By Naomi Klein, from No Is Not Enough, which was published in June by Haymarket Books. Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine, among other books.
The colonization of network television by reality TV at the turn of the millennium happened at a speed that few could have predicted. In very short order, North Americans went from deriving entertainment from scripted shows with the same characters and dramas week after week, season after season, to watching seemingly unscripted shows on which the drama came from people’s willingness to eject one another from whatever simulation of reality happened to be on display. Tens of millions were glued to their TVs as participants were voted off the island on Survivor, removed from the mansion on The Bachelor — and, eventually, fired by Donald Trump on The Apprentice.
The timing made sense. The first season of Survivor — so wildly successful that it spawned an army of imitators — was in 2000. That was two decades after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher kicked the “free-market revolution,” with its veneration of greed, individualism, and competition as the governing principles of society, into high gear. It became possible to peddle as mass entertainment the spectacle of people turning on one another for a pot of gold.
The whole genre — the alliances, the backstabbing, the one person left standing — was always a kind of capitalist burlesque. Before The Apprentice, however, there was at least the pretext that it was about something else: how to live in the wilderness, how to catch a husband, how to be a housemate. With Donald Trump’s arrival, the veneer was gone. The Apprentice was explicitly about the race to survive in the cutthroat jungle of late capitalism.
The first episode began with a shot of a homeless person sleeping on the street. Soon the camera cut to Trump in his limo, living the dream. The message was unmistakable: You can be the homeless guy, or you can be Trump. That was the sadistic drama of the show: Play your cards right and be the one lucky winner, or suffer the abject humiliation of being berated and then fired by the boss. It was quite a cultural feat. After decades of mass layoffs, declining living standards, and the normalization of extremely precarious employment, Trump and Mark Burnett, the producer, delivered the coup de grâce: They turned the act of firing people into mass entertainment.
Every week, to an audience of millions, The Apprentice delivered the central sales pitch of free-market theory, telling viewers that by unleashing their most selfish and ruthless side, they were actually being heroic, creating jobs and fueling growth. Don’t be nice, be a killer. That’s how you help the economy and, more importantly, yourself.
In later seasons, the underlying cruelty of the show grew even more perverse. The winning team lived in a luxurious mansion. They drank champagne in inflatable pool loungers, zipped off in limos to meet celebrities. The losing team was deported to tents in the back yard, nicknamed Trump Trailer Park.
The tent-dwellers, whom Trump gleefully deemed the have-nots, didn’t have electricity, ate off paper plates, and slept to the sounds of howling dogs. They could peek through a gap in the hedge to see what decadent wonders the haves were enjoying. Trump and Burnett, in other words, deliberately created a microcosm of the very real and ever-widening inequalities outside the show, the same injustices that have enraged many Trump voters — but they played those inequalities for kicks. On one show, Trump told the tent team that “life’s a bitch,” so they’d better do everything possible to step over the losers and become a winner like him.
In this particular piece of televised class warfare, which aired in 2007, the pretense sold to a previous generation — that capitalism was going to create the best of all possible worlds — was completely absent. No: This was a system that generated a few big winners and hordes of losers, so you’d better make damn sure you’re on the winning team.
It’s worth remembering that Trump’s breakthrough to national celebrity came not from a real estate sale but from a book about making real estate sales. The Art of the Deal, marketed as holding the secrets to fabulous wealth, was published in 1987, at the peak of the Reagan era. It was followed up over the years with crasser variations on the same theme: Think Big and Kick Ass, Trump 101, and How to Get Rich.
Trump first started selling the notion that he held the key to joining the One Percent at the precise moment when many of the ladders that provided social mobility — such as free, high-quality public education — were being kicked away, and just as the social safety net was being shredded. All this meant that the drive to magically strike it rich, to win big, to make it to that safe economic stratum, became increasingly frantic.
