What does it take to be a top reality TV star? Extroversion, blind confidence, the willingness to say or do anything to win, and enough of the V factor — villainy — to keep producers happy. On reality TV, swagger and drama are keys to stardom; they help keep you from getting voted off the island — and off the air.
Which, like so many things in this early stage of the 2016 presidential campaign, brings us to Donald Trump. He's the first candidate to employ the tenets of reality TV in a run for president of the United States, to use a savvy reality contestant's approach to sticking around and evading elimination rounds. And he certainly had experience in the field, with backstage and onscreen roles in "The Apprentice" shows, the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, and the blueprint for the entire reality TV genre, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), where theatricality is king.
So far, it's working brilliantly, as Trump continues to prevail at "Survivor: D.C." tribal councils to become the leader of recent polls in the Republican race.
Generally speaking, political candidates avoid the kinds of stunts and insults — Trump's favorites include "loser," "lightweight," "moron," and "dummy" — that have become de rigueur in his campaign. Mainstream candidates usually maintain a veneer of dignity, even as they trash their rivals' stances and decisions. But Trump grasps reality TV's train-wreck philosophy too well, the human instinct to rubberneck when blood is shed.
Oh, he's smart enough to position his tirades and shots from the hip as a kind of refreshing honesty, in contrast to the phoniness and over-caution of other politicians. "They have to throw a lot of consultants away and be themselves," he recently suggested in Time magazine about his competitors. But really, his bluster is pure attention-seeking stagecraft, a series of plays to stay on the show and boost ratings. On reality TV, after all, dignity gets you nowhere — voted off, perhaps, or left on to serve as the foil for some more triumphant bully.
That's why, last year, instead of simply criticizing President Obama's approach to the Ebola crisis, Trump used the word "psycho."
That's why, this month, he has chucked taunts at Massachusetts politicians including Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Governor Charlie Baker, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, calling Walsh a "clown" and saying, "Get a real mayor." That's why he makes his barbs personal, questioning Senator John McCain's war heroism and the journalistic merit of Fox News's Megyn Kelly. You know you've hit the "wait . . . what?" bombast jackpot when there is a Donald Trump Insult Generator online. He may well not care if he's a self-parody at this point, since it aids his flamboyant mission to be noticed.
Trump does bring in numbers, that seems clear. The first Republican primary debate four years ago, on Fox News, brought in 3.2 million viewers. The first one this year — with Trump at center stage — drew 24 million, also on Fox. TV ratings are his domain, and he knows how to pump them up.
From the opening moments of that Aug. 6 debate, when he refused to commit to a Republican ticket, he had viewers jazzed up for a show. He's confident enough about his knack for capturing television viewers to wonder, as he did in Time, if he ought to refuse to appear in the next debate, on Sept. 16 on CNN, unless CNN gives $10 million to charity. "If I'm in it, they'll get this crazy audience," he says, "and they're going to make a fortune since they're selling commercials every time we take a break."
In a way, it's not surprising to see the mojo of reality TV leaking into our political process. Reality contests are like little elections, with viewers or the players themselves casting votes. And Trump is discovering that the more incendiary qualities that work on a show like "Survivor" or "The Apprentice" can extend to our electoral process. Drama and outrageousness often take the day — anything that will stoke next-day buzz and social media commotion. Along with the voyeurism of watching strangers and the aspirational pull of fame and fortune, we have embraced and supported reality TV for more than two decades because we like being entertainingly scandalized and helping to decide who gets to be a star.
But playing "made you look" with America isn't the same as running America. The presidential campaign only looks like a reality competition, a face-off among personality types. The candidates only look like contestants. On a deeper and more critical level, it's an interview process for a job, with America doing the choosing.
The reality-TV provocateurs don't usually come out on top. But with his mugging and his manipulations, with his soul in the same game as controversy-courting reality TV legends Puck from "The Real World" and Omarosa from "The Apprentice," Trump is writing his own rules. So far, Trump is outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting. The question is: Could he actually win?