A lot of popular reality TV is seen as “feminized,” as the media critic Brenda Weber explained to me. Much of her analysis of the genre (along with the work of other scholars like Misha Kavka, Helen Wood, and Beverley Skeggs) focuses on how gender expectations shape the structure and reception of these shows, which generally appeal to and star women. Within the framework of reality-TV tropes, though, it’s important to note that judges—and particularly the judges who have made a career off their charismatic harshness—are often men. The Cowells and Gordon Ramsays of the world, who serve as the ideal examples or arbiters of a certain skill set, then berate would-be singers or chefs for failing to live up to their standards. Judges are the voice of authority, stoking and then building a brand off the narrative of other people’s desperation. They don’t have to plea or cry or fight; they’re removed from the responsibility of needing anything, from the messiness of humanity that typifies the genre as a whole.
As Emily Nussbaum detailed in The New Yorker, it’s not hard to see how Trump’s Apprentice persona helped to frame him as presidential at first for some. She quoted an NBC executive saying the show made Trump “a hero,” a savvy, storm-weathering money-maker who, Nussbaum pointed out, is never criticized. The University at Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel even studied the specific, positive ways that voters related to Trump as a result of having watched his role on The Apprentice. I’d buy the argument that there’s a partial explanation of Trumpism to be found in the idea that, if people have enjoyed watching Bret Michaels beg for mercy on Celebrity Apprentice 3, then it’s not so far a leap to see Trump as the man (with the same red tie!) capable of making out-of-touch politicians do the begging.
Plenty of commenters have noted that CNN’s White House coverage has often felt like a contest show over the past year. Whether it’s Sean Spicer or Steve Bannon or Reince Priebus or the Apprentice alum Omarosa on the chopping block, many viewers have been caught up in the gross pleasure of watching and wondering what these people will do to stay in Trump’s good graces and therefore onscreen. And why not? Trump has presided over this kind of “show” before.
But this is why speaking in blanket statements about this reality-TV presidency is limiting and unproductive. Trump may well be trying to run his administration like a very particular kind of program, but increasingly the show seems to be shifting out of his control. What’s being revealed is how ill-equipped Trump is to deal with the burdens of not just the job of president, but also that of a reality-TV star.
When people broadly reference “reality shows,” they’re often talking about the subgenre of “docu-soap,” where the biggest stars are found: programs like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Real Housewives that can follow people’s personal dramas year after year. These stars, usually women, aren’t typically positioned to judge anyone else’s performance; instead the spectacle of their lives is the show—an ever-present risk, a permanent audition. What makes Kim Kardashian, the ultimate docu-soap star, so gifted is her constant negotiation of power and vulnerability. She is a producer on her own show (like Trump was on The Apprentice), and has used it to her great material advantage; but she seems to know that the show depends on her appearing open and flawed on screen for her viewers. Even if you don’t want to call this ability a gift, you can call it calculated fortitude—a kind of fortitude that Trump, as a judge, or judge-host combo, wasn’t required to possess on TV.