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Unreality TV Now Trumps True Participatory Politics

B.S in Economics & Business Administration with a minor in Sociology. My interests beyond economics lie in politics, literature, and sports.

Unreality TV Now Trumps True Participatory Politics

The presumed Republican Presidential nomination of Donald Trump appears to be a successful invasion of the "Reality TV" phenomenon into the political process of the United States. Almost all of the rules of Presidential campaigning have been discarded by Mr. Trump. Instead he appears to have drawn upon many of the marketing lessons he has learned over the years. Primary among these is the cult of personality that has developed in this new era of Reality TV.

Many of these new so-called celebrities in our culture were spawned on various Reality TV shows. They have often parlayed this fame into other streams of revenue such as ancillary products and new television shows. Outrageous behaviors are the common denominators for these shows.

Donald Trump's career has been spurred on by similar activities including his "Apprentice" shows. Our culture seems to have been taken over by all of these Reality TV shows and events since 2000. Is this same trend now taking over our political discourse? I believe this Presidential election and its November results will go a long way to answering that.

In this article:

Participatory politics saw its rise during the 2008 Presidential election and has continued through successive elections. I will examine this rise and its consequences as well as how it paralleled with Reality TV. I will then turn to this Presidential election cycle and show how the two forms of campaigning are now battling each other for supremacy. Finally I will give my take on how I think and hope these trends will evolve while also explaining its importance for the future of the United States.

The Rise of Reality TV

In my view, Reality TV began in 1992 with MTV's series "Real World." This show placed young adults in homes around the country and filmed their interactions over a few months time. This was a young adult phenomenon and sowed the seeds of Reality TV's takeover of television programming in May of 2000 with the advent of the "Survivor" franchise.

Survivor instantly became one of the highest rated television series and is still going strong. The way was now paved for an onslaught of these type of shows that is still growing in today's television market.

Many of these new Reality shows have turned away from the competition model towards one featuring the personality driven model or some hybrid of the two. The most prominent of these new shows for the past few years are the various "Kardashian" shows. They are clearly driven by strong personality conflict situations. Ratings for these and most Reality TV shows have remained quite high.

The Apprentice

Donald Trump's Apprentice shows were started in the midst of this Reality TV growth spurt and they quickly flourished. The centerpiece of all of his shows was his supposed tough love guidance for his apprentices. Those that failed and were eliminated were greeted with Trump's suddenly famous line "You're fired." This franchise evolved into the "Celebrity Apprentice" show which cemented the personality driven model with the competition model. It also helped to cement the Trump persona into the American psyche.

Saying Outrageous Things to Entertain the Audience

Mr. Trump contemplated testing the Presidential waters leading up to the 2012 campaign. Donald did this by primarily espousing his view that President Barack Obama was not really an American citizen. He pressed the President to produce a true birth certificate and became a darling of the Far Right. His effort died when the President did produce one and Trump had no backup plan. Unfortunately his followers remained smitten with him.

Many people thought that Donald's "birther" misstep meant his exit from the American political scene. President Obama skewered him over this subject during his 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner monologue. Surely he would not want to subject himself to this ridicule again. Those that thought that way, including myself, did not know Donald Trump. He was only getting started.

Trump decided against renewing his "Celebrity Apprentice" contract in February 2015. This was a remarkable step for him since this franchise had sent his public persona into overdrive and was extremely lucrative for him financially. Polls had been taken and it was found that there was very strong public support for his possible candidacy for President. On June 16, 2015, Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for United States President.

The first policy espousal that Trump delivered was his promise to not only deport all illegal immigrants but that he would also build a wall across the Mexican border to deter others from crossing illegally. Furthermore he stated that he would force the Mexican government to pay for it. Interestingly, he failed to state how he would accomplish these goals. This has become his signature issue and he has drawn considerable support from Republicans and some independents due to it.

In June 2015, Mr. Trump made what was considered a major gaffe and very possibly a candidacy killer. He stated in stark terms that he did not consider Senator John McCain to be a war hero. Trump stated that the only reason that McCain was considered to be a hero was that he was captured during the Vietnam War. Trump further stated that he preferred heroes that were successful and not captured.

