporality of the series. These small acts of forgetting and dissemblance become ubiquitous. In October 2011, Jersey Shore cast member Vinny Guadagnino rebuffed questions from a paparazzo about a large new chest tattoo, pulling his coat closed and chiding, “I can’t tell you, that’s season five,” which would not premiere until January 2012.[10] As Sontag would say, a reality show “is no longer simply the record of reality; ‘reality’ has been constructed to serve the image.”

The Reality Television Presidency

Donald Trump has spent more than thirty years in the tabloids and on television; it is no surprise that he is perpetually concerned with image and appearances. As Mark Danner has vividly reported in the New York Review of Books, Trump’s campaign rallies were often held in airport hangars so he could use his Boeing 757 and private helicopter as spectacular backdrops and to amplify by echo the throbbing cheers of his supporters.[11] In The Art of the Deal and other books Trump boasts about his shiny Brioni suits, which retail for thousands of dollars, and writes lovingly and expansively about selecting the marble, glass, and fixtures for the lobby of Trump Tower. Though the President disdains reading anything that isn’t condensed to bullet points, he was reportedly “delighted to page through a book that offered him 17 window covering options” for the Oval Office.[12]

In the White House, however, President Trump has elevated superficiality from a personal taste and media strategy to a bona fide philosophy of governance. Like most reality show casts, Trump’s cabinet is majority white but includes single representatives of the United States’ most prominent non-white ethnic groups, all playing stereotyped roles. Trump nominated Ben Carson, a black man with no experience in housing or urban policy, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Nikki Haley, a woman of Indian descent with no foreign policy background, for Ambassador to the United Nations. Secretary of Transportation went to Elaine Chao, a longtime Republican nomenklatura who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The administration was “desperate to find a Latino for [Secretary of] Agriculture,” but failed in the effort and eventually nominated Sonny Perdue, a white, conservative former governor of Georgia.[13] Trump’s main advisors on Israel, David M. Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, are Orthodox Jewish lawyers who have never engaged in diplomacy. He has a habit of summoning ethnic tokens to meet with interest groups, calling in Jewish staffers to meet with a group of Jewish reporters, or touring poor, black neighborhoods in Detroit with former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault in tow.[14]

All of these decisions follow from Trump’s belief that governance and public policy are not merely influenced by media perceptions but are inseparable from them.

When Trump isn’t relying on tokenism and stereotypes, he instead follows the rules of his previous occupation: “he’s very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it’s a very important medium for public policy,” reports a longtime associate. Trump’s favorite compliment for his nominees is that they look like they came from “central casting,” a phrase he has used to describe Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—another candidate for that position, Bob Corker, was reportedly rejected for being too short[15]—and other potential hires. He praised Secretary of Defense James Mattis for his resemblance to George C. Scott’s silver screen role in Patton, one of Trump’s favorite films. Fox News pundits have received plum spots in the West Wing and the national security apparatus. All of these decisions follow from Trump’s belief that governance and public policy are not merely influenced by media perceptions but are inseparable from them. Said the same longtime associate, “Don’t forget, he’s a showbiz guy. He was at the pinnacle of showbiz, and he thinks about showbiz. He sees [policymaking] as a business that relates to the public.”[16]

The centrality of aesthetics to the Trump Administration extends beyond personnel to specific policies as well. Trump constantly refers to the “big, beautiful, impenetrable wall” that he will build along the Mexican border—even though in places the wall would be at best a fence or an electronic barrier. All experts acknowledge that physical fortifications are not a practical way to slow undocumented migration.

But the big, beautiful wall is, for Trump, less a policy designed to achieve a measurable goal than a universal symbolic solvent for a host of threats to the nation, from decades of manufacturing loss to the drug overdose crisis that now claims more than fifty thousand lives in the United States every year.[17] Wendy Brown argues that border walls “stage… an aura of sovereign power and awe” and sustain a “reassuring world picture” of stability and state power even if they inevitably fail to keep the right people out or in.[18] In this respect the border wall epitomizes Trump’s entire political program: to promote the image of sovereignty at the expense of its existence, or again paraphrasing Sontag, to construct a real wall in service of an imagined boundary.

Reality Television and Political Resistance

Trump was the first reality television presidential candidate, but he may not be the last. Already some Democrats are convinced that if Trump has proven himself a political Superman, only Bizarro can save them. Mark Cuban—star of ABC’s Shark Tank, essentially a venture capitalist spin on The Apprentice—spent the presidential campaign haranguing Trump, offering to serve as Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, and bragging about his own electoral prospects. [19] Since Trump’s inauguration, Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson have mused about running for president, and Michael Moore has suggested that Democrats run Winfrey or Tom Hanks. Beyond film and television, Kanye West boasted that he would run for president in 2020, and a number of corporate heads have also been rumored to be exploring bids, including Howard Schulz (Starbucks), Bob Iger (Disney) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).[20] Trump’s ascendance has given a fresh shock to the symbolic boundaries that previously separated business and entertainment from professional politics.

