The Problem With Calling Trump a 'Reality-TV President'

Despite comparisons to Kim Kardashian, the former Apprentice host has long had little in common with most stars of the genre.

Cutouts of Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian inside a TV screen
Suzanne Tucker / Tinseltown / Shutterstock / Joshua Roberts / Reuters / The Atlantic

On New Year’s Eve, in a much-maligned assessment of Donald Trump’s first year in office, The New York Times declared that the president had brought a “reality-show accessibility” to the office. Trump was a maverick who—whatever you thought of him—bucked the status quo, the writer Peter Baker argued. The ensuing backlash to the story centered on the Times’ unwillingness to make a value judgment on Trump’s behavior. Few critiques, though, mentioned the detail that was most jarring to me: The piece marked, as far as I can tell, the first high-profile occasion when reality-show was used as a potentially positive reference point for Trump.

Mentioning Trump’s roots in the genre with a sneer, or as an attack, has become so ubiquitous that the label has been all but robbed of any real meaning. Last year, NPR ran a pointed interview with reality-TV producers in an attempt to explain Trump’s appeal. In a 2017 essay for the Times, Jennifer Weiner wrote that she could no longer watch The Bachelor in good conscience now that the distorted morality of reality TV had taken over the world’s most powerful office. And then there are the constant Twitter snipes of, essentially: Why not just have Kim Kardashian be president? The man and the genre that helped make him famous have come to define one another in ways that flatter neither.

This has been irritating for me to observe as a fan of many reality-TV performers, including Kardashian, and as someone who has spent three years researching and writing a book about the genre. After all, reality TV was used as a stand-in for everything bad in humanity—superficiality, cruelty, dishonesty, and greed—long before this presidency. Yes, these qualities are part of the appeal of the genre. And yes, there are connections between reality TV and Trump’s values and behavior: Take his obsession with ratings as a barometer of success, his love of pageantry, and his consistent muddying of the line between rumor and fact. But such comparisons tend to elide important nuances about the connection between the genre and Trump’s approach to the presidency.

Perhaps the biggest distinction that people ignore: The very specific path Trump took to reality stardom required of him little of the accessibility that is demanded of other celebrities in the genre. At its core, what makes reality TV compelling is the tension between opportunism and risk, the simmering question of what somebody will be willing to offer in the way of personal pain or embarrassment for the chance to gain something new—more money, more screen time, a prize. NBC’s The Apprentice franchise utilized this formula to incredible success, with Trump serving as the face of the original show, and then The Celebrity Apprentice, for a collective 14 seasons.

But the emotional crescendo of each episode, which involved offering up intimacy and vulnerability to hook the viewer, was provided by everyone on the show but Trump. His boardroom didn’t change, the general tone of his dialogue didn’t change. Even his outfit, the boxy, dark suit and power tie that ended up carrying over into the presidency, was static. Trump mostly existed to prod the true performers—from previously unknown hopefuls like Omarosa Manigault, to fading celebrities seeking to retain relevance like Cyndi Lauper—toward shame, rage, and loss. And though Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, claims that his boss “revolutionized” the genre, the president was really just plugged into one of the most common archetypes of its early boom: the judge.

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The televised judge is a very specific character; in some ways, this figure represents the opposite of everything commonly associated with a reality star. The judge’s role most closely resembles that of the viewer, or at least the most empowered version of how viewers are invited to see themselves. Many reality-TV fans have experienced the rush of identification with a particularly withering Tom Colicchio assessment on Top Chef, or a feral satisfaction when Simon Cowell would tell extra-sincere auditionees that their lifelong dreams are misplaced. These scenes help build a world of risk, shame, and constant criticism imposed by the judge, typically the only character within this sphere who is safe.

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.

Kim, the Housewives, MTV’s Teen Moms, the polygamist family from TLC’s Sister Wives, and many more, have accumulated money or fame (to varying degrees), but they’ve had to withstand the pressures of access to do so. Kardashian’s choices are dissected, her most extreme emotions broadcast for ridicule, her body fodder for public debate. Her role in her show, in her whole empire, is largely to be seen and judged. As Jia Tolentino argued in The New Yorker, Kardashian often embodies an “essential burden of womanhood”—expected to supply access to all of herself and her life, then shamed for doing so.

Which underscores what has been, for me, the most revelatory aspect of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, and the conversation it sparked: Here was Trump being made to face the full brunt of reality-TV access. For all the book’s political accusations, there’s a lot more depicting Trump as increasingly unhinged or pathetic. There’s the anecdote that he and his wife Melania don’t share a bed, and the speculation about the state of his sex life. There’s an image in the book of him eating cheeseburgers alone in bed that offers readers the chance to judge both his loneliness and his weight—not unlike what happens to reality stars.

Fire and Fury was just one convenient occasion around which to organize the glee some derive from referring to the president in a tone that resembles Real Housewives–esque gossip. When Trump fired Rex Tillerson, it brought up the chance for observers to speculate that he did so because Tillerson once reportedly called him “a fucking moron.” And just a couple of months ago, there was a widely circulated photo of Trump’s hair caught in an unflattering breeze, which led to a slew of internet jokes; Vogue pointed out that the attention must have stung Trump, since he remained uncharacteristically silent on the subject. And, more recently, who could forget Stormy Daniels’s claims of Trump asking to be spanked with a Forbes issue that bore his face on the cover?

The personal shaming has been mounting for more than a year now. Consider Trump defending his own mental capacity, providing any critic with the evergreen taunt of “stable genius.” And during the 2016 campaign, Trump interrupted a debate to defend the size of his hands—a topic that had bizarrely come into the spotlight at the time.

The moments that seem to have rattled Trump the most have come when he’s had to face the same nasty rumors and embarrassments that those working for him, or in his orbit, are subject to. Certainly, becoming president has given Trump enormous power. But by assuming the office, he has also entered into an implicit contract similar to that of someone seeking fame through reality TV: The world has the right to pay attention to whatever they want about you, and you relinquish control over that narrative.

I’m not arguing that analyzing the pageantry is more important than seriously evaluating how Trump does his job. And I’m not celebrating the vicious, and often sexist, scrutiny that stars like Kim Kardashian must endure. What I’m saying is that, if people are going to keep calling Donald Trump a “reality-TV president,” they should understand how incomplete that definition has been. For years, he wasn’t expected to provide vulnerability, nor did he seem prepared to do so as he embarked on this new phase in his career. But as Trump seeks to guard and maintain his image, the camera and the tabloid whisperers are always lurking now, eager to supply the same judgment he once dished out onscreen.