He reiterated these comments while also stating that Senator McCain had failed on veterans and immigration issues. These statements reinforced one of his main campaign themes. Donald Trump portrays himself as a winner and he will make America win again. Shockingly, Trump easily weathered these early controversies and even rose in the polls. Once again I and most people who follow politics had underestimated Donald Trump.

Donald Trump continued to defy political logic and increase his popularity when he attacked Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly for her hard hitting questions to him about his past derogatory comments against women. These questions were asked by Kelly during one of the Republican debates.

He stated that she had gotten so angry with him that there was blood coming out of her eyes and everywhere. Most people felt that Trump was alluding to her menstrual cycle in an effort to put her down. This was another controversy which this time involved women who just so happen to be a majority voting group in this country. His poll numbers remained high as always after this incident.

Good Ratings?

Why do Donald Trumps's poll numbers remain high after every damaging controversy he seems to inflict upon himself? I believe we need to compare this phenomenon to the entire Reality TV genre that Trump has been a prominent part of. People like Donald Trump and the Kardashians learned quickly how to market and monetize themselves by emphasizing larger than life and often outrageous behavior. Donald Trump has actually been doing this his entire business career.

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Don't get me wrong. Marketing has been a very important part of Presidential campaigning dating all the way back to the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Our Ninth President, William Henry Harrison, ran successfully with the enormous help of his campaign song and slogan, "Tippercanoe and Tyler Too" in 1840.

Harrison was a General who commanded American military forces against the Shawnee Indians in 1811 and became an American hero because of it. His campaign song and slogan highlighted this military episode and was a key tactic in securing the Presidency for himself. This was the most prominent example of successful Presidential marketing in our early history.

Donald Trump has taken all the lessons he has learned from past marketing combined with Reality TV's use of narcissism writ large and has become the presumptive Republican nominee. He has learned that publicity is all important and that there are no outrageous statements or policies that can hurt you. At least they have not hurt him up to this point in the campaign. Trump is certainly a new political phenomenon but is he a one time event or does this form of campaigning have staying power.

I do consider Donald Trump to be a phenomenon unto himself this cycle but the Reality TV effects on political campaigning will endure beyond this election. American society seems to have entered into an era of celebrity voyeurism where narcissistic personalities sell and are encouraged. Presidential and all political candidates will absorb these lessons and incorporate them into future campaigns though probably not as well or as outrageously as Trump.

What the American People Want to See

Why are the American people accepting this narcissism for the most powerful position in the world? After all, Donald Trump will have the power of life and death for all of us in his hands if he wins this election. Does this mean that true participatory politics where ordinary citizens support a candidate with money and physical campaigning is dead?

These two questions are complicated but intertwined. I believe that a major reason why people are so enthusiastically supporting Trump without questioning his outrageous pronouncements is their thorough disgust with the gridlock and broken promises in Washington D.C. They do not see anything getting done on either side that is worthwhile so they endorse this bombastic political outsider blindly.

The Senator Bernie Sanders campaign sets this Reality TV model on its head and gives us hope that participatory politics is alive and well. Sanders supporters are also disgusted with Congress and Washington. His campaign and his supporters are passionate about campaign finance reform, income inequality, climate change, as well as several more vital issues.

They are supporting Senator Sanders through millions of small contributions and are working for the campaign all over the U.S. These actions are what true participatory politics are all about. Which of these two campaign types will prove dominant over the coming years and how will it affect all of us?

At first blush, it appears that the Reality TV model is ascendant and will become dominant in our politics. I am not so sure and I sincerely hope that this model will have a fairly quick demise though it may always have some influence.

There are two major reasons why I feel it will probably not become dominant. The first being that Donald Trump is a very unique American personality and I doubt that there will be too many others who will be able to pull off this type of campaign. Secondly, the polarization of our politics has helped to foster the atmosphere that has made his campaign possible. These situations are relatively rare in our history and I hope this remains the case.

The two victorious Barack Obama Presidential campaigns and this Senator Bernie Sanders campaign show us that participatory politics can and does work especially when people are very dissatisfied. The Sanders campaign has been nothing short of miraculous in how far they have come and how they have persuaded their supporters to go all in for him.

