Reality Trumped: RNC TV

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RNC in Cleveland
The RNC convention sign eagerly awaits its balloon drop.

Well, that was terrifying.

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The Republican National Convention wrapped up last night by finally delivering some of the promised spectacle. Trump’s fear-mongering speech was a bid for demagoguery that has brought the attention of the media back to his candidacy. But for most of the three days leading up to it, the story was the incompetence of his campaign and its inability to craft a compelling political or television event.

Compelling TV wasn’t crafted.

There was speculation that this convention would be a rule-breaker, both in content and form. The #NeverTrump movement and possible political protests suggested there might be chaos and dissension both inside and outside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. Combined with Trump’s reality television lineage and his boasting of a “showbiz” convention, the RNC promised a must-watch event for television viewers.

If anyone truly believed that after all of the Trump campaign’s bungling they would put together a well-produced, star-studded show, that expectation collapsed last week once the list of speakers leaked and the Pence announcement became an ill-managed farce. By Monday afternoon, when the #NeverTrump movement died a pitiful death well before most channels started airing convention footage, it was hard to say what kind of show viewers could look forward to.

I watched all four nights of coverage on C-SPAN, which aired the convention sans commentary, while occasionally flipping to CNN and network coverage to gauge the spin and responses being generated. I would describe the experience as baffling, with plenty of moments of soul-horror. (The multitude of lies told by Trump and the other RNC speakers have been ably cataloged elsewhere.) I suspect the only thing many viewers learned was how to correctly use the word “inchoate,” necessary to describe the barely tamped-down rage evident in speaker after speaker.

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But as someone who writes about television, the RNC offered up plenty of moments to reflect on what the genre of reality television has meant to Trump’s candidacy and why it helped him win the primary yet failed to produce an “amazing” convention. This suggests that Trump may have more trouble in store for the rest of his campaign.

This man played the villain on the 2015-16 season of Who Wants to be President?
This man played the stock villain on the 2015-16 season of Who Wants to be President? Photo: Mike Licht/Flickr.

Reality television and its role in Trump’s campaign has been part of the conversation from the moment Trump announced he would run. In an article last August, Vox.com’s Todd VanDerWerff pointed out how much Trump’s reality television experience was fueling his primary strategy and compared him to the first season winner of Survivor, Richard Hatch. Hatch set the template for all future reality-show villainy and introduced the concept of alliances (and betraying them) to audiences just discovering these competition shows. VanDerWerff pointed out that Trump’s lack of shame, his unflappability, and his willingness to see rules as mere suggestions to be subverted were all tricks he had learned as The Apprentice star. They’re all key components of his appeal to audiences and his ability to put competitors off their game.

If the primary season was tailor made to Trump’s strengths as a reality television villain, with a field of opponents to outmaneuver as they competed in the same weekly challenges, the convention showed the limits of that talent once he had finally won the nomination.

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While reality television is sold as a series of dramatic moments, it’s real appeal lies in the steady hum of predictability, occasionally challenged by contestants who subvert the rules. However, reality television rarely descends into chaos. The villain is as much a stock character as any other reality-show archetype, necessary to fuel tension between characters but unlikely to upend the entire format of the show. The pettiness of the drama is part of the appeal because things can always return to harmony.

The RNC’s intent was to make Trump the hero.

If the RNC nailed the boring, filler bits of reality television, it failed to create the character-driven conflicts that provide its moments of drama. In last night’s speech introducing her father, Ivanka Trump said that he had, “prevailed against a field of 16 talented competitors.” This is a bizarre way to refer to politicians in a primary but a pretty standard way to talk about reality show contestants. The point of the convention’s story arc, then, was to unite those competitors and bring the Republican party together behind one candidate. Its intent was to turn Donald Trump from villain into hero.

But in trying to do this, Trump surrendered his particular appeal. He barely appeared in person, ceding the stage to other speakers, who parroted his talking points and sound bites, creating a sea of indistinguishable mini-villains with no one at the convention to rail against. Those speakers attempted to redirect the role of villain onto Hillary Clinton, leaving Trump without his customary role to play. This made for static television, an unchallenged status quo, and hours of speakers but none of the showmanship and purported rule-flouting that have marked Trump’s public appearances. Trump is now the party candidate, a narrative he is uniquely unqualified to perform credibly.

It isn’t surprising then, that until Trump finally took the stage, the most talked-about moments were unplanned by the Trump campaign. If the terrible production values (bad lighting, odd backgrounds) hadn’t tipped off viewers to the careless way the convention was assembled, the failure to check Melania Trump’s Monday night speech for plagiarism (and rickrolls) clinched it. The campaign’s terrible handling of that gaffe dominated the news until Senator Ted Cruz took the stage.

Cruz correctly identified Trump not as the rule-breaker at the convention but the new rule-maker and set out to do some subverting of his own. His unwillingness to endorse Trump, even while appearing at the convention that anointed him, was petty, childish, and unlikely to really change anything. It’s the perfect move of a reality-show villain, one that Trump might have executed a year ago. It was also a sign that candidates have probably not learned their last lesson from the maneuverings of reality-show contestants.

You need a break. I need a break. See below for recommendations that aren’t about the convention.

Liz’s List: What to Watch/Follow/Listen To/Read

  • Watch people be nice to each other on a reality competition show by tuning into The Great British Baking Show.
  • Follow Not A Wolf, who is definitely not a wolf.
  • Listen to comedy podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno, a about a guy whose dad definitely wrote a porno.
  • Read Sarah Laskow’s account of watching The Little Mermaid alongside an expert on shipwrecks.