Email #309: “reality television show”?

“Reality TV is known for its humiliation tactics and its aggressive showmanship and also the idea that either you’re in or you’re out, with momentum building to the final decision on who stays and who goes,” University of Minnesota communications professor and reality TV expert Laurie Ouellette told the New York Times this week. “Absolutely, I see those techniques playing out [in the Trump White House].”

After his healthcare bill failed to pass and the cost of his jet travel triggered a scandal, Health Secretary Tom Price is out, while Secretary of State Tillerson is still teetering after he reportedly called the President a “fucking moron” and the President then challenged him to an IQ test on Twitter.

But even though Ouellette’s comparison seems apt, it isn’t new. Michael Moore wrote last year:

“Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.”

Moore later wrote that reality TV was the primary reason Donald Trump ran for President:

“Trump was unhappy with his deal as host and star of his hit NBC show, “The Apprentice” (and “The Celebrity Apprentice”)… He had floated the idea before of possibly running for president in the hopes that the attention from that would make his negotiating position stronger… he soon forgot his mission to get a good deal for a TV show… He was the star of EVERY TV SHOW — and, soon, winning nearly every primary!”

CNN’s Dean Obeidallah expressed a similar opinion in July:

“President Donald Trump has finally done it. He has turned his administration into a B-level reality show… And while it may be fun to watch, it’s a travesty for our nation. We deserve a president who is thoughtful, informed and focused on working for all Americans. Instead we have Trump, who seems preoccupied with creating a televised spectacle… it’s increasingly apparent that Trump is following his “Apprentice” playbook in the White House.”

The New York Post continued the comparison:

“In the latest episode of “Survivor: White House,” the West Wing descended into chaos Thursday, as President Trump and his top aides turned on one another like vicious reality-show divas — with no one sure who would be the next to get a knife in their back.”

Perez Hilton, a former contestant on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, commented too:

“Trump is treating his presidency like The Apprentice. He telegraphed this… I would totally survive in the Trump White House because I’m smarter than Donald. Much smarter than him!”

Actual Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars celebrity Omarosa Manigault has been a White House aide since the President included her in his transition team in December, but her resignation was announced in September. And that is of course after so many top White House staff members have been forced out: Flynn, Dubke, Priebus, Spicer, Bannon, Gorka, Scaramucci.

But I didn’t start to take the “reality show” criticism seriously until I heard it from Republican Senator Corker last week. When asked if the country is in jeopardy, Corker answered:

“Sometimes I feel like he’s on a reality show of some kind… it’s like it’s an act to him and sure that bothers me… it very much feels to me like he thinks as president he’s on a reality television show… I don’t think he understands that the messages that he sends out, especially when you take into account they’re being received in other languages around the world, what that does… I don’t think he appreciates that when the president of the United States speaks, and says the things that he does, the impact that it has around the world, especially in the region that he’s addressing… it’s concerning to me. A lot of people think that there’s some good cop, bad cop act underway, but that’s just not true… it’s like he’s doing “The Apprentice” or something. He’s just putting on an act. And it’s worrisome.”

Since Moore is a professional pundit who makes his living expressing progressive political commentary, his criticism of then candidate Donald Trump is not especially convincing. Although Obeidallah based his later opinion on President Trump’s actions as President, his commentary is still a professional op-ed designed to draw readers to the slightly left-leaning CNN.

Senator Corker, however, is in neither the entertainment nor the news industry. He, like you, is a member of the President’s own party, and, like you, he is a conservative who consistently votes against abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, the ACA, and sanctuary cities. Since, unlike Moore and Obeidallah, his politics align with the President’s agenda, he has reason to ignore the President’s flaws in order to promote that shared agenda.

So when a conservative Republican says President Trump behaves as if he is performing on a reality TV show, that criticism is difficult to ignore. As a fellow conservative Republican, do you agree with Senator Corker’s assessment? Or do you still wish to ignore the President’s flaws? If so, you must also be discounting the larger danger that Corker identifies:

“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him… One of the reasons that I’ve supported Mattis and Tillerson and Kelly last week is, again, as long as there’s people like that around him who are able to talk him down, you know, when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision is made. I think we’ll be fine.”

Do you think we’ll be fine too? Is there a point at which the President’s behavior would force you to set aside your political goals in order to help contain him?

If the President does think of himself as a star of a television show, what part do you think he’s casting you? Level-headed uncle? Obsequious butler? Comic minion? And how do you think this first season is going to end? Will the show be renewed or is the country tired of “shaking things up” yet? The President’s 39% approval rating doesn’t bode well for next year’s mid-terms either. How many of your fellow Republican Representatives do you think will be voted off?

And did you ever imagine American politics could devolve to this?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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