Last August, at a time that already seems far distant, I expressed in Chronicle 493 what might be called a bemused interest in the fact that the two most prominent figures then in the news, the newly declared Republican candidate Donald Trump, and the new “trans woman” Caitlin Jenner, were both reality TV stars.
Today, Jenner is still doing his/her thing, but Trump has acceded to a far higher level of prominence. Like everyone else, I have been trying to understand the reasons for his unexpected success, and like most Republicans, reconciling myself to the idea of supporting him in the election in preference to the intelligent and far better prepared but unethical and to my mind ideologically disastrous Hillary Clinton.
More recently, in Chronicles 508 and 509, I noted not without misgivings that Trump’s lack of what I will simply call gravitas appears to be the price we must pay for opposition to, and above all, immunity from, the chief destructive ideological force of our time, victimary thinking or “PC,” empowered under the Obama administration in an increasingly virulent victimocracy.
But a more consequent interpretation is possible of Trump’s preparation for the presidency. It might seem odd that in choosing a candidate for president the Republican Party has no alternative to a reality TV star, as though his association with this activity somehow uniquely qualified him to stand up to the victimocracy. But perhaps we should be less surprised. What if the essential role of reality TV in popular culture were to serve, albeit neither altogether deliberately nor consciously, as a mode of resistance to victimary thinking and the burgeoning victimocracy? What if the extraordinary popularity of these shows reflected a popular need, if not for a frontal assault on PC, then for a cultural space that is free of it and resists its intrusion?
It is no surprise that Trump’s catch phrase on The Apprentice was “You’re fired!” This is a very banal expression; it could only have become memorable for the charge it bore of unapologetic rejection, less sadistic than authoritarian. But “sacrificial” exclusion has been an essential feature of reality TV from the beginning. Outside of sports contests and quiz shows, of which it is often a kind of hybrid, reality TV is the only place where contestants are evaluated comparatively, but in contrast to strictly rule-based competitions, these evaluations are wholly dependent on the judgment sans appel of one or more individuals.
Let us recall the point we are trying to make about Trump; that he is the first political candidate defined less by his opposition than by his immunity to the victimocracy. “Well bred” politicians like Jeb Bush are ill suited to such a role because it risks defying the rules of polite conversation that have increasingly invaded the political process. The universe of victimary thinking is one in which comparative evaluations of any kind are avoided as much as possible; even the losers get a trophy, if indeed anyone keeps score. In contrast, reality TV offers its viewers the unabashed vicarious pleasure of participating in repeated ceremonies of exclusion in which the final winner is not so much the victor as the last person standing. The whole point of Survivor is to successively expel people from the “tribe” or tribes in contention until only the survivor remains. The sacrificial effect must have been all the more sensible in The Apprentice where a single individual was responsible for the fatal “You’re fired!”
“PC” suggests political orthodoxy, but it is more useful to understand its root basis in ethical terms, which alone can explain its power even in conservative circles. The fundamental ethical posture of PC is the fiction that, as in the originary event, all humanity is present at every conversation, so that any utterance that can be suspected of predicating something unfavorable, whether factual or not, of a category of people, particularly an ascriptive category, is to be avoided out of consideration for that group’s claim on universal human status. If all political discussion be considered the equivalent of such a universal conversation, then any reference to disparities in competence, however “objective,” violates the moral model in which all humans participate symmetrically, as in the originary event, in the exchange of signs. Any suggestion of unequal competence is not merely impolite but immoral, the equivalent of denying someone the vote because he or she is less intelligent or well-educated than others. The enforcement of originary equality, on the back burner throughout the long history of hierarchical society, although affirmed in principle by Christian doctrine, was brought to the fore in reaction to the racialism of the Axis in WWII and particularly to the Holocaust. We should not forget that the expansion of the political/voting class in Western countries to include Jews, the members of nonwhite races, persons without property, and finally, women, took place over several generations and ended in most places less than a century ago.
