This is the true story of a reality-show star, picked to live in the White House, while the whole world watched it play out on screens, tuning in to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting “real.” As we all watch, riveted, impatiently and anxiously anticipating the next dramatic bombshell, each more outrageous than the last, it becomes clearer every day to us citizen-viewers that politics in America has indeed become a reality show. No matter how terrifying, funny, or just plain stupid, we’ve all become familiar with the cast of characters, and each day we can’t help but tune in. An entire cottage industry in journalism and academia has already devoted itself to answering the question: How did this happen?
All that is or feels new about Donald Trump can easily obscure the parts about him and the 2016 election that are as traditionally American as apple pie. The reality-star president didn’t come out of nowhere. Many complex factors (political, racial, demographic, economic, etc.) made the triumph of Trump’s so-called populism possible, but more elusive factors—under our noses, wired in our brains—help explain what made him possible. His candidacy may have taken our political establishment by storm, but what made it so hard to stop was, in part, its irresistibly snug fit inside our existing political culture; in this sense, he is no “outsider.” He is a coked-out, flashy reboot of a series that has trained us over decades, even centuries, to watch with certain expectations, desires, and a voyeuristic disconnectedness from the reality of the thing we’re watching. Trump is the wailing, sticky offspring of the same cultural machine that has manufactured in us one basic, insatiable need: to be entertained. And, we should remember, to entertain doesn’t necessarily mean to just give pleasure so much as to hold others’ attention, to maintain an engaged, heightened state of interest in what comes next.
There’s some deeply Freudian stuff involved in Trump’s decision to scapegoat the same news-pumping, headline-generating, controversy-hungry, media-entertainment complex that gave life to his celebrity and political career. Trump himself has previously acknowledged this complex as his great enabler, giving him the chance to dominate news cycles during the election, to be the center of people’s attention, and to endlessly promote his brand. Now, however, when there’s seemingly nowhere to go but down, Trump and Co. clearly are hoping to decimate the same star-making machinery they thought they had mastered.
The question remains, though, how such a machine came to dominate our political landscape and control our basic political consciousness to such a point that Donald J. Trump could feasibly, actually—and successfully—run for president. Again, with so much of this ultra-mediated status quo feeling new, with so much talk of “fake news,” echo chambers, “alternative facts,” etc. tied directly to Trump’s presidency, it’s easy to lose sight of how deep and how American the roots of this historical moment are. A long history of interlocking forces made Trump’s victory possible—and made enough people desire such a victory, and distanced plenty of others from the reality of what that victory would entail, while keeping us all absolutely riveted to the process of the collective cultural manufacture of an ersatz president. That history starts with the telegraph.
Never a Dull Moment
With the invention and commercialization of the telegraph around the mid-nineteenth century, humankind suddenly shattered the limits that time and space had previously imposed on its communications. Whether by foot, train, boat, or carrier pigeon, simple physics delimited the transmission of any message to anyone outside of one’s immediate vicinity; communication was simply restricted by how quickly the physical body carrying the message could move through space. Now, however, the combination of copper wires, electricity, and Morse code made it possible to communicate across vast spaces instantly. The rest, as they say, is history.
The telegraph was a godsend for those in the booming newspaper business—and for any other commercial interests that could afford access to it. The business of news—that is, of gathering, printing, and disseminating presumably important information—had also been forced to endure certain restrictions that the telegraph instantly obliterated. Since the first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, appeared in the colonies, printers had remained quite limited in their access to news from the Old World, sifting through whatever came by ship, while still dealing with plenty of physical restrictions on the news-flow from other colonies. At the same time, early newspapers functioned to meet the demands of their local, more geographically concentrated audiences for news about local matters, news that affected their daily lives. And without any system of mass distribution, pre-modern media workers were stuck printing what information they could gather that would reliably appeal to the smaller markets of literate readers they served: white, land-owning men, in large part. Word of major events beyond one’s local sphere world traveled slowly. If there was nothing of great import to print at the time, it wasn’t the newsman’s fault.
