Robert, the quintessential Middle American, slides onto his scratched-up leather couch. The sound of a potato chip crunches beneath his body weight as he adjusts his position to reach for the plastic remote. His hands quiver ever so slightly as he grasps it and pushes the rubber power button forward. His television remains mostly dark. Something is wrong. Robert darts into action as his index finger reaches for the “increase brightness” button. There is no effect. Anxiety starts to set in. His grasp tightens around the remote as he begins pressing buttons in a mad dash to reconfigure the menu, searching for what could be wrong. Can Robert afford to miss tonight’s show? Robert sits quietly, thinking, looking at the television menu with options like contrast, picture mode, sharpness, hue, and backlight. Suddenly, he hears clapping.
In the middle of his screen, a spotlight glares bright yellow, and a well-dressed man walks on. Robert rapidly exits out of the menu and sinks deeper into the couch, and the program is full screen yet again. There’s the man he voted for. The president, a handsome blond with a perfect jawline, booms, “On today’s show, we’ll be Jeopardizing our foreign commitments. Afterwards, we’ll tax the Wheel Of Fortune. Finally, after Hurricane Melania, we’ll fix up the Jersey Shore.”
That should send a shudder through at least some readers’ minds. Why? The threat of reality television defiling America’s most cherished blood sport is almost palpable. They wouldn’t be alone in feeling this way. In fact, many reporters used “reality show president” as a pejorative term to dismiss Donald Trump.
This should strike people as odd. Reality television is a mainstay in American culture. Studies show Americans spend one-third of their free time watching TV shows, 67 percent of which are reality TV programs. If reality television is so abnormal and grotesque, why is it more American than apple pie (which is English by the way)? Considering how much the average American watches it, dismissing reality television as pedestrian or distasteful seems odd.
Yet, we continue to express mockery and disdain for reality television. This “trashy” form of entertainment has been argued to destroy societal values and corrupt the minds of the audience. Is it truly traumatic that our nation loves Kendall Jenner and Snooki, or is there a deeper issue unveiled by thinking about how the media and other institutions interact with the average American’s tastes? It’s not just reality television that gets a bad rap. Other popular forms of entertainment like NASCAR, guns, SUVS, wrestling, and the movie “Suicide Squad” are similarly condemned.
Perhaps the resentment has less to do with the specific activity; after all, reality shows don’t all have the same premise. Instead, hating reality shows could be a conspicuous way to signify social class. Although discussions often center around economic class, social class also plays a big role in America. In the brilliant piece titled “The Real Problem at Yale Is Not Free Speech,” Natalia Dashan uncannily hits the nail on the head: “Before, to signal you were in the fashionable and powerful crowd, you would show off your country-club membership, refined manners or Gucci handbags. Now, you show how woke you are.”
Many people in college, especially the politically active, do come from high socioeconomic status backgrounds. Various cultural attitudes, like how one thinks about reading, the type of food one likes and one’s attitude towards patriotism, seem to stratify around class. That doesn’t necessarily mean all political beliefs are a result of one’s social class and background, but it isn’t a crazy hypothesis. Things get bizarre when you start thinking about other ways that upper-class people distinguish themselves from those lower on the totem pole. Notice how the list of “grammatical pet peeves” is a suspiciously good match of the differences between middle- and upper-class dialects. The upshot to this is the revulsion towards reality television probably has more to do with disdain for lower classes than a complete mortification about Kim Kardashian.
So, why could a reality show president be a good thing? For one, America already yearns for salacious, scandalous details about politicians. Perhaps we would be better off knowing this out of the gate rather than at the last minute. If the media covers scandals early in a politician’s career, perhaps it could help the public to better focus on their important political issues later on. By fulfilling the American impulse to gossip and leer, other aspects of the political process can become less antagonistic and show-focused. Each presidential “season” can have a theme, which could culminate in some especially entertaining finales.
Streamlining the outrage into a very specific part of government may allow for more overall interest in and consideration for the political process. A reality show president would allow for different levels and ways of engaging with politics. People want to feel included in the decision-making process but are often disinterested in how the sausage is made. Each of the thousand ceremonies that C-SPAN records costs time and money. However, under a reality show president, a pay-per-view Easter at the White House would become a valuable asset to reduce taxes or pay for important social programs.
As time has gone on, the public’s relationship with the media has changed. We’ve gone from the printing press to papers to radio to televised debates to the Internet. Politicians have largely kept up with the times, utilizing new ways of communicating with the public. Jefferson was a notorious pamphleteer. Roosevelt used radio to soothe our souls with fireside chats. Perhaps, it is time we should welcome the era of the reality TV president.