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How Reality TV Made Donald Trump President

Donald Trump's campaign successfully used family reality television tropes to help win him the presidency.
Photo courtesy of NBC/The Celebrity Apprentice

Ever since Donald Trump first appeared in the 1970s, he has seemed tacky, an archetypal Ugly American in an ill-fitting suit. He was wealthy, sure, but in that Las Vegas used-car-salesman way. Queens, not Manhattan. For years, he was a footnote skulking around the edges of American culture, showing up in episodes of Sex and the City and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He was such a cartoonish presence that when writers made jokes about someone absurd becoming president, they thought of him. The Simpsons famously joked about a Trump presidency in 2000. In Back to the Future II , Biff turns Hill Valley into a hellish version of Las Vegas, a dystopia the movie's screenwriter recently admitted was based on what life would be like under Trump. That movie came out in 1989.


Now, Donald Trump has been elected president.

There are many reasons why Trump was elected, but none of it could have happened without the rise of reality television. The link between Trump the candidate and Trump the Apprentice star has been remarked upon before, but it it seems more urgent than ever now that it turns out that his unorthodox campaign actually worked. Reality television not only legitimized Trump, his campaign exploited reality TV formulas and used them to his advantage.

In the early 21st century, reality TV has moved from a genre relegated to daytime programming or interspersed between music videos to the prevailing form of entertainment. In 2015, 750 reality shows aired on TV, compared to 409 scripted shows.

Along the way, the format became legitimized. When Cops or The Jerry Springer Show started, reality TV was a guilty pleasure akin to reading The National Enquirer. People found it entertaining, but also trashy and salacious. This stigma faded as time went on. We got used to the crass behavior and the predictable show formats. Popular reality stars became billion-dollar brands. Snooki, Honey Boo Boo, and the Duggars showed that the more ridiculous or reprehensible they acted, the more money they made. If there's one thing Americans respect, it's wealth. These days, if a show or reality star is popular and profitable, that's enough for them to be taken seriously.


Trump benefited from the acceptance and mainstreaming of reality TV. For one thing, it saved his reputation. Before The Apprentice premiered in 2003, Trump was primarily known for his broken marriages, bankruptcies, and business failures. He was famous, but not particularly respected—a perfect recipe for reality TV.

'The Celebrity Apprentice' promotional photo (NBC)

The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice established Trump as an authority in the business world, a role that was reinforced by his catchphrase, "You're fired." From the outset, he was presented as "having it all"—jets, limos, yachts, resorts, a hot wife. The contestants seemed awed by him. They didn't just wanted to work for him; they wanted to be him. He repeatedly said that he gained success through the "art of the deal," implying that his wealth had nothing to do with coming from a rich family, but hard work, innate talent, and business savvy. The show presented the fantasy that other people could have it all too, if they only tried hard enough and knew the trick—Trump's trick.

This new reputation as a "successful businessman" was key in his campaign. If he hadn't been on The Apprentice, he wouldn't have been able to convince anyone that he could "make a deal" with other countries as president. If we weren't used to seeing him in the role of judge of the business world, he wouldn't have seemed serious enough for president. Even his catchphrase worked in his favor. "You're fired" seems to cut through workplace nonsense and get down to brass tacks. Trump repeatedly claimed that he would do the same in Washington.


Beyond The Apprentice, Trump's campaign used the same familiar reality TV tropes that we've been fed for the past 20 years. Once again, he used catchphrases: "Make America Great Again," "Build the Wall, "We Don't Have a Country." He exploited racial sensitivities to his advantage, much like a TV producer. From The Real World on, reality TV has cast people as archetypes: the Virgin, the Racist, the Angry Black Person. They're edited to type and encouraged to fight with one another. Trump constructed similar narratives, presenting his opponents as villains by calling them names—Crooked Hillary, Lying Ted—and insulting them so blatantly that they weren't sure how to react.

The secret to staying on TV is to act out, say outrageous things, and break the rules. Trump showed that politics now work that way, too. The media responded to his antics with glee and gave him countless hours of free exposure. People started rooting for him to win. Americans have been conditioned to respond to the flashiest personality and to equate naked ambition with intelligence, determination, and strong values. Trump suited that exactly. Like the brashest character on a reality competition, he banked on American respect for a maverick and eschewed rules of decorum. He might as well have been shouting that old reality TV chestnut, "I'm not here to make friends."

With the election of Donald Trump, reality TV culture has become mainstream culture. As a nation, we're now making the most absurd versions of ourselves true. A Trump presidency, Simpsons writer Dan Greaney once said, would be "consistent with the vision of America going insane." Well, it's now happening. Reality TV has moved into our politics and, by extension, our lives. Conflicts that used to be only on TV seem to be everywhere, spilling through social media and onto the table at Thanksgiving.

We should learn from this election. It's imperative that we look at who and what we're elevating in the form of harmless entertainment. Even when television seems silly and trite, the images and messages it sends to viewers are influential. We need to question whether we want the entertainment we put on TV to become, over time, mirrors of our society as a whole. I, for one, don't want to live in a nation of Real Housewives.

Follow Joy Lanzendorfer on Twitter.