Of course, the United States once previously allowed a professional entertainer into the White House by the name of Ronald Reagan. Though Reagan’s career was made largely in film, his presidency holds ominous lessons for our reality television era. Reagan was, like Trump, out of his depth in the Oval Office, ignorant of details and incapable of sustained analysis. As described in Lou Cannon’s authoritative account, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, the Reagan Administration was almost literally stage-managed by a circle of aides who served as production assistants, guiding their affable but aloof star through eight years of concocted set pieces and extended plotlines. Reagan frequently quoted films in public and private remarks, and seemed to genuinely confuse cinema with reality, repeatedly citing scenes from war movies as if he had personally witnessed them on the battlefield. What was the result? Reagan escaped his scandal-plagued administration unscathed, was beatified by the conservative movement, and today is remembered as “The Great Communicator” who inaugurated a new era of American politics guided by free-marketeering and Christian moralism.[21] It’s no wonder that Trump affiliates from Vice President Mike Pence down have already branded him the next Reagan.[22]

Unlike Reagan, however, Trump came into office with no experience in government, let alone as the chief executive of a large public bureaucracy. Those who worked with Trump in the private sector recall that he ran his corporation largely as a “family-type operation” with little organizational structure and no clear chain of command; one biographer described him as “a performance artist pretending to be a great manager.”[23] Trump’s fictive and chaotic executive style was reflected in the Apprentice boardroom, where he made elimination decisions on a whim, requiring producers to “reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality.”[24] While this personality was well-fitted to reality television, where vertiginous boasts and escalating drama make for good ratings, it has not adapted well to government. Trump’s instinct to respond to criticism with a more aggressive “counterpunch” has ignited or accelerated a web of controversies that now pose a serious threat to his presidency, from his flamboyant denials of collusion with Russia, to his ardent defense of disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, to his embittered dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. Trump seems not to grasp that as president, his claims and actions carry a symbolic, diplomatic, and legal weight that they did not as a candidate, and that unlike tabloid celebrities and reality stars, leaders of governments are judged more on the basis of the policies they enact than on the attention and controversy they foment.

So far, the reality television president has been his own worst enemy. The most effective way to undermine Trump may be to find ways to fuel his self-destructive impulses from the outside.

So far, the reality television president has been his own worst enemy. With Republican leaders in Congress doing their best to ignore the chaos enveloping the White House, and Democrats more or less shut out of institutional power until after the 2018 midterm elections, the most effective way to undermine Trump may be to find ways to fuel his self-destructive impulses from the outside. By all accounts, Trump is an emotional toddler: impatient and inattentive, demanding “regular doses of praise,” fearful of stairs and heights, drenching his overcooked steak in ketchup and demanding two desserts.[25] Just as it is easy for talk show crews to prompt, goad, or trick their guests into giving them “the money shot,” the willful performance of their own humiliation, it is easy to provoke a person with Trump’s personality into buffoonish and compromising outbursts using taunts, insinuations of illegitimacy, and unflattering comparisons to competitors.[26] On the campaign trail the damage of his tantrums was blunted by the electorate’s nearly equal disgust for Hillary Clinton, but in power, and without a foil to blame, Trump’s meltdowns threaten not only his agenda but the political futures of his Republican comrades. It has been clear for some time that the Republican Party will lash themselves to Trump until he is too politically or legally tarnished to enact their policy goals. The most expedient way to hasten their divorce may be to keep collectively practicing on the president the tactics honed on reality television to turn would-be heroes into heels and fools.


David Showalter is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. David's research focuses on issues at the intersection of health, law, politics, and culture, including drug use, social policy, and popular culture in the United States.


