It looks more and more as if Donald Trump’s reality show isn’t going to be renewed for another season.
I’m not talking about “Celebrity Apprentice,” the NBC show Trump turned into a classic of the reality genre; that show is now in the strong hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The show that’s in trouble is the horrifying yet irresistible one we’ve all been watching since June 2015. Trump’s campaign is the apotheosis of reality television’s hostile takeover of the U.S. political system, in which the winner is often the one who generates the most shock and who commands the most attention.
Trump followed this plot device over and over again, causing one outrage after another – and, until recently, it worked. It didn’t much matter what the issue was or what they thought of Trump; if people were talking about him, if he dominated the news cycle, he won.
When Trump launched his campaign, “the rules of reality TV came along for the ride, in which the person who says the worst stuff is rewarded with the most airtime,” the Post’s TV critic Hank Stuever observed. Under these rules, “fame disengaged itself” from achievement. In this world, you became famous “especially if you were the guy or gal that nobody liked. In fact, the more despicable, the better.”
Said Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign chairman, in May: “This is the ultimate reality show. It’s the presidency of the United States.”
But in recent episodes, something has gone wrong with the Trump Show. Trump still dominates the airwaves, but his just-spell-my-name-right theory of fame is no longer working. It turns out the Trump Show, late in the season, has lost its plot progression. And voters, belatedly but finally, are less inclined to view Trump the same way they view reality TV: with a suspension of disbelief.
More now seem to share the view Michael Bloomberg voiced at the Democratic convention: “This isn’t reality television. This is reality.”
Each stage of Trump’s life, and campaign, has been something of a reality show. His privileged youth was Paris Hilton’s “The Simple Life,” his years in New York’s tabloid culture “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” his professional life “Million Dollar Listing.”
In the campaign, his courtship of the religious right was “Duck Dynasty,” his systematic elimination of his 16 competitors in the GOP primary was “Survivor,” and the unfocused but drama-filled GOP convention, beginning with his third wife Melania’s stolen speech, was “Real Housewives.”
Trump’s national spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, has been doing double duty on a reality show, “Sisters in Law.” Omarosa Manigault and another “Apprentice” alumnus are Trump surrogates. One of Trump’s ex-wives, Marla Maples, was just on “Dancing With the Stars.”
After two decades of reality TV, we have come to expect that much of what we see on reality TV will be staged. There’s even a popular show, “UnREAL,” in which characters Quinn and Rachel work behind-the-scenes to manipulate the plot of a fictitious reality show.
Trump benefits from the expectation of phoniness. Pop-culture critic Jen Chaney wrote in The Post that “having a reality-TV celebrity running for commander in chief may subconsciously signal our brains to participate in this election the same way we’ve grown accustomed to consuming reality shows … believing that none of it is genuine, that none of it has any actual consequences.” It doesn’t matter, therefore, if two out of three claims Trump makes are false, or if he proposes dangerous ideas: It’s only entertainment.
But we may have reached the limits of politics-as-reality television. Reality TV may favor scoundrels, but reality can be more judgmental. One of the earliest heroes of the genre, the Machiavellian Richard Hatch, won “Survivor” – and later won himself 51 months in prison for tax evasion.
Trump’s bigger problem is that recent episodes of the Trump Show just aren’t very good. His rapid dispatching of competitors during the primaries, his outrage du jour and his never-ending supply of insults made for gripping television, and his rivals never got enough attention to give Trump a serious challenge.
But since the primaries, Trump’s outrages and insults have become stale. Trump and his aides spent the past two weeks signaling that he was rethinking his immigration policy and would recast it in a major speech Wednesday. He then delivered the same lines he has all along.
The Trump Show has lost its coherent story lines, its narrative arc. Trump desperately needs a Quinn and Rachel to juice the plot, to manipulate where each episode is going.
But this is no longer reality TV; it’s reality. And reality is not as kind to Trump.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.