How Reality TV Explains Trump’s “Authenticity”

For an episode of his TV series Nathan for You, comedian Nathan Fielder produced a fake video called “Pig rescues baby goat” in which a pig swims into a creek to free a baby goat that appears stuck in the water. A ploy in one of the mock marketing campaigns Fielder produces for real small businesses on the show, the video was meant to produce a celebrity—the pig—to promote a petting zoo. The video went viral and was featured as authentic by several TV shows, including Good Morning America, where one host was mocked by the others for asking questions about the video.

This election, Republican voters drafted their own pig to rescue the baby goat that is our supposedly flailing republic. Donald Trump’s campaign can seem like a TV show that has bled into the real world. Like reality TV, it manufactures conflict, abjures subtlety, and celebrates ostentation. But the significance of Trump’s reality TV background goes beyond the daily degradations he inflicts on our democracy. The key to his success is an ability to import into politics a concept of authenticity that comes straight from reality TV and new media.

Nathan For You is part of an evolution in reality TV. Where shows like Survivor brought “real people” into manufactured environments and delighted in the half-fact, half-fiction drama that resulted, shows like Fielder’s bring manufactured people and events into the real world, often incorporating internet media and hovering in the infinite shades of gray that now exist between the virtual and the real. It doesn’t offer a genuine product in the place of TV, of course—just one more honest about being fake.

Trump’s campaign does something similar. Time and again, when asked, “Why Trump?” his supporters appeal to his authenticity. He tells it like it is. But what can this mean? The man lies incessantly—about himself, his opponents, the country—postures endlessly, and makes incoherent, impossible promises that well surpass the campaign bluster we’ve come to expect.

Clearly, the authenticity people see is not integrity, honesty, or even genuineness. It is essentially a double negative. Whatever Trump is, he is not the inauthentic, politically correct, TV-ready career politician. He is unscripted, unpolished, uncensored, and willing to draw attention to the machinery behind politics. In a cultural environment that fetishizes behind-the-scenes exposure, Trump has perpetrated a hoax like Fielder’s, in which superficial markers of authenticity—inarticulateness, irreverence, vulgarity—seem to cut through TV’s phoniness and offer viewers a less mediated representation of reality.

Reality TV doesn’t seduce viewers by convincing them that what they’re watching is real, but rather by not concealing its fakeness. The more absurd and trashy the content, the easier it is for viewers to watch with consciousness of both the image and the camera, debating what’s scripted and what isn’t. It is successful because it releases the viewer from the limiting, and therefore potentially manipulative, character of traditional television. Trump’s campaign revels in the same double consciousness and the same cheap feeling of discernment that results. His constant appeals to ratings, polling, and media coverage make viewers feel as if they’re behind the scenes. Like a bad postmodern novel, the campaign creates the illusion of depth by showing you how it’s doing what it’s doing while it’s doing it. You might not even notice that that’s pretty much all it does.

The peculiar ambivalence of many of his supporters is a product of this double consciousness. They are capable of saying at one moment that they don’t really believe he’ll try to ban Muslims or build a wall—that’s just “political marketing”—and, at the next, that he tells it like it is. They see him as being at once in the political world, and therefore obligated at points to lie, and outside it. His ambiguous backtracking encourages this view: he can have it both ways since he appears to know he’s playing a fake—or “rigged”—game. Every untruth can be spun as a shrewd concession to that game, every outrageous comment walked back to make the media’s reaction to it look like bias or oversensitivity.

Like a commercial that draws attention to the fact that it’s a commercial in an effort to make you forget it’s a commercial, Trump’s constant references to his own campaign seem to make supporters forget that these references are themselves part of a campaign. This is symptomatic of a culture so awash in virtuality that self-awareness has become a stand-in for authenticity.

It doesn’t matter what position Trump takes on any particular issue as long as he can convey the feeling that reality is being concealed.