References and Footnotes

  1. Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016); Kathryn VanArendonk, “How Reality TV Builds Narrative Is Crucial to Understanding Trump,” Vulture, January 13, 2017 (http://www.vulture.com/2017/01/what-reality-tv-tropes-tell-us-about-trump.html).
  2. Chad Raphael, “Political Economy of Reali-TV,” Jump Cut 41 (May 1997): 102–109.
  3. Alison Hearn and Stephanie Schoenhoff, “From Celebrity to Influencer: Tracing the Diffusion of Celebrity Value across the Data Stream,” in A Companion to Celebrity, edited by P. David Marshall and Sean Redmond (John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2015); Alison Hearn, “Trump’s ‘Reality’ Hustle,” Television & New Media 17(7): 656–659.
  4. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).
  5. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975).
  6. Christopher J. Wright, Tribal Warfare: Survivor and the Political Unconscious of Reality Television (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2006).
  7. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975 (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/02/06/fascinating-fascism/).
  8. See articles at (http://jezebel.com/tag/keeping-up-with-the-kontinuity-errors).
  9. “Interview with Ted Prosser, Owner of Into the Mystic, Coral Bay,” On-St. John (http://www.on-stjohn.com/template/tedprosser.html).
  10. Vinny from Jersey Shore has a new chest tattoo [Video]. 2011. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5eevEe70Sc).
  11. Mark Danner, “The Magic of Donald Trump,” New York Review of Books, May 26, 2016 (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/05/26/the-magic-of-donald-trump/); Mark Danner, “The Real Trump,” New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016 (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/22/the-real-trump/).
  12. Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, “Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles,” New York Times, February 5, 2017, A1 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/us/politics/trump-white-house-aides-strategy.html?_r=0); see also Corey Robin, “Interior Decorator in Chief,” Jacobin, February 22, 2017 (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/trump-interior-design-appearance-surface-art-of-the-deal-white-house-drapes/).
  13. Tara Palmeri and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Makes Last-Minute Push to add Hispanic to Cabinet,” Politico, December 28, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/trump-hispanic-cabinet-233020).
  14. Peter Beinart, “What His Pick for Ambassador to Israel Reveals About Trump,” The Atlantic, December 19, 2016 (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/the-cabinet-from-central-casting/511022/).
  15. Alex Pfeiffer, “Exclusive: Sen. Corker’s Height, Business Dealings Hurt His Secretary Of State Chances,” The Daily Caller, December 22, 2016 (http://dailycaller.com/2016/12/22/exclusive-sen-corkers-height-business-dealings-hurt-his-secretary-of-state-chances/).
  16. Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty, “Donald Trump Is Holding a Government Casting Call. He’s Seeking ‘the Look,’” Washington Post, December 22, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/donald-trump-is-holding-a-government-casting-call-hes-seeking-the-look/2016/12/21/703ae8a4-c795-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html?).
  17. Rose A. Rudd, Puja Seth, Felicita David, and Lawrence Scholl, “Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2000–2015,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 65 (December 30, 2016): 1445–1452.
  18. Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 26.
  19. Matthew Nussbaum, “Mark Cuban: I’d Consider a Future White House Bid,” Politico, May 22, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/05/mark-cuban-open-to-future-white-house-bid-223445).
  20. James B. Stewart, “With Trump in the White House, Some Executives Ask, Why Not Me?” New York Times, March 9, 2017, B1 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/business/bloomberg-iger-business-executives-president.html).
  21. Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
  22. Matthew Nussbaum, “Pence: Trump is the New Ronald Reagan,” Politico, September 8, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/mike-pence-trump-is-new-ronald-reagan-227899).
  23. Michael Kruse, “‘He’s a Performance Artist Pretending to be a Great Manager,’” Politico, February 28, 2017 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/hes-a-performance-artist-pretending-to-be-a-great-manager-214836).
  24. A.J. Catoline, “Editing Trump: The Making of a Reality TV Star Who Would Be President,” CineMontage, October 12, 2016 (http://cinemontage.org/2016/10/editing-trump-reality-tv-star-who-would-be-president/).
  25. On Trump’s attention span: Jane Mayer, “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All,” The New Yorker, July 25, 2016 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all) and Michael Kruse, “Donald Trump’s Shortest Attribute Isn’t His Fingers,” Politico, September 8, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/donald-trump-attention-span-214223); on heights and stairs: Richard Linnett, ‘Human Logo’: Reconstructing the Trump Brand,” AdvertisingAge, August 18, 2003 (http://adage.com/article/news/human-logo-reconstructing-trump-brand/94792/) and Gabrielle Bluestone, “Donald Trump Can Absolutely Walk Up and Down the Stairs Like a Big Boy,” Jezebel, January 29, 2017 (http://jezebel.com/donald-trump-can-absolutely-walk-up-and-down-stairs-lik-1791749860); on “regular doses of praise”: Shane Goldmacher, “How Trump Gets His Fake News,” Politico, May 15, 2017 (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/05/15/donald-trump-fake-news-238379); on steak: Benny Johnson, “Inside Trump’s Secret Dinner: A Side of the President You Don’t Ever See,” Independent Journal Review, February 26, 2017 (http://ijr.com/2017/02/810965-trump-ditched-the-press-to-have-dinner-heres-how-the-president-acts-when-no-one-is-watching/ ); on desserts: Michael Scherer and Zeke J. Miller, “Donald Trump After Hours,” Time, May 11, 2017 (http://time.com/donald-trump-after-hours/).
  26. Laura Grindstaff, The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).