October 04, 2015

Donald Trump, reality TV and a broken democracy

Donald Trump, in his latest ramble of idiocy, says that if he's elected president he will sand back Syrian refugees because they might be terrorists in disguise.

"They could be ISIS, I don't know," said Trump. "his could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe," he later added. "That could be possible."

John Doyle, the often brilliant and always entertaining columnist for the Globe and Mail, wrote about Trump and reality television in a column published September 23.

In it he asked the question: Are the issues and the candidates of the presidential campaign gripping the American public. His answer was no, Donald Trump is. "It's all about reality TV."

In his column Doyle reminds us of the day American politics changed forever. It was August 29, 2008, when John McCain announced his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket would be Sarah Palin.
In choosing Palin and pushing her family and life into prime time, the Republican Party was driven by marketing impulses learned from the success of the reality-TV genre. Ordinary people with attitude but without sophistication appeal to viewers as more authentically American than the fictional doctors, lawyers and detectives being portrayed on network dramas.

Reality television, according to Doyle, is about authenticity. There is much phoniness in the world and people respond intuitively to realness.
They might not analyze why they are drawn to inarticulate public figures with messy lives, but they like what they see.
There was a realness to reality television, at least in its beginnings and we went along for the ride.
In the case of Trump, we have moved beyond the “authenticity” explanation. We’re at the level of hyper-authenticity that isn’t real at all, but is a construct. We’ve had 15 years of competitive reality-TV series – if the arrival of Survivor on CBS in 2000 is the marker – and the genre has become more complex.
Where once the attraction was ordinariness on a messy scale, the attraction is now watching "contestants" who understand, as we in the audience do, that hyper-egotism is now essential.
 When Trump declares, “I’m gonna make our country rich and I’m gonna make our country great,” without bothering to explain a plan, he’s in hyper-reality mode. In the same way that a contestant on a competitive reality show declares, “I’m gonna win this thing!” over and over again. Even if they don’t win, they’re compelling and famous for their brashness.
In the language of media and literary studies, Trump is extra-textual. He is outside the text, outside the narrative that has been written, preordained. Not only does he create conflict with other participants in the Republican race, just as the most famous reality-TV contestants are there to create conflict inside a carefully chosen group, he transcends the entire group and its dynamic by blustering, by saying the unsayable, by never expressing regret or apology. He exposes the tame game that is the race for the Republican nomination. And for that he is attractive and admired.
Trump is no scholar of reality TV. He just knows. Years of being part of The Apprentice gave him canniness about it. The most famous figure on The Apprentice, apart from Trump himself, was Omarosa Onee Manigault, better known as just Omarosa. The woman is a reality-TV legend. Fact is, she never came close to winning The Apprentice. But she made a decision to be controversial, caustic, blunt and always acrimonious.
She didn’t play to win the game, she played to transcend it. After The Apprentice, she appeared on 20 reality-TV shows and today has a thriving career teaching branding and marketing classes. Omarosa was one of the first to grasp how second-wave reality TV really works. Now, Trump does, too. Don’t play the game, create a hyper-version of it in which you are the only figure who matters. Works on TV and it’s working in politics.

Donald Trump is leading the Republican presidential campaign. Rob Ford, through his brother, captured almost a third of Toronto's mayoralty vote count. Are we living at the beginning of a time where reality television, celebrity and outlandishness on a grand scale, trump thoughtful discussion, debate and policies?

Do we have a crisis of democracy, or do we have a failing of our citizenry? And how in the world do we fix this thing?

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

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