World history has shown that leaders who come to power due to force of personality and making outrageous promises often turn into tyrants and demagogues. This is due both to their strong egos but also because people become mesmerized by them without actually investigating their claims and promises.

The Antidote

The antidote to this is to have a very engaged and participatory electorate that holds their candidates and political leaders accountable for their policies and actions. The United States has done very well to this point in avoiding the pitfalls of allowing a real dictator to come to power. This is due to a strong constitutional base and a reasonably engaged citizenry.

My belief is that America will continue this history of civic responsibility and follow the Sanders campaign model of strong involvement in our country's politics. That is not to say that the Reality TV model is a fluke. It has permeated our media and entertainment industries and it can gain a strong foothold in our politics if we let it.

It is up to "we the people" to remain engaged and educated about our politicians and the issues that affect us. Our democracy and nation will remain strong if we do. A Reality TV demagogue could become our leader if we abdicate this collected responsibility. It is vital that we remain vigilant in holding our candidates and leaders accountable. Our past history shows that we will do so but falling into apathy and sitting back and watching an entertaining showman take power would be a recipe for disaster.


Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on March 07, 2017:

Thank you for your kind comments and compliments. Thank you also for your fan mail and follow.

Kenneth Avery on March 06, 2017:

Great writing and a great writer.

Informative and to the point.

Keep up the tremendous work.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on November 09, 2016:

I hope our country is ready for the chaos and nonsense that a Trump presidency will bring. I fear that our nation and the world is in great peril. This ultimate narcissist only believes in that which is good for Donald Trump. We are one personal insult away from World War III. Good luck everyone.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 14, 2016:

It certainly will be fun, Junko. What scares me is that there is always a chance, especially if big event or bombshell announcement comes out, for Trump to win. I do believe the American people are saner than that but I also did not think he would get this far. I pray we are right. The alternative could be cataclysmic. Thank you for your comments.

junko on June 14, 2016:

Donald Trump will never be President of the United States. The majority of American voters aren't insane. The Republican Convention will be bizarre, if anything.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 14, 2016:

Donald Trump's speech yesterday in response to the Orlando shootings was another example of his demagoguery and danger to our country and the world. He began the speech in measured tones and then blamed President Obama and Hillary Clinton for all of our problems. He also reiterated his banning of Muslims from coming into this country as well as his anti-immigration views. This was a time for honoring the dead and he went on his hyperbolic rants. There will be millions more converts to radical Islamism and much more anti-Muslim hate attacks if he becomes President. We cannot let this happen.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 09, 2016:

Thank you for your comments, Teamrns. I do not believe that Trump or any candidate needs to follow any formula and indeed many are stale and boring. Unfortunately Trump has turned to total personal attacks for anyone who opposes him and making claims that prove to be totally false. All to win that news cycle. This type of thin skin would be terrifying if he has his "finger on the button". I am not going to re-hash the birther and Megyn Kelly incidents again except to say most people, not just media, believe my take. If this type of candidate is your choice, so be it. Beware of what you get. Hillary is my choice but I would have liked a wider choice of candidates. Hillary is not going to end up in an "orange jump suit" as many conspiracy people wish. She will be a competent President that will have her ups and downs in this complex and dangerous world. At least she won't blow it up. Let's see how Trump's appeal goes as this process opens up to the entire electorate. I hope the American electorate races away from him. But I do fear that his marketing brand may do better than I think or should I say fear.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 08, 2016:

Thank you as always for your comments, Junko. Senator Sanders is very similar to Donald Trump in the sense that he is saying things against the established powers. My feeling is that Donald Trump does not really believe most of the outrageous things he says. He is a showman and want his ratings or polls to skyrocket. Sanders has been stating his views and policies his entire political life. He calls himself a socialist but our economy is already a capitalist-socialist hybrid. He just wants to take it a lot further. I believe his movement will continue in coming years and he is simply ahead of his time and breaking the ground for further advancement of his causes. You stay strong also, Junko.

teamrns on June 08, 2016:


There are no assumptions that YOU make in this article, but there are assumptions that the MEDIA and many others in the general population make-which don't do Mr. Trump favors. I'm not sure of my affiliation yet, but when I see someone being portrayed by 'assumptions' I must respond as the hair on my back goes on end.