Here’s where things get really interesting. The telegraph made it possible for newspapers to access and report on events from other, more intriguing corners of the world. With an exponentially expanded store of news stories to report on, newspapers rapidly had to start making much bigger decisions about what to print and what to cut. While the effects of this vastly expanded mediaverse were drastic, the basic question editors faced was quite simple: What would draw in more readers and sell more copies? There are many important nuances in this story that I’m glossing over here, and the histories of alternative and non-white presses at this time actually show, in many cases, a consistent struggle against these general trends in the “news industry” writ large. Still, it’s clear that an irresistible process of spectacle-consolidation had kicked into gear by the end of the nineteenth century. The news industry was increasingly organizing itself around the extraordinary, the spectacular, the dramatic, the attention-grabbing headline—because all these things sold.
These historical changes inevitably produced a pivotal psychic shift in American readers. In his 1962 book The Image, famed consensus historian Daniel J. Boorstin summed up that shift quite well: “There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, ‘How dull is the world today!’ Nowadays he says, ‘What a dull newspaper!’” This, right here, is one of the purest elements in the genetic makeup of our current condition. Within this key observation, a multitude of historical changes are nested: the commercialization of the telegraph, the postal service’s growing reach through the use of railroads, rising national literacy rates after the Civil War (especially among the working classes), and, not least, the old, familiar drive of laissez-faire competition among news agencies. In comparatively short order, the need to package and present the most exciting news in the most captivating way possible was unleashed like a hellish firestorm on the free-market of public discourse.
The fallout from this was monumental and extremely complex, but three things in particular stand out. First, Boorstin’s anecdote points out that, in the classic fashion of all capitalist enterprise, a desire was created in consumers by the same industry that would now present its product as the solution. The brains of American readers were re-wired to replace the need to be informed about the world with the modern desire to be shocked and dazzled by it.
As the communications revolution merged with unprecedented new mobility across national borders, steady streams of information had turned into one big uncontrollable flood. And news agencies found their footing by tailoring their reporting to the stories that stirred the strongest public emotions, that dazzled and frightened the public imagination. And once this sensation-hungry genie was released, it would never permit itself to be squeezed back into the bottle. An information arms race had begun, with the modern capitalist age’s new captains of consciousness fighting at every point to keep people’s attention; it rages on, in hyper-digital form, to this day. People’s expectations for what was attention-worthy, and their deftly manipulated desire for such material, rose with the tide. If there was ever a dull moment, it was now squarely the newsmen’s fault.
Readers had come to expect the world to be much more interesting than it often was.
Second, to keep readers and advertisers rolling in, and to guard against losing business to competitors, news agencies needed to hold people’s attention; and to hold people’s attention, they needed to present news from a world that was as enthralling as they had conditioned their readers to believe. But here was an inextricable bind for news providers: readers had come to expect the world to be much more interesting than it often was. Instead of confronting the disconnect between what reality is and what we expect it to be, the mass news audience seeks—indeed desires—confirmation of the latter. “By harboring, nourishing, and ever enlarging our extravagant expectations,” Boorstin writes, “we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And which we pay others to make to deceive us.”
To meet the demand for a spectacular reality that they had helped to create, news agencies relied more and more on “pseudo-events,” which help create the impression of “news” when the actual stuff is in vanishingly short supply. Pseudo-events are the hot air and fluff and downright speculation that fill news cycles “to make up for the world’s deficiency.” When news channels spend hours discussing Donald Trump’s incendiary tweets, that’s a pseudo-event. These spasms of contentless coverage are the product of an information regime in which we have been conditioned to expect every second of reality to be filled with something “newsworthy.”
This, in fact, is how Trump launched a guerrilla attack on the American public—by using the media’s profit-generating methods against them. And Trump told the media what he was doing from the start: “I use the media the way the media uses me,” he stated, “to attract attention.” Boorstin understood this kind of tactic over half a century ago. It’s possible, he said, to build a political career almost entirely on pseudo-events. He noticed that a particular figure in American politics had done just that, by wielding “an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters” who “were somehow reluctantly grateful to him for turning out their product. . . . Many hated him; all helped him.” The figure Boorstin was referring to was Senator Joe McCarthy.
