Donald Trump and the Apotheosis of Reality Politics

Scan the media over the past few months and you'll find a common narrative - Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by turning politics into reality television. It's a common trope. Pundits like Keith Olbermann decried the rise of presidential "reality politics" in 2004, and barely a week goes by without a hot take on Donald Trump's reality television approach to campaigning.

Lost in the analysis is a simple reality - politics has always been entertainment. From Abraham Lincoln's campaign song to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon televised debate, Americans have been willing consumers of political entertainment. In Donald Trump, the trend is reaching its apotheosis.

He's simply doing it better than anyone else, on a scale never before attempted. And it works.

The Personal is Political

Donald Trump is no reality television novice. Over 14 seasons of NBC's The Apprentice, Trump gained a special appreciation for the power of human drama. In a fractured media landscape where competition for viewers is fierce, Trump and The Apprentice quickly found that viewers are far more interested in human conflict than the actual premise of a program.

Trump wasn't alone. Consumer interest in the twisting storylines and alliances of competitors is a large reason why Gordon Ramsay vehicles Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares minimized the primacy of food in favor of the conflicts between participants. Conflict sells.

It's unsurprising, then, that Trump has unapologetically pursued politics as a human drama at the expense of any coherent discussion of issues. He's seen enough to know that, given the choice, American audiences will choose the human storyline over droll Supreme Court nominating procedures every time.

By changing the landscape of politics to purely reflect these dramatic arcs, Trump succeeded in forcing his opponents to play their game on unfamiliar turf. There are things you just don't do in politics. With Trump's rollicking victory on a reality television playbook, candidates may be reconsidering the core customs and agreements of modern politics.

But how did he do it?

Pilot Episode: Iowa

What can you remember about Survivor: Pearl Islands? Specifics fade, but standout human conflicts remain - like Jonny Fairplay's famous "dead grandmother" con. What about The Apprentice, besides lovable goofball Gary Busey, or made-for-television villain Omarosa?

Apply the alliances, heroes and villains of reality television to politics and you have the 2016 Republican Primary.

Trump defined his opponents in ways relatable to a television audience raised on weekly soap opera. That's no insight. It's what happened beyond just defining characters that matters for Trump - the creation of storylines more interesting than issues, in which Trump's opponents became contestants and Trump seized the position of center stage host.

Trump's strategy came into its own in the weeks before Iowa's Republican Caucus. With Dr. Ben Carson gaining steam and a "low energy" label already tacked to Jeb Bush, Trump attempted to build a conflict storyline that positioned Carson as a ticking emotional time bomb. Trump focused on Carson's younger years, calling the candidate "pathological" and comparing him to a child molester.

Yet in this first experiment, Trump stumbled over another reality television trope: audiences like to decide whether a character is believable in a role. The aloof and affable Carson never fit easily into a "villain" model. Gallup reported in November 2015 that Carson was perhaps the best-liked candidate in the field. Carson's refusal to respond to Trump's attacks made the Trump campaign seem like bullies - not the role Trump aimed to play.

But electoral confusion in Iowa offered Trump an opportunity to both recast his storyline with Carson while defining a new and more believable "villain": Ted Cruz.

After Cruz's Iowa victory, Trump rallied alongside Carson in claiming Cruz used campaign trickery to "steal" a victory from the Carson campaign. Under the new alliance, Trump drafted on Carson's favorability by amplifying attacks on "Lyin' Ted" Cruz. The media ate up the new conflict, largely due to a willingness from the public to believe in Ted Cruz as a reliable weekly villain.

Trump's ability to detect the brand value of a candidate and either amplify or minimize it explains his decision to largely avoid heavy attacks on candidates unlikely to drive a believable narrative. John Kasich, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee all avoided primetime roles on the Trump Show because Trump (and the public) didn't see them as interesting personalities.

With media coverage increasingly resembling after-show chat programs like Talking Dead, Trump found himself in familiar territory. As head writer and star, Trump toured media outlets to provide commentary on a reality campaign of his own creation. Trump didn't just beat his opponents. He became more of an expert on the twists and arcs of their storylines than they were.

What It Means

Trump's strength isn't just his ability to create and shift narratives of conflict and alliance, but in his skill at keeping voter eyes and ears on the stage show at the expense of issues. Witness the media frenzy over the rise and fall of #NeverTrump, dominating weekly media cycles as Hillary Clinton becomes a secondary story in her own campaign.

It requires a conscious choice by the media to ignore a compelling reality television show. But in a cycle where media moguls like CBS Chairman Les Moonves openly tout Trump's value to their ratings and revenue, that choice is anything but straightforward.

The question we're left with isn't one of whether reality television has taken over politics. It's whether we have the discipline to look away as the Trump Show gets a full season order.