Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
Sociology can be eventful, but it typically looks for the conditions shaping practices and outcomes. Julia Fisher does just that by exploring the qualities of Reality TV and how Trump’s many seasons on The Apprentice can help us understand his success in the Presidential election. I might add that it also can help us understand President Trump’s apparent immunity from more recent charges of lies and deception. Julia explains how our sense of the “authentic” is made by Reality TV’s portrait of “real” lives backstage, even if they are the stuff of digital manufacture. This is, to my mind, a performative authenticity that eviscerates more evidentiary grounds for truthfulness. And that makes me worry for the state of our democracy. Knowing how this works, however, gives us a chance to revive those politics. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
Since Donald Trump began his bid for presidency, he has been referred to as the “Reality TV candidate” and, since his win, as “our first Reality TV President.” Commentators described his larger-than-life celebrity persona and the perception of the presidential race as an entertaining, high-stakes competition to suggest that the US population viewed the presidential race as a reality TV show with the highest stakes and grandest prize imaginable: becoming the leader of our country.
This may seem overly simplistic and can’t fully explain how Donald Trump was able to ride that phenomenon all the way to the White House. One would expect that when electing the leader of our country, there is a limit to our entertainment enjoyment of the race. However, a deeper look at the sociology of reality television and Donald Trump’s connection to it can shed some light on why many people viewed him as “truthful” and “authentic” despite his constant lies and deception.
Trump’s celebrity status on The Apprentice and the reinforcement of his reality TV celebrity image throughout the campaign help us understand the perceived authenticity of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. His rise to fame and widespread popularity through his role on The Apprentice resulted in people understanding Trump through the lens of his show and reality TV in general. This fed into his success and the way he was viewed during the presidential race.
Reality Television and Sociology
A form of reality TV has been around since the beginning of television and has roots in documentary filmmaking. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that the reality TV genre took off. The first show that fit in with the modern definition of the genre was An American Family, which began airing in 1973 and pioneered the concept of filming regular people in everyday life. It aimed to display a backstage look at the lives of a family in California (Montemurro, 88). Then, in the early 2000s, several new types of reality shows were created such as ‘gamedocs’ and other competitions, transformation shows, reality dating programs, ‘docusoaps,’ and candid depictions of the everyday lives of celebrities (Montemurro, 90). Nowadays, with shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Bachelor, and Survivor, reality television is one of the most popular genres on TV.
While reality television may seem like trivial entertainment, its immense popularity at this point in history should indicate that, at present, it is an important cultural object that may reveal much about social life, ideologies and values. Sociologists have always made important contributions to understanding the significance of television and how it both shapes and reflects social norms and conceptions of reality (Montemurro, 85). Reality television is no different, and its popularity within our modern-day society reveals qualities of the population that consumes it.
The type of shows that fit into the reality genre is diverse, but the common defining factor is that these shows involve “real people,” are, for the most part, unscripted and focus on behavior that is typically hidden from view. The work of sociologist Erving Goffman may help conceptualize the “authentic” nature of reality television. Goffman describes how individuals navigate social interactions and distinguishes between the regions of “front stage” and “back stage.” “Front stage” situations are those in which people perform a role based on the expectations of their audience and the setting in which they’re operating. “Back stage” is viewed as the more authentic self, and encapsulates how people act when they are not being watched. In a way, these reality shows seem to reveal “back stage” behavior for our public consumption. Although much of the dialogue is probably scripted, situations are contrived and the cameras are obviously rolling, the outrageous behavior and the framing of the show makes the audience feel as if they are getting a peak into people’s “back stage” lives. If the audience feels like they are seeing “back stage” behavior, they understand this to be more authentic behavior, even if they know the show is a creation for entertainment.
While perhaps not “real,” these shows are viewed as “authentic.” The contestants or celebrities may be placed in an entirely unrealistic setting, but their behavior within that setting is understood as authentic. This understanding of reality TV may feed in to the way in which people understand Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: The Reality TV Star
Donald Trump’s role in the reality TV show The Apprentice both cultivated an image of him which fit well into the reality TV age and allowed the audience to feel as though they were viewing the “real” Donald Trump. The Apprentice was based on “a particularly American understanding of how capitalism should work”: “cunning and business craftiness” (Peterson). The show depicted Trump as “the smartest, most skilled, most important businessman in America” and explicitly tied his image to the idea of enormous wealth, power and success (Peterson). In the minds of the audience, Trump is the embodiment of all of these traits while portraying the modern understanding of the American dream: “It’s not actual hard work that makes you successful, but the ability to evince the feeling and effect of power and wealth” (Peterson). In a society that glorifies the Kardashians and “real housewives,” the image and idea a person conveys is celebrated above experience and actual work.
