What Reality TV Taught Trump About Political Spectacle

The Chronicle of Higher Education

reality tv

President Trump, who became famous for his role on The Apprentice, has been called the “reality TV President.” So what did Mr. Trump learn from his years on the show? Quite a bit, according to professors who study the genre.

Mike Johansson, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has both a professional and personal connection to reality TV: Back in the late ’90s, the New Zealand native nearly made it onto the first episode of Survivor, as one of four finalists from the Pittsburgh region. But when producers found out he didn’t have a U.S. passport, “that was the end of the conversation.” The role went to Rudy Boesch, an ex-Navy SEAL who, according to the Survivor Wiki, is “remembered for his begrudging friendship with (winner) Richard Hatch, being a part of the first ever voting pact and being the oldest castaway to ever compete.”

Mr. Johansson says that reality TV taught Trump that “outrage equals attention” and showed him what it takes to dominate the news. “Reality TV is ‘reality’ only in that it looks real but in fact is often scripted or at least highly planned, and only the most outrageous statements and actions get past the cutting-room floor,” he says. “Therefore, it reinforces extreme behavior.”

To survive editing, he adds, you need to stand out, maybe by learning what words get attention or shock people.

“So Trump is tweeting at 3, 4 a.m., knowing that if he says something outrageous, it will be on morning news shows,” Mr. Johansson says. The same goes for evenings and the nightly news. “Some thought goes into when and how this happens. The man is a lot smarter than a lot of people give him credit for.”

Screen time is essential, whether you’re actually on screen or not, Mr. Johansson says. Make the entire show about you, and “you’ve essentially ‘won’ the share-of-mind contest.”

Mr. Johansson pointed to Mr. Hatch, the first Survivor winner, as someone who demonstrated the importance of screen time. Mr. Hatch “walked around naked — that guaranteed he would get more screen time, and would earn the enmity of other players, so they would talk about him a lot. That’s a currency on reality TV, too. If other characters are talking about you, you’re dominating the show. That’s part of the playbook.”

In the same way, discussion of Mr. Trump’s policies dominates national news shows to an extent that’s “unprecedented in recent American history,” Mr. Johansson says.

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