America’s Reality TV Election

The only real way to make sense of 2016 America, in particular the unfolding presidential election, is to see it in the way Donald Trump does: as a game. Donald Trump’s stump speeches mostly consist of talking about winning, calling others losers, and insisting that he will help America win again. This involves beating China, Japan and Mexico (and everyone else) at trade, as he said in his New Hampshire victory speech. It also involves building a wall along the Mexican border and forbidding the entry of Muslims, presumably to keep foreigners from undermining America’s winning. When he’s not talking about making America a winner again, he’s talking about his own winning, how he makes great deals, is rich, is ahead in polls, etc. To Trump, the presidential election is not about policy nuance, demonstrated leadership or consistency; it’s simply about winning. It’s a contest, a race, a battle, an amusing spectator sport. And this makes sense to America, because it’s how elections have been understood for some time now.

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in the last few decades we stopped talking about “presidential elections” and started talking about the “presidential contest,” “the race for the White House,” “the battle for America,” #Decision2016, and so on. The media perpetuated it, of course, as they are interested in making money, and things that make money in America tend to tap into our competitive spirit and vulgar obsession with spectacle. Take, for instance, the American obsession with reality TV competition shows. These shows are as bankable as any, because they are about winners, losers, getting cut (“You’re fired!”) or advancing. Survival of the fittest. March Madness. Single elimination. Go big or go home. America!

Donald Trump knows all of this better than anyone. He’s seen first-hand in The Apprentice how much American audiences love to celebrate ambition done well and to ridicule the desperation of losers (like “low energy” Jeb!). Trump has succeeded in part because he’s tapped into the reality TV mindset of America and recognized the zeitgeist of infotainment: people like to watch and participate in activities of winning and losing (sports, gaming, Fantasy Football, poker, etc.) and are thus naturally drawn to a campaign framed in those terms.

But this election is like a reality TV show in more ways than just Trump. In fact, I think you can see elements of several of America’s most popular “unscripted” competition shows in this year’s election:

Survivor: America loves the scheming, backstabbing, forging of alliances and betrayals that characterize a dog-eat-dog show like Survivor, and they get such things in spades in a presidential election. Whether it is the “former friends turned enemies” narratives (e.g. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio), the forging of alliances to take down rivals (Jeb Bush and Chris Christie teaming up against Rubio), or the survival-of-the-fittest rhetoric of winners/losers and Social Darwinism, presidential elections feed the same hunger for do-or-die spectacles that made gladiatorial bloodsport so popular in ancient Rome.

The Bachelor: Presidential primaries are sort of like the awkward rose ceremonies at the end of an episode of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. At each primary the voters give roses to only so many candidates, and the others must say goodbye.

The Amazing Race: With its relentless pace, challenging contestants to crisscross the globe, sometimes sleeping only in planes, The Amazing Race feels like a close parallel to presidential elections. In the 2016 election (at least concerning a certain Republican candidate who wants to ban all Muslims and build walls to keep Mexicans out), “The Amazing Race” may also double as a descriptor of underlying currents of nativism and white supremacy.

The Voice: The parallel here is not so much the contestants but the judges. The celebrity judges, with their nifty swivel chairs and clever ways of saying variations on the same comment, week after week, have close counterparts in the Political Pundit Industrial Complex. Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews and Megyn Kelly are just like Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani. They are bigger stars than those they are paid to analyze, and they can find drama in even the most painfully boring of performances.

So, who will emerge from the field and take home the “final rose” of the White House this year? Who will be America’s next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood? Who will be the next politician-turned-Reality-TV-personality (think Sarah Palin) and who will be the next Reality-TV-personality-turned-politician (think Donald Trump)? I bet Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang could have a future in politics, and maybe Snooki could unseat Chris Christie as New Jersey governor? Anything’s possible. Whatever happens, two things will be increasingly true: 1) It will be entertaining, and 2) Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death will be ever more prophetic:

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”