Third, becoming more “informed” under this kind of information regime actually results in making we, the audience, more politically impotent. As Neil Postman, one of the most influential media theorists of the past century, describes it, “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.” As with other kinds of prosaically physical “gluts,” overconsumption of junk leads to puffy eyes, a clogged circulatory system, and sluggishness.
Overconsumption of junk leads to puffy eyes, a clogged circulatory system, and sluggishness.
In the news world before the telegraph, readers were given a manageable amount of information that they could generally do something with. News about local politics, business, and agriculture conditioned the cultural atmosphere of smaller social habitats—human-scaled communities that readers could be actively involved in. They could use the information they received about their environments to live more effectively in them.
Here’s why “information glut” is one of the defining developments in our history: as readers were presented with more information more frequently, and as the local content of that information was continually displaced by more spectacular news from the great world beyond their immediate spheres, readers were no longer able—nor expected—to do anything with the information they received besides consume it. When one is reading weekly, even daily (and now, it seems, minute-by-minute), about Trump’s fuck ups, wars in foreign lands, scandals in the upper echelons of society and government, climate crises, etc., one’s power to act on that information is reduced, almost entirely, to pure watching, to reading about and knowing of things just enough to keep one’s head above the flood.
When people’s relation to news is gradually transitioned away from responsive action to pure consumption, they become more abstracted from the world they read about. Information glut turns would-be actors into perpetual audience members who are repeatedly assured that their job is to be nothing more than a pair of open eyes watching the world burn from behind 3-D glasses.
A Nation of Screens
This is a long and complex story, and I’m leaving a great deal out. Still, I trust that the basic path through history that led us to where we are today has started to become just slightly more visible. And now let’s confront another crucial part of this story that requires a big leap forward.
Politics, as my own courses and many articles have suggested, has become a reality show. But reality shows always have a finale, some critical endpoint where, usually, one person rises above the others. Then the show ends and we go back to our reality beyond the screen. It seems as if the culmination of the age of reality-show politics came on November 8th, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Alternately, this first-order derangement of our political process may have simply confirmed that the show is all that’s left—there’s no “reality” beyond the screen to go back to. What politics will be from here on out is, frankly, anyone’s guess. Trump will, as he’s fond of saying, “keep us in suspense.” That sure sounds like a cliff-hanger promo for the next season of a show that isn’t set to be cancelled any time soon.
But what exactly did it mean for politics to make the transition to reality show in the first place? As with the developments in the news industry that took place after the telegraph, it’s crucial to understand that reality shows emerged as television’s attempt to satisfy a desire—a desire that television itself helped manufacture. At the end of the twentieth century, people were largely bored with the scripted productions of “classic” television drama, and likewise fed up with the rehearsed performances of politicians. More broadly, the American audience had grown deeply suspicious of so many basic human interactions whose falseness was constantly exposed by the ulterior motives and fake, customer-service smiles of a service-based economy.
Out of this fast-ramifying postmodern malaise, reality TV exploded to feed consumer’s deepest political and existential desire for something resembling authenticity. Crucially, though, “authenticity” didn’t necessarily mean something “real” behind the mask of scripted performances; rather, its main criterion was that it deviated from the fakeness we were used to. It had to be less predictable, and to approximate something real-er than the scripted social world we confronted both on- and off-screen—something that looked more real while still being interesting enough to look at. Not coincidentally, such desire for real-ish-ness was one of the strongest forces drawing so many people to Trump: “he isn’t scripted,” his supporters enthused; “he tells it like it is.”
Before reality TV, the first real “TV president” was JFK. His debate with Nixon was the first to be televised in our nation’s history, and his presidency brought the White House into people’s living rooms on a scale that was without precedent, with the possible exception of FDR’s fireside chats. In many ways, JFK and Nixon in the first televised debate presented two poles in the weird relationship that developed between politics and television before the reality-show age. On one side, there was JFK—vibrant, wearing makeup, glowing under the lights. His youthful energy and optimism merged with television’s coming of age as the national medium to represent the promise of the postwar age. Then, on the other side, there was Nixon—sweaty, jowly, under-the-weather and paranoid, exuding a temperamental distrust of the world at large.