Trump, who was born wealthy, expertly profited off that desperation across many platforms, most infamously through Trump University. And then there were the casinos, a large chunk of Trump’s domestic real estate portfolio. The dream at the center of the casino economy is not so different from the dream for sale at Trump University or in How to Get Rich: You may be on the verge of personal bankruptcy today, but if you (literally) play your cards right, you could be living large by morning.
Trump built his brand by selling the promise that “you, too, could be Donald Trump” — at a time when life was becoming more precarious if you weren’t in the richest One Percent. He then turned around and used that very same pitch — that he would make America a country of winners again — on voters, exploiting their deep economic anxieties with the reality-simulation skills that he had picked up on TV. After decades of hawking how-to-get-rich manuals, Trump understood exactly how little substance needed to be behind the promise if the desperation was great enough.
Well before Trump’s rise, elections had already crossed over into ratings-driven infotainment. What Trump did was exponentially increase the entertainment factor, and therefore the ratings. As a veteran of the form, he understood that if elections had become a form of reality TV, then the best contestant (not the same thing as the best candidate) would win. Maybe they wouldn’t win the final vote, but they would at least win wall-to-wall coverage, which from a branding perspective is still winning. As Trump said when he was contemplating a presidential run in 2000 (he decided against it): “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.”
Since the election, we’ve heard a few mea culpas from media executives acknowledging that they abetted Trump’s victory by giving him such an outsized portion of their coverage. Yet the biggest gift to Trump was not just airtime but the entire infotainment model of election coverage, which plays up interpersonal dramas between the candidates while largely abandoning the traditional journalistic task of explaining how different candidates’ positions on issues such as health care and regulatory reform will play out in voters’ lives.
Trump didn’t create the problem — he exploited it. And because he understood the conventions of fake reality better than anyone, he took the game to a new level. He didn’t just bring the conventions of reality TV to electoral politics — he mashed them up with another blockbuster entertainment genre also based on cartoonishly fake performances of reality: professional wrestling.
It’s hard to overstate Trump’s fascination with wrestling. He has performed as himself (the ultrarich boss) in World Wrestling Entertainment appearances at least eight times, enough to earn him a place in the W.W.E. Hall of Fame. In a Battle of the Billionaires, he pretended to pound wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon, and then celebrated his victory by publicly shaving McMahon’s head in front of the cheering throng. He also dropped thousands of dollars in cash into the audience of screaming fans. Now he has appointed the former CEO of W.W.E., Linda McMahon (Vince’s wife), to his Cabinet as the head of the Small Business Administration (a detail that has largely been lost amid the daily scandals).
Like The Apprentice, Trump’s side career in pro wrestling exposed and endeared him to a massive audience — in stadiums, on TV, and online. Pro wrestling might be invisible as a cultural force to most liberal voters, but W.W.E. generated $729 million in revenue last year. And Trump did more than pick up votes from this experience — he also picked up tips.
As Matt Taibbi pointed out in Rolling Stone, Trump’s entire campaign had a distinctly W.W.E. quality. He carefully nurtured feuds with other candidates, and handed out insulting nicknames (Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted). He played ringmaster at his own rallies, complete with over-the-top insult-chants (“Killary,” “Lock her up!”), and directed the crowd’s rage at the designated villains: journalists and demonstrators. Outsiders would emerge from these events shaken, not sure what had just happened. What had happened was a cross between a pro-wrestling match and a white-supremacist rally.
Reality television and professional wrestling are relatively new forms of mass entertainment, and they establish a relationship with reality that is at once fake and genuine. With W.W.E., every fight is fixed and rehearsed. But that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment. The fact that everyone is in on the joke, that the cheers and boos are part of the show, increases the fun. The artifice is not a drawback — it’s the point.
So Trump sees himself less as a president than as the executive producer of his country, with an eye always on the ratings. Responding to the suggestion that he fire his press secretary, he reportedly said, “I’m not firing Sean Spicer. That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”
It’s with the same brash showmanship that Trump is now navigating — or failing to navigate — the promises that he would impose a “Buy American, hire American” policy, and thereby bring back the bygone days of booming factories and blue-collar jobs that paid middle-class wages. (Never mind that his own empire is built on exploiting outsourced labor.)
