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Unreality TV Now Trumps True Participatory Politics

B.S in Economics & Business Administration with a minor in Sociology. My interests beyond economics lie in politics, literature, and sports.

Unreality TV Now Trumps True Participatory Politics

The presumed Republican Presidential nomination of Donald Trump appears to be a successful invasion of the "Reality TV" phenomenon into the political process of the United States. Almost all of the rules of Presidential campaigning have been discarded by Mr. Trump. Instead he appears to have drawn upon many of the marketing lessons he has learned over the years. Primary among these is the cult of personality that has developed in this new era of Reality TV.

Many of these new so-called celebrities in our culture were spawned on various Reality TV shows. They have often parlayed this fame into other streams of revenue such as ancillary products and new television shows. Outrageous behaviors are the common denominators for these shows.

Donald Trump's career has been spurred on by similar activities including his "Apprentice" shows. Our culture seems to have been taken over by all of these Reality TV shows and events since 2000. Is this same trend now taking over our political discourse? I believe this Presidential election and its November results will go a long way to answering that.

In this article:

Participatory politics saw its rise during the 2008 Presidential election and has continued through successive elections. I will examine this rise and its consequences as well as how it paralleled with Reality TV. I will then turn to this Presidential election cycle and show how the two forms of campaigning are now battling each other for supremacy. Finally I will give my take on how I think and hope these trends will evolve while also explaining its importance for the future of the United States.

The Rise of Reality TV

In my view, Reality TV began in 1992 with MTV's series "Real World." This show placed young adults in homes around the country and filmed their interactions over a few months time. This was a young adult phenomenon and sowed the seeds of Reality TV's takeover of television programming in May of 2000 with the advent of the "Survivor" franchise.

Survivor instantly became one of the highest rated television series and is still going strong. The way was now paved for an onslaught of these type of shows that is still growing in today's television market.

Many of these new Reality shows have turned away from the competition model towards one featuring the personality driven model or some hybrid of the two. The most prominent of these new shows for the past few years are the various "Kardashian" shows. They are clearly driven by strong personality conflict situations. Ratings for these and most Reality TV shows have remained quite high.

The Apprentice

Donald Trump's Apprentice shows were started in the midst of this Reality TV growth spurt and they quickly flourished. The centerpiece of all of his shows was his supposed tough love guidance for his apprentices. Those that failed and were eliminated were greeted with Trump's suddenly famous line "You're fired." This franchise evolved into the "Celebrity Apprentice" show which cemented the personality driven model with the competition model. It also helped to cement the Trump persona into the American psyche.

Saying Outrageous Things to Entertain the Audience

Mr. Trump contemplated testing the Presidential waters leading up to the 2012 campaign. Donald did this by primarily espousing his view that President Barack Obama was not really an American citizen. He pressed the President to produce a true birth certificate and became a darling of the Far Right. His effort died when the President did produce one and Trump had no backup plan. Unfortunately his followers remained smitten with him.

Many people thought that Donald's "birther" misstep meant his exit from the American political scene. President Obama skewered him over this subject during his 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner monologue. Surely he would not want to subject himself to this ridicule again. Those that thought that way, including myself, did not know Donald Trump. He was only getting started.

Trump decided against renewing his "Celebrity Apprentice" contract in February 2015. This was a remarkable step for him since this franchise had sent his public persona into overdrive and was extremely lucrative for him financially. Polls had been taken and it was found that there was very strong public support for his possible candidacy for President. On June 16, 2015, Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for United States President.

The first policy espousal that Trump delivered was his promise to not only deport all illegal immigrants but that he would also build a wall across the Mexican border to deter others from crossing illegally. Furthermore he stated that he would force the Mexican government to pay for it. Interestingly, he failed to state how he would accomplish these goals. This has become his signature issue and he has drawn considerable support from Republicans and some independents due to it.

In June 2015, Mr. Trump made what was considered a major gaffe and very possibly a candidacy killer. He stated in stark terms that he did not consider Senator John McCain to be a war hero. Trump stated that the only reason that McCain was considered to be a hero was that he was captured during the Vietnam War. Trump further stated that he preferred heroes that were successful and not captured.

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He reiterated these comments while also stating that Senator McCain had failed on veterans and immigration issues. These statements reinforced one of his main campaign themes. Donald Trump portrays himself as a winner and he will make America win again. Shockingly, Trump easily weathered these early controversies and even rose in the polls. Once again I and most people who follow politics had underestimated Donald Trump.

Donald Trump continued to defy political logic and increase his popularity when he attacked Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly for her hard hitting questions to him about his past derogatory comments against women. These questions were asked by Kelly during one of the Republican debates.

