Trump and the Spectacle of Reality TV

Donald Trump’s political campaign represents the logical evolution of the media age and entertainment serving as a spectacle where the line between the real and the imaginary is completely blurred. The age of reality TV and non-stop entertainment has become the dominant avenue for people to receive and share information about a wide range of issues including the choice of a political candidate. Trump embodies reality TV, is himself a brand and in essence an entertainment commodity running for the highest political office in the United States. For sure, Trump is not the first to fuse entertainment and politics and the debate on this issue has been around for almost a century.

In his groundbreaking book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” Neil Postman maintained, “[It] is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. […] The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” In this sense, Trump’s candidacy is a type of entertainment.

Neil Postman further argued that the vision of the future is not an Orwellian one whereby a totalitarian government suppresses and controls the people, but a world closer to what Aldous Huxley described in his novel “Brave New World,” whereby people “are controlled by inflicting pleasure.” Postman correctly observed that “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

More than any other “political” figure in the modern age, Trump represents the arrival of Huxley’s “Brave New World” as campaign sound bites are intended to reinforce a constant barrage of snippets, and “a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act.” Those surprised to see Trump leading in the polls are missing the key factor; the candidate himself is an embodiment of reality TV, serving to propel his campaign among an audience conditioned to seek a celebrity to mediate fictitious shared meaning and public discourse as an extended commercial. “If politics is like show business, then” for Trump “the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are,” and package the candidate image, not the content, into a message.

Trump understands the spectacle of reality TV and navigates the campaign to fit the contours of an audience that has already been deprived of “autonomy, maturity and history.” The audience gawking at Trump is a byproduct of an information age where the ability to think for oneself was undone by repetitive exposure to TV trivia and entertainment. Reality is entertainment and entertainment is how reality is experienced. Trump is an entertainment product defining and shaping the reality of an audience that is serving as a voting public in a democratic stage play called America.

Poor candidates sharing the stage with Trump as well as the “news” people fact-check Trump on his many statements because they don’t understand the entertainment epistemic operating within the candidate’s camp. Trump creates a reality in the same way a TV show constructs a make-believe rainforest in the studio that captures the audience’s attention. He gets reinforced by basic repetition in the same way a TV commercial touting an unhealthy product through association with a celebrity does and constructs political ignorance as knowledge for his gawking audience.

Marshall McLuhan maintained, “The medium is the message” while Postman modified the concept into “The medium is the metaphor.” Thus, Trump is America’s metaphor whereby non-stop reality TV entertainment is substituted for what is real, and meaningful. “Making America Strong Again” is a sound bite intended to stop the thinking process and direct the audience to focus on Trump, the reality TV product that has been imbued with the unshakable celebrity success image. If Trump, the TV commodity, is successful, then it must translate into a vote for Trump, the political product.

Today’s reality TV and entertainment has become more pernicious and is intruding on every aspect of our life through computers, smart phones, iPads and even from behind the wheel in cars. The political, religious, social and cultural, and even knowledge itself, is truncated to fit into the medium and becomes the end in itself. Trump’s candidacy might not end up being successful but the extended impact of the product will be around for a long time. “Television” (I would add the Internet), according Postman “is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.” Trump is staging the political as a reality show and, in doing so, the screen and the production become undifferentiated entertainment and the metaphor for all public discourses. Trump stages the political as a show and the staged show becomes the way the political world is understood: a non-stop staged spectacle.