This posture is as authentic as the violence he enacted when he appeared to take on a W.W.E. wrestler in the ring, or when he was choosing among contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice. Trump knows as well as anyone that the idea of American corporations returning to 1970s-style manufacturing is a cruel joke. He knows this because, as his own business practices attest, a great many U.S. companies are no longer manufacturers at all but hollow shells, buying their own products from a web of cheap contractors. He may be able to bring back a few factories, or claim that he did, but the numbers will be minuscule compared with the need.
Trump’s plan, which is already under way, is to approach the unemployment and underemployment crisis in the same way he approaches everything — as a spectacle. He will claim credit for a relatively small number of jobs — most of which would have been created anyway — and then market the hell out of those supposed success stories. It won’t matter one bit whether the numbers support his claims. He’ll edit reality to fit his narrative, as he learned to do on The Apprentice, and just as he did on his very first day as president, insisting contrary to all objective evidence that his inauguration crowds had been historic.
So far it seems to be working, at least with his base. Some liberals have seized on this apparent tolerance for “alternative facts” to dismiss his working-class voters as “suckers.” But it’s worth remembering that a large portion of Barack Obama’s base was quite happy to embrace the carefully crafted symbols his administration created — the White House lit up like a rainbow to celebrate gay marriage; the shift to a civil, erudite tone; the spectacle of an incredibly appealing First Family free of major scandals for eight years. These were all good things, but too often these same supporters looked the other way when it came to the drone warfare that killed countless civilians; the deportation of roughly 2.5 million people; broken promises to close Guantánamo or dismantle George W. Bush’s mass-surveillance architecture. Obama positioned himself as a climate hero, but at one point bragged that his administration had “added enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the earth and then some.”
Of course, Trump’s successful attempt to sell his white working-class voters on the dream of a manufacturing comeback will eventually come crashing to earth. But what is most worrying is what Trump will do then. In all likelihood, he will double down on the only other tools he has left: bashing and blaming immigrants, riling up fears about black crime, launching fiercer attacks on reproductive rights and on the press. And then, of course, there’s always war.
Blood-sport reality TV is, after all, a science-fiction cliché. Think of The Hunger Games, with its reality-TV spectacle in which all but one of the players die. Or The Running Man, another film about a televised event where the stakes are life or death. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, reportedly described the April bombing of Syria as Mar-a-Lago’s “after-dinner entertainment.”
Trump has only just started playing his version of the Mar-a-Lago Hunger Games, with the full arsenal of U.S. military power — and he is getting plenty of encouragement to keep upping the ante. When he launched Tomahawk missiles against Syria, the MSNBC host Brian Williams declared the images “beautiful.” One week later, Trump went for more spectacle, dropping the U.S. military’s largest non-nuclear weapon on a cave complex in Afghanistan, an act of violence so indiscriminate and disproportionate that analysts struggled to find any rationale that could resemble a coherent military strategy. There was no strategy — the megatonnage was the message.
Given that Trump ordered the use of a weapon that had never been deployed in combat before, and given that he did this just twelve weeks into his presidency and with no obvious provocation, there is little reason to hope he will be able to resist putting on the show of shows — the apocalyptic violence of a full-blown war, made for TV, with guaranteed blockbuster ratings. Well before Trump, we had wars that were fought as televised entertainment. The 1990 Gulf War was dubbed the first video-game war, complete with its own logo and theme music on CNN. And that was nothing compared with the show put on during the 2003 Iraq invasion, based on a military strategy called Shock and Awe. The attacks were designed as a spectacle for cable news consumers, but also for Iraqis, to maximize their sense of helplessness, to “teach them a lesson.”
That fearsome technology is now in the hands of the first reality-TV star president.