I'd like to address this first: "Almost all of the rules of Presidential campaigning have been discarded by Mr. Trump." Is this such a problem? Defying tradition? As long as the process that is used gives a quality candidate, I'm a bit unclear why this is a problem. Certainly, we all know Mr. Trump's rise has been unconventional, but I hope we haven't not become so conventional, so homogenized.

That is not to suggest, in any way, that the end justifies the means. But it is to suggest that Americans have been for nearly 240 years about defying the odds of convention.

Now, i'd like to address, "He stated that she had gotten so angry with him that there was blood coming out of her eyes and everywhere. Most people felt that Trump was alluding to her menstrual cycle in an effort to put her down."

The statement that MOST PEOPLE felt that Trump was alluding to her menstrual cycle. HOW would they have known this if she did not feed the fodder by telling them, or if some media 'type' 'assumed that that was the case and shouted it from the rooftops. That nasty word again: assumption. You know what happens when you assume. You make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'

"Donald Trump has taken all the lessons he has learned from past marketing combined with Reality TV's use of narcissism writ large and has become the presumptive Republican nominee. He has learned that publicity is all important and that there are no outrageous statements or policies that can hurt you. "

Is it a problems that he has a particular skill set and used it to his advantage, learned from the past and applying present skills to learn the present tasks at hand. I hate to say it, but you sound a bit like, 'this is the way it has always been done and far be it from me to change and uproot the status quo!'

Is there any reason that things can't be done differently as long as they're done reasonably? legally? Ah there's the rub...

Again people THOUGHT (about the 'birther misstep'). Thing is, there are many people who don't consider that it was a misstep.

"Why are the American people accepting this narcissism for the most powerful position in the world?" The operative words here: people ACCEPTING NARCISSISM. A degree of narcissism is healthy. Mr. Trump is not the only person who has narcissistic tendencies.

"Interestingly, he failed to state how he would accomplish these goals" FAILED, this is code for 'he didn't satisfy YOUR requirements, didn't convince YOU how he would accomplish this. This is the real issue you have. YOU'RE not convinced. Do you need to be told everything?

The fact that he has said it, and what he has said is that 'MEXICO IS GOING TO PAY FOR THE WALL' to me does not necessarily mean that the Mexican President is going to present him with a check to cover the wall, or that Mexicans are the labor he would use. I took it to mean, that Mexico, through the correct tariffs on imports will be paying for the wall. Is there ANY reason why that could NOT be the operating scenario? Did you watch his speech last night? You'd not ask this question if you watched with an OPEN mind.

"The United States has done very well to this point in avoiding the pitfalls of allowing a real dictator to come to power. " DICTATOR? And you imagine The Donald to be this sort of DICTATOR?

"Presidential and all political candidates will absorb these lessons and incorporate them into future campaigns though probably not as well or as outrageously as Trump." Focus on outrageous. Other than being flamboyant and having a style that is different, that is his 'brand' and is unique to him and the American people, do you object that an individual with a different style can govern this country?

Yes, Barack Obama's participatory campaigns were successful, but that is QUITE a jump to say that because the campaigns were successful, his presidency is the same. You know what I think of this, but this is not the subject of your article.

Yes, it is up to WE THE PEOPLE to decide our leaders. We have a choice between a highly successful 'reality tv star' who chose to have his voice represent the voice of the people and what he feels is the course is best for our country.

OR we choose the other offering which some Americans feel palatable of a woman whose small track includes a few titles, many 'gates,' several claims to fame that have yet to be substantiated, plans to progress this nation into the next century-so far away from the Constitution with desires and plans to unite the Democratic party to the EXPENSE OF alienating the Americans who disagree with her agenda to second class status, not uniting, but further dividing this dangerously divided country.