As well as solidifying this persona, Trump’s role as a reality TV star convinced the audience that this persona is who Trump truly is. Trump had been a widely-known name for years, but his reputation was created through stories in newspapers and magazines and in TV reports. The Apprentice allowed the public to see Trump in a way they believed was authentic. The TV show made the audience feel as if they were getting to know the true Trump, and the true Trump embodied the characteristics celebrated by the show.
When Trump began his presidential campaign, many people described Trump as “authentic” and a “straight shooter” despite readily available statistics on the numerous lies he told and his inconsistent opinions. No amount of evidence could convince his supporters that he was not being truthful and authentic. There are many ways to attempt to explain this phenomenon, but reality TV and Trump’s experience as a reality TV celebrity may add an interesting dimension to the discussion. By continuing to play his reality star persona rather than reinvent himself as more traditionally presidential for voters, Trump was able to reinforce the idea that his authentic self was the one portrayed in The Apprentice and that he was continuing to be this true self throughout the campaign and his time in office (Ware, 408).
Donald Trump’s political personality seemed to mimic his Apprentice persona, even though it did not exactly fit his new role as a Presidential candidate. Millions of people had watched as he made swift decisions, determined winners and losers and flaunted his power and wealth for 14 seasons of The Apprentice. They felt as though they were watching the unmediated Trump and that this Trump was the embodiment and promise of the American dream. As Trump began his campaign, he intensified this persona. Candidate Trump was a natural extension of reality TV Trump, and, because people felt like they had already been watching the real Trump for years, he was always the authentic Trump. The continuity in his persona from reality TV to President solidified his powerful, wealthy and authentic image throughout the campaign.
In addition, because Trump continued to act like a reality TV celebrity surrounded by politicians, he broke the norms of the setting in which he was performing, which reinforced his authentic image. As previously mentioned, reality TV gives off the appearance that the audience is viewing the “back stage” of someone’s life. As a reality TV celebrity, Trump has allowed the public to see the “back stage” of his life for years, and continued to act in the same way as a candidate. Additionally, Goffman explains that we expect “some coherence among setting, appearance, and manner” when viewing an individual’s social front (Goffman, 25). There was little consistency between the setting of a run for a presidential bid and the manner in which Trump acted. Trump seemingly willfully broke conventions for appropriate behavior for presidential candidates, just as the authentic reality star breaks the expectation of suitable behavior on screen. Goffman asserts that inconsistencies like this will confuse and upset the audience, and, for some watching Trump, it did just that. However, for others, it only reinforced the idea that he was being authentic. Trump wasn’t choosing the wrong front or performing wrong. He was revealing his “back stage” character, which may not fit with expectations of a presidential candidate, but fits with expectations of Trump.
In reality television, “fans search for truth or reality within the unreal environment; even though they know the show and its premise are contrived they still seek out honest moments and favor players who seem ‘real’ over those who openly appear to be ‘playing the game’” (Montemurro, 98). Although Trump likes to tell Americans about how much “winning” he does, he is not openly “playing the game” of politics that people are used to watching. He seems real and unrehearsed and does not buy into the rules of the game.
The reason that Trump won on election night was not because the American public viewed the race as some ultimate reality TV competition. Trump is not the “reality TV” president because we have turned our country into a reality television show with egomaniac as the host. However, the role of reality TV in society and how Donald Trump fits into that can begin to answer the question of why Donald Trump was viewed as so authentic by his supporters and how he gained so much popularity. While not necessarily real, reality TV seems authentic, and Trump laid the groundwork for his political persona as a reality TV star. His image as an authentic powerful and wealthy leader followed him to the political arena as he consistently embodied his reality TV persona despite the norms of politics. The popularity of reality TV and Trump’s popularity because of it helped establish Trump as an authentic and powerful front-runner in the presidential race.
In fact, last Spring, Jeff Zucker, the former president of NBC who signed Donald Trump for The Apprentice, ran into Trump in the men’s room at an event.
“You think any of this would have happened without The Apprentice?” Trump asked when he saw him.
“Nope.” Zucker answered.