Something in politics had broken spectacularly. And TV, in turn, thrived.
Nixon would also play a pivotal role in America’s relationship to politics through television. He was the subject of some of the most memorable broadcasts in presidential history, particularly those detailing his spectacular demise. Between that first televised debate in 1960 and Nixon stepping onto the presidential helicopter for the last time in 1974, something in politics had broken spectacularly. And TV, in turn, thrived.
What broke, exactly? A lot of things. At the heart of most of them was the relatively rapid erosion of people’s faith in the symbolic goodness and dignity of high government, and in its purportedly truthful relationship with the public (or, at least, a relationship that was more truthful than not). “Back in 1960,” the great Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “most Americans still believed that whoever lived in the White House was naturally a righteous and upstanding man. Otherwise he wouldn’t be there.” The same could be said of people’s general belief that, in its early stages, the new mass medium of television simply and objectively relayed news about the world outside their living rooms. The belief that a relatively high standard of honesty applied to our leaders and our news translated into a popular trust that what people were seeing and hearing on TV from politicians and newscasters alike was the truth. That trust didn’t last long.
At this time, of course, there were great and terrible moments of collective watching when people could hardly believe what they were seeing, like the assassination and funeral of JFK or the moon landing. But there were many other moments in which people had been given reason to suspect that they shouldn’t believe what they were seeing. Conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination that contradicted the Warren Commission’s findings made their way into the mainstream, and news of government lies about the Vietnam War gradually filtered down to the public. With public trust in our leaders and institutions quickly atrophying, Watergate was really the icing on the cake. People learned in a relatively short time span that they had every reason to be cynical and suspicious of the apparent disconnect between the composed images that politicians (and pundits) presented on television and what was going on “behind the scenes.”
What was behind this truth problem? This question can’t simply be reduced to the hidden intentions and agendas favored by shitty individuals in high places. The fact is that, as a medium, and as the nation’s primary connection to the world of politics before the internet, television was uniquely conducive to the very things that make people suspicious. As Postman also noted, actors, network executives, reporters, and even politicians “must follow where their medium leads.” In a cutthroat free market for people’s attention, the medium points to one basic key for success: be entertaining. Television’s primary concern is to make “good (i.e. entertaining) TV,” which does not always sync up with the primary concerns of good journalism, good communication, or good government.
Television is a visual-aural medium broadcasting moving images and changing frames at certain average speeds. It’s also a key part of a culture industry model that developed, in the American context, on the basis of competing content-producers, low consumer payouts, and a heavy reliance on higher advertisement revenues for more popular programming. Thus, it’s simply “part of the game” for any real-world content that’s going to make it on TV to “follow where [the] medium leads,” to be “entertaining” enough to keep people from switching channels or, God forbid, turning the set off.
Television was, for the last half of the twentieth century, the nation’s primary way of knowing itself—the principal source for images of what American life was about and what it looked like. But the age of television, much like the forerunner revolution of the telegraph, brought about a revolutionary shift in both the content it presented and the psyches of those who consumed it.
Certain qualities just make content more entertaining when that content is being played on a television (changing frames, dramatic plots, less dead-air, people speaking fluidly instead of pausing and “umm”-ing their way through). And when real-world stuff (like, say, politics) is recorded for TV, editors tweak it before airing to make sure it has those juicy, entertaining qualities. Here’s the bizarre historical twist, though: eventually, these entertaining qualities that make something “TV-worthy” became the guiding force for how the real world staged itself, even when there were no cameras. The problem, Postman writes, isn’t just that “television presents us with entertaining subject matter,” but that it has “made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.” Every story a person tells, for instance, has to be dramatic or funny, otherwise it’s pointless.