Oh, did I mention that this same woman is 2 steps away from an orange jump suit? You didn't but it is YOUR CHOICE.

junko on June 08, 2016:

Ken I agree Trump is saying things other politician won't say and many Americans won't say publicly. Sanders is also saying things many politicians and right winged conservatives won't say publicly concerning corruption and fraud on Capitol Hill and Wall Street. Sander's has had the same message for decades but his message was heard this time by The Liberal Youth who love the thought of a Revolution. When I was in college in the late 60's and early 70's I thought the revolution would come before The Super Dome would be built. The biggest difference in the messengers is Trump is a Capitalist and Sander's is a Socialist, a very big difference. Hillary is and was the most qualified candidate in the presidential race and everybody in the world knows that. Trump is the Great white hope to put another White Anglo- Saxon Protestant Man in the White House after the 8 year Presidency of a Black Man.. Blame it All on the Tea Party made to cause the failure of President Obama's Presidency but has cause the utter failure of The Grand Old Party in 2016. HSchneider Stay Strong and stand your ground as always.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 08, 2016:

You may find it hilarious, Ken, but I am far from the only one who has expressed fears about Trump's instability. Republican leaders have done so also as well as leaders from around the world. His background is far from stable. He has launched numerous businesses that have failed. Now yes, this is what entrepreneurs do. I agree. But we do not want our President sending up test balloons. Besides, ventures like Trump University were simply hucksterism to drain money from peoples pockets. What will he drain from we the taxpayers? Finally his penchant for reacting to personal slights violently scares me on the international stage. It is a recipe for disaster.

Ken Burgess from Florida on June 07, 2016:

Well I do find it hilarious anytime someone harkens to a terrible doom that Trump will bring upon us with Nuclear weapons, much like I laugh when someone calls him the next Hitler.

The man is far more rational and conscientious than you give him credit for, moreso than Hillary, I can see this in his family, businesses, and efforts to engage in issues that help others.

Trump is coming from a far more stable and accomplished background than the last person the country elected as President, we didn't come to our doom under Obama's inexperienced, strongly biased perspectives, and authoritarian Administration, we certainly can weather Trump's CEO Nationalistic outlook.

Howard Schneider (author) from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 07, 2016:

Thank you for your comments, Ken. I do agree with you that their will be a sharp contrast in this national campaign. But that is the only thing that we agree on. Donald Trump only espouses views that he feels will get him publicity. He believes in nothing except ratings, profits, and winning. He responds to any disagreements or perceived slights with vicious personal attacks. He is like a schoolyard boy. He will destroy this country because he is only for Donald Trump and no one else. A nuclear war would become a clearer reality if he becomes President because this most thin skinned of people will launch a nuclear war over a personal attack. I also disagree with your likes and dislikes regarding issues and policies but I do not believe that Mr. Trump will really make you happy. He does not believe in anything and will change his policies on a whim if he feels it will increase his popularity and polls. Good luck with the Donald, Mr. Burgess, you will need it and we all will need a ton of it if Donald Trump becomes President.

Ken Burgess from Florida on June 07, 2016:

Trump's success to date is he is saying the things other politicians don't, he is talking about the corruption in Washington which most of us recognize, and he is speaking in layman terms... he talks TO the people, not DOWN to the people.

He has a way of talking to the people and championing their position the way potent (and rich) personalities have in the past... like the bombastic Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Reagan, these are politicians that went against the grain of typical politics and against their 'rich' class as well.

But outside of that, this is a clear cut election like none other in decades.

This is a true outsider VS the poster-child for Washington politics

This is a true Nationalist, America first candidate VS the Globalist, the Washington politics as usual one

This is keep things going as they have been... keep Obamacare, the chaotic Foreign bumblings, the mounting trillions in National Debt, keep the loss of jobs ... vs change.

I would say the other big issue, other than the economy, is who will be put into the Supreme Court... and if we get Hillary, we will end up with a Supreme Court that over the course of years, will dismantle the Constitution as well as our Sovereign rights. That in the end is the biggest thing this election will decide, will we maintain the Constitution as it was intended, or will we circumvent it as Obama had tried to do repeatedly, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court (and other courts) on many occasions.

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