Re­al­ity in­ter­rupts the Trump Show

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Dana Milbank

— It looks more and more as if Don­ald Trump’s re­al­ity show isn’t go­ing to be re­newed for an­other sea­son.

I’m not talk­ing about “Celebrity Ap­pren­tice,” the NBC show Trump turned into a clas­sic of the re­al­ity genre; that show is now in the strong hands of Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger. The show that’s in trou­ble is the hor­ri­fy­ing yet ir­re­sistible one we’ve all been watch­ing since June 2015. Trump’s campaign is the apoth­e­o­sis of re­al­ity tele­vi­sion’s hos­tile takeover of the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, in which the win­ner is of­ten the one who gen­er­ates the most shock and who com­mands the most at­ten­tion.

Trump fol­lowed this plot de­vice over and over again, caus­ing one out­rage af­ter an­other — and, un­til re­cently, it worked. It didn’t much mat­ter what the is­sue was or what they thought of Trump; if peo­ple were talk­ing about him, if he dom­i­nated the news cy­cle, he won.

When Trump launched his campaign, “the rules of re­al­ity TV came along for the ride, in which the per­son who says the worst stuff is re­warded with the most air­time,” the Post’s TV critic Hank Stuever ob­served . Un­der these rules, “fame dis­en­gaged it­self” from achieve­ment. In this world, you be­came fa­mous “es­pe­cially if you were the guy or gal that no­body liked. In fact, the more de­spi­ca­ble, the bet­ter.”

Said Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign chair­man, in May: “This is the ul­ti­mate re­al­ity show. It’s the pres­i­dency of the United States.”

But in re­cent episodes, some­thing has gone wrong with the Trump Show. Trump still dominates the air­waves, but his just-spell-my-name-right the­ory of fame is no longer work­ing. It turns out the Trump Show, late in the sea­son, has lost its plot pro­gres­sion. And vot­ers, be­lat­edly but fi­nally, are less in­clined to view Trump the same way they view re­al­ity TV: with a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief.

More now seem to share the view Michael Bloomberg voiced at the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion: “This isn’t re­al­ity tele­vi­sion. This is re­al­ity.”

Each stage of Trump’s life, and campaign, has been some­thing of a re­al­ity show. His priv­i­leged youth was Paris Hil­ton’s “The Sim­ple Life,” his years in New York’s tabloid cul­ture “Keep­ing Up With the Kar­dashi­ans,” his pro­fes­sional life “Mil­lion Dol­lar List­ing.”

In the campaign, his courtship of the re­li­gious right was “Duck Dy­nasty,” his sys­tem­atic elim­i­na­tion of his 16 com­peti­tors in the GOP pri­mary was “Sur­vivor,” and the un­fo­cused but drama-filled GOP con­ven­tion, be­gin­ning with his third wife Me­la­nia’s stolen speech, was “Real House­wives.”

Trump’s na­tional spokes­woman, Ka­t­rina Pierson, has been do­ing dou­ble duty on a re­al­ity show, “Sis­ters in Law.” Omarosa Mani­gault and an­other “Ap­pren­tice” alum­nus are Trump sur­ro­gates. One of Trump’s exwives, Marla Maples, was just on “Danc­ing With the Stars.”

Af­ter two decades of re­al­ity TV, we have come to ex­pect that much of what we see on re­al­ity TV will be staged. There’s even a pop­u­lar show, “UnREAL,” in which char­ac­ters Quinn and Rachel work behind-thescenes to ma­nip­u­late the plot of a fic­ti­tious re­al­ity show.

Trump ben­e­fits from the ex­pec­ta­tion of phoni­ness. Pop-cul­ture critic Jen Chaney wrote in The Post that “hav­ing a re­al­ity-TV celebrity run­ning for com­man­der in chief may sub­con­sciously sig­nal our brains to par­tic­i­pate in this elec­tion the same way we’ve grown ac­cus­tomed to con­sum­ing re­al­ity shows ... be­liev­ing that none of it is gen­uine, that none of it has any ac­tual con­se­quences.” It doesn’t mat­ter, there­fore, if two out of three claims Trump makes are false, or if he pro­poses dan­ger­ous ideas: It’s only en­ter­tain­ment.

But we may have reached the lim­its of pol­i­tics-as-re­al­ity tele­vi­sion. Re­al­ity TV may fa­vor scoundrels, but re­al­ity can be more judg­men­tal. One of the ear­li­est he­roes of the genre, the Machi­avel­lian Richard Hatch, won “Sur­vivor” — and later won him­self 51 months in prison for tax eva­sion.

Trump’s big­ger problem is that re­cent episodes of the Trump Show just aren’t very good. His rapid dis­patch­ing of com­peti­tors dur­ing the pri­maries, his out­rage du jour and his never-end­ing sup­ply of in­sults made for grip­ping tele­vi­sion, and his ri­vals never got enough at­ten­tion to give Trump a se­ri­ous chal­lenge.

But since the pri­maries, Trump’s out­rages and in­sults have be­come stale. Trump and his aides spent the past two weeks sig­nal­ing that he was re­think­ing his im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy and would re­cast it in a ma­jor speech Wed­nes­day. He then de­liv­ered the same lines he has all along.

The Trump Show has lost its co­her­ent story lines, its nar­ra­tive arc. Trump des­per­ately needs a Quinn and Rachel to juice the plot, to ma­nip­u­late where each episode is go­ing.

But this is no longer re­al­ity TV; it’s re­al­ity. And re­al­ity is not as kind to Trump.

Dana Milbank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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