The calibration of experience and its representations according to entertainment-value creates pervasive cultural expectations for how the real world, including politics, should look and sound; namely, the way it looks and sounds on TV. Viewer-citizens learn to value certain qualities in a politician that stem from how well that politician’s persona plays on TV. Ronald Reagan was probably the best example of this, at least until Trump’s inauguration. That doesn’t mean they’re better or more truthful people; it just means they’re more adept at adjusting to what television has further taught the public to want and value. They’re better performers on a political stage that has made their performance perfectly acceptable—and indeed, in many cases, the primary—evidence for judging their policies and personalities.
However, amid an always-growing number of concrete reasons to distrust political performers, it became all the more impossible to bear their rehearsed and manicured television-star turns—and their TV-formatted performances in person. Once CNN launched the twenty-four-hour news cycle in 1980, politicians’ lies and screw-ups were now being broadcasted to the nation around the clock. And that, in turn, made it far easier for viewers to amass and confirm reasons for their distrust of the leadership class. The same medium that politicians compulsively romanced for the sake of charming national audiences was also spurring those audiences, on multiple fronts, to distrust and disdain politics in general. Television simultaneously helped create and (over-)expose the rehearsed facade of political performance. And, when things really reached a peak saturation point, television helped create a response to viewers’ genuine desire for something unscripted, something “authentic.” Enter Donald Trump.
Reality is just a marketing ploy in a world where we accept that everything, even our personal interactions, is already drenched in artifice.
The question of what “authentic” really means in this historical context is a study unto itself. Many philosophical rabbit holes yawn beneath our feet once we seek to better understand what it means for an individual self to be authentic. But it’s perhaps the greatest testament to the reality-show conquest of American politics that television itself has provided one of the most viable yardsticks for measuring Trump’s brand of “authenticity.” Recall, for instance, that bizarre moment in the campaign when, amid establishment fears that Trump couldn’t be more “presidential,” Dr. Ben Carson assured a crowd of supporters that there were, in fact, “two Donald Trumps”: the bombastic idiot you see performing on screen, and the pragmatic businessman behind closed doors. Carson, like so many other Republicans, fundamentally misunderstood Trump’s reality-show appeal, and he was given a free lesson when Trump took the stage and immediately undercut him, assuring the audience that there are not two Donald Trumps. What you see is what you get. But what, exactly, are you getting?
As the introduction to the first seasons of MTV’s The Real World made clear, reality TV originally marketed itself as a vehicle for an enhanced sort of truthfulness, bringing to the screen the uncut “realness” of the behind-the-scenes camera eye. This marked the infinitely wooze-inducing moment when the people on screen would ditch the rehearsed performances and “start getting real.” But this also proved pretty quickly to be a huge empirical stretch. Echoing Boorstin’s mid-century assessment, the real world wasn’t always that interesting—it would take a lot of staging and artifice to make “reality” entertaining. It didn’t take too long for studio suits and audiences alike to realize the draw of reality TV’s brand of authenticity wasn’t necessarily its accurate representation of real life, but its deviation from the norms of scripted studio production. Fakeness was still fine, it just had to look more convincing.
And so it came to pass that reality TV provided a response for Americans’ desire for something beyond the tired, rehearsed performances of traditional TV while still providing them with something that was TV just the same—that is, something entertaining. The same can be said of Donald Trump. When Trump supporters say that he “tells it like it is,” the “it” is less important than the “telling,” which is apparently why it makes sense for them to say they “take him seriously, but not literally.” As with reality TV, Trump’s “authenticity” is grounded far less in his connection to the real world of viewers than in his brash and unscripted rejection of the political status quo, which viewers link to their current civic distress. It doesn’t matter that Trump lies pathologically and that when he “tells it like it is” he’s more often than not spouting complete bullshit. Such empirical objections miss the point as much as critics have long missed the point by decrying reality TV for still being obviously fake. We don’t want to find out what’s underneath, if anything, when the mask is completely pulled off. We don’t want “the real.” Reality is just a marketing ploy in a world where we accept that everything, even our personal interactions, is already drenched in artifice, and the real competition is over which artifice can stir up the most stuff inside us before we get bored. The success of Donald Trump’s brand of “authenticity” is simply the product of a great American desire that’s been cultivated in us over a long history—a desire that’s clearly far less concerned about being lied to than about how entertaining the lie is.