The hard-nosed style of competitive reality TV seems designed to remind us that in the “real world,” hard choices are necessary, and that the politeness that treats all as equal participants in the conversation must give way to expulsions based, presumably, on merit, but on merit as judged by one’s fellows, not guaranteed by impersonal facts. And in this world dominated by sacrificial gestures, Donald Trump’s “You’re fired!” is the ultimate archetype.
Reality TV is not of course limited to elimination contests. Many of its most popular shows are relatively plotless “slices of life” whose protagonists range from billionaires and celebrities-for-being-famous such as the Kardashians to those, such as the infamous “Honey Boo Boo,” to whom the audience is clearly meant to enjoy a sense of superiority. Yet the most popular of these, Duck Dynasty, seems meant to inspire neither envy nor a sense of superiority, but curiosity at the continued vitality of a rural lifestyle inconceivable to city dwellers. Significantly, in 2013-14, the Dynasty’s leading member, Phil Robertson, was able to weather a controversy over some statements about homosexuals and blacks that, uttered in the context of the universal “conversation,” would have been found inexcusably offensive. It seems clear that Robertson was dealt with leniently because in his reality TV role, he had in effect been given tacit permission to engage in a “conversation” of his own. This suggests that we should understand reality TV shows in general—whether the specific protagonists be singers seeking first prize in American Idol, trashy celebrities, competitors for makeovers of their houses or themselves, adventurers living off the jungle, or women seeking to become the bride of a millionaire—as grounded each in their own extra-universal, private world—in a word, in a community.
I think the example of Robertson, whose condemnation of those who “won’t inherit the kingdom of God”—”the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers”—went at least as far as any insults we will hear from Donald Trump, helps us to understand the latter’s anti-PC appeal. The point is not that the “majority” made up of “privileged” white males and their dutifully submissive spouses approve of such judgments, but that in the face of the legal and political power now exercised by these formerly stigmatized groups, those for whom this rhetoric is no longer conceivable appreciate that someone has the freedom to say such things. No doubt some of Trump’s antics have been simply inexcusable: miming a disabled man, speaking contemptuously of John McCain’s bravery in captivity. But these are offhand gestures fundamentally without consequence, whereas the stigmas of the victimocracy often inflict serious damage. The spectators of Duck Dynasty understand Robertson’s biblical slur against homosexuals less as an expression of personal intolerance than as the reaction of an old-fashioned Christian to the power-plays of gay activists and their allies who would force Christian bakers to personalize their wedding cakes or ban Chick-Fil-A from one’s city.
I am sure that those more familiar than I with reality TV would be able to cite many other relevant examples. But my impression is that however great its variety, and the category includes hundreds of different programs in a dozen genres, the one thing they all have in common is the absence of, and at least tacit resistance to, victimary thinking. Was Bruce Jenner’s “conversion” a counter-example? On the contrary, I rather wonder whether the no-holds-barred reality-TV ambience did not add to the process an authenticity that the victimary world of standard TV, however great its sympathy, could not have supplied.
Thus for Donald Trump, irony of ironies, The Apprentice was in fact his apprenticeship for the presidency of the United States, one at the antipodes of the current president’s—and all his rivals’—academic and political preparation for higher office. If only in the interest of restoring some degree of equilibrium to American politics before it passes the point of no return, I think that in the current juncture, these two modes of apprenticeship—the “real world” and the increasingly unreal world of the academy—should be at the very least considered on an equal footing.
At the opening of the nomination campaign, the Republican Party could have had no idea of how well in the current climate Trump’s prior experience prepared him for the nomination, and more generally, to what extent reality TV is, in contrast with political life in the victimocracy, a reservoir of traditional American values. I write this with as much misgiving as my earlier remarks about Trump, whose candidacy the Republican electorate has now validated. But although it may be a shame that we need someone this lacking in refinement as our bulwark against victimary thinking, I am willing to learn from the electorate’s decision. After nearly eight years of the Obama administration, such a bulwark is clearly the nation’s most urgent need.