He stated that she had gotten so angry with him that there was blood coming out of her eyes and everywhere. Most people felt that Trump was alluding to her menstrual cycle in an effort to put her down. This was another controversy which this time involved women who just so happen to be a majority voting group in this country. His poll numbers remained high as always after this incident.

Good Ratings?

Why do Donald Trumps's poll numbers remain high after every damaging controversy he seems to inflict upon himself? I believe we need to compare this phenomenon to the entire Reality TV genre that Trump has been a prominent part of. People like Donald Trump and the Kardashians learned quickly how to market and monetize themselves by emphasizing larger than life and often outrageous behavior. Donald Trump has actually been doing this his entire business career.

Don't get me wrong. Marketing has been a very important part of Presidential campaigning dating all the way back to the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Our Ninth President, William Henry Harrison, ran successfully with the enormous help of his campaign song and slogan, "Tippercanoe and Tyler Too" in 1840.

Harrison was a General who commanded American military forces against the Shawnee Indians in 1811 and became an American hero because of it. His campaign song and slogan highlighted this military episode and was a key tactic in securing the Presidency for himself. This was the most prominent example of successful Presidential marketing in our early history.

Donald Trump has taken all the lessons he has learned from past marketing combined with Reality TV's use of narcissism writ large and has become the presumptive Republican nominee. He has learned that publicity is all important and that there are no outrageous statements or policies that can hurt you. At least they have not hurt him up to this point in the campaign. Trump is certainly a new political phenomenon but is he a one time event or does this form of campaigning have staying power.

I do consider Donald Trump to be a phenomenon unto himself this cycle but the Reality TV effects on political campaigning will endure beyond this election. American society seems to have entered into an era of celebrity voyeurism where narcissistic personalities sell and are encouraged. Presidential and all political candidates will absorb these lessons and incorporate them into future campaigns though probably not as well or as outrageously as Trump.

What the American People Want to See

Why are the American people accepting this narcissism for the most powerful position in the world? After all, Donald Trump will have the power of life and death for all of us in his hands if he wins this election. Does this mean that true participatory politics where ordinary citizens support a candidate with money and physical campaigning is dead?

These two questions are complicated but intertwined. I believe that a major reason why people are so enthusiastically supporting Trump without questioning his outrageous pronouncements is their thorough disgust with the gridlock and broken promises in Washington D.C. They do not see anything getting done on either side that is worthwhile so they endorse this bombastic political outsider blindly.

The Senator Bernie Sanders campaign sets this Reality TV model on its head and gives us hope that participatory politics is alive and well. Sanders supporters are also disgusted with Congress and Washington. His campaign and his supporters are passionate about campaign finance reform, income inequality, climate change, as well as several more vital issues.

They are supporting Senator Sanders through millions of small contributions and are working for the campaign all over the U.S. These actions are what true participatory politics are all about. Which of these two campaign types will prove dominant over the coming years and how will it affect all of us?

At first blush, it appears that the Reality TV model is ascendant and will become dominant in our politics. I am not so sure and I sincerely hope that this model will have a fairly quick demise though it may always have some influence.

There are two major reasons why I feel it will probably not become dominant. The first being that Donald Trump is a very unique American personality and I doubt that there will be too many others who will be able to pull off this type of campaign. Secondly, the polarization of our politics has helped to foster the atmosphere that has made his campaign possible. These situations are relatively rare in our history and I hope this remains the case.

The two victorious Barack Obama Presidential campaigns and this Senator Bernie Sanders campaign show us that participatory politics can and does work especially when people are very dissatisfied. The Sanders campaign has been nothing short of miraculous in how far they have come and how they have persuaded their supporters to go all in for him.

World history has shown that leaders who come to power due to force of personality and making outrageous promises often turn into tyrants and demagogues. This is due both to their strong egos but also because people become mesmerized by them without actually investigating their claims and promises.

The Antidote

The antidote to this is to have a very engaged and participatory electorate that holds their candidates and political leaders accountable for their policies and actions. The United States has done very well to this point in avoiding the pitfalls of allowing a real dictator to come to power. This is due to a strong constitutional base and a reasonably engaged citizenry.

My belief is that America will continue this history of civic responsibility and follow the Sanders campaign model of strong involvement in our country's politics. That is not to say that the Reality TV model is a fluke. It has permeated our media and entertainment industries and it can gain a strong foothold in our politics if we let it.

It is up to "we the people" to remain engaged and educated about our politicians and the issues that affect us. Our democracy and nation will remain strong if we do. A Reality TV demagogue could become our leader if we abdicate this collected responsibility. It is vital that we remain vigilant in holding our candidates and leaders accountable. Our past history shows that we will do so but falling into apathy and sitting back and watching an entertaining showman take power would be a recipe for disaster.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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