Combining this logic with the right’s age-old gripe about liberal bias and the far right’s penchant for conspiracy theory, Trump has used the tools of reality TV to dramatize the idea that the media are lying to us. It doesn’t matter what position he takes on any particular issue—if he even bothers to take one—as long as he can convey the feeling that reality is being concealed. More important than the idea that a wall is going up is the feeling that a curtain is being pulled back.

Here’s an example. At a rally in Biloxi last January, Trump berated the cameraman shooting his speech for refusing to pan the camera to show the whole crowd. The media didn’t want him to, Trump’s logic went, because they didn’t want you to see how popular his rallies were. He did this at rally after rally. What he didn’t mention in Biloxi was that a cameraman at a Michigan rally had already panned and given a grateful crowd its well-earned screen time.

In these diatribes, Trump’s narrative sense is uncanny. The unfairness dawns on him only gradually. After a long rally packed to the gills, with thousands of fans outside clambering to get in, he goes home to his wife. “Darling, the speech was excellent,” Melania says. “Did you have many people there?” Trump is shocked. Was it not obvious that there were thousands of adoring fans? No, she tells him, the cameras stayed on your face the whole time. Well that’s not so bad, I do have a nice face—but, hey, why not show the crowd? Surely, it can’t be a media conspiracy; “maybe there’s something with the crazy computers.” They’re too complicated. (Incidentally, everything used to be much better.) But wait—when there are protestors, the camera pans right away. What’s going on here? They must not want anyone to know. They hate me. They’re trying to manipulate you. Dishonest. Dishonest.

The story is effective for a few reasons. First, Trump gives us a concrete image of the deceived viewer. His wife has assumed that the representation she gets on TV is pretty much the way things are. Second, Trump puts himself in the role of redeemer. After a period of patient skepticism that would do any reluctant conspiracy theorist proud, he uncovers the truth about the media for himself and his public. By referring ad nauseam to the apparatus through which viewers are watching the rally and suggesting they’re not getting the whole picture, Trump opens up a secret world of intrigue and gives them the hope of transcending it. He is Morpheus offering Neo the red pill.

When Trump breaks the fourth wall in these rants, it is no ordinary break, where the politician looks straight into the camera and speaks directly to the viewer at home. Trump, instead, surmounts the fourth wall, speaking not to the camera but past it, to the man operating it—a man apparently shackled by vast and nameless political interests. In the face of media bias, Trump speaks not to the viewers at home but on their behalf; he doesn’t just stand up to the media, he stands above it, offering the promise of an unmediated experience. This idea is reinforced on Trump’s Twitter feed, where he communicates “directly” with his supporters, links to conspiracy-mongering websites, and affects to help them express themselves by retweeting them. As he intoned to his supporters at the convention, “I am your voice.”

Trump has used a cultural environment that values exposure, disruption, and irreverence to make the charge that media coverage of the campaign is largely fictional.

Trump was right, in a way, when he called out the pundits, who can’t “figure [him] out.” When they turn to their accustomed tools to expose Trump’s lies, they find them blunted. This is partly because they appear on a medium that seems to have been debased and discredited. When the media fact-check Trump, they look like pedants poking holes in an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

This is dangerous because, even if it doesn’t always live up to them, traditional media coverage does at least recognize ideals of fair reporting and reasoned argument. But by dressing rational discourse in the garb of advertisement and amusement, TV news, in particular, has made itself vulnerable to the charge of manipulation. Because it comes in the same packaging as entertainment—dramatic music, tacky sets, fabricated conflict, transparently partisan “personalities”—it becomes easy to see the content itself as fiction.

Trump has used a cultural environment that values exposure, disruption, and irreverence to make the charge that media coverage of the campaign is largely fictional. It has been an alarmingly successful political strategy—though, thankfully, only to a point. In the process, he has shown the extent to which our politics has already been subsumed by a culture so obsessed with pulling back the curtain that it doesn’t seem to care what’s behind it.

Alexander Stern

Alexander Stern is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.