What Reality TV Taught Trump, According to Professors Who Study It

February 15, 2017

NBC, Photofest
Donald Trump on a 2005 episode of the reality-TV show "The Apprentice." Scholars who study the genre say hosting the show taught the future president about the power of spectacle and self-promotion.
President Trump, who became famous for his role on The Apprentice, has been called the "reality TV President." So what did Mr. Trump learn from his years on the show? Quite a bit, according to professors who study the genre.

Mike Johansson, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has both a professional and personal connection to reality TV: Back in the late ’90s, the New Zealand native nearly made it onto the first episode of Survivor, as one of four finalists from the Pittsburgh region. But when producers found out he didn’t have a U.S. passport, "that was the end of the conversation." The role went to Rudy Boesch, an ex-Navy SEAL who, according to the Survivor Wiki, is "remembered for his begrudging friendship with (winner) Richard Hatch, being a part of the first ever voting pact and being the oldest castaway to ever compete."

“Only the most outrageous statements and actions get past the cutting-room floor. Therefore, it reinforces extreme behavior.”
Mr. Johansson says that reality TV taught Trump that "outrage equals attention" and showed him what it takes to dominate the news. "Reality TV is ‘reality’ only in that it looks real but in fact is often scripted or at least highly planned, and only the most outrageous statements and actions get past the cutting-room floor," he says. "Therefore, it reinforces extreme behavior."

To survive editing, he adds, you need to stand out, maybe by learning what words get attention or shock people.

"So Trump is tweeting at 3, 4 a.m., knowing that if he says something outrageous, it will be on morning news shows," Mr. Johansson says. The same goes for evenings and the nightly news. "Some thought goes into when and how this happens. The man is a lot smarter than a lot of people give him credit for."

Screen time is essential, whether you’re actually on screen or not, Mr. Johansson says. Make the entire show about you, and "you’ve essentially ‘won’ the share-of-mind contest."

Mr. Johansson pointed to Mr. Hatch, the first Survivor winner, as someone who demonstrated the importance of screen time. Mr. Hatch "walked around naked — that guaranteed he would get more screen time, and would earn the enmity of other players, so they would talk about him a lot. That’s a currency on reality TV, too. If other characters are talking about you, you’re dominating the show. That’s part of the playbook."

In the same way, discussion of Mr. Trump’s policies dominates national news shows to an extent that’s "unprecedented in recent American history," Mr. Johansson says.

"The person in the White House is treating it as a reality show," Mr. Johansson says, "though this is not a reality-TV show you can turn off or avoid — understand that’s the lens through which we’re operating."

The Power of Spectacle

Danielle Lindemann, an assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University, teaches a course called "The Sociology of Reality TV" and is, by her own admission, a viewer of "really, really terrible reality television."

Ms. Lindemann says reality TV taught Mr. Trump the art of political pageantry, and reinforced his belief in the power of archetypes. She sees his presidency as a sign that we need to start taking reality TV seriously.

When Mr. Trump introduced his Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch, on prime-time television, "he might as well have been Vanna White turning over a square," Ms. Lindemann says. The unveiling relied on the spectacle of game shows, she adds. And for Mr. Trump, "It’s not as much about everyday functioning of government, as it is about the portrayal," she says. "There’s always some anticipated audience."

Another draw of reality TV, Ms. Lindemann says, is that it deals in archetypes, and often black and white ones. "He cast Hillary as the crook archetype, and himself as the savior who is going to save us from bad hombres," she says. "I don’t know if it’s conscious, but it’s certainly quite effective."

Mr. Trump is also "casting into doubt the idea of facts," Ms. Lindemann says, and that’s a line that reality TV walks, too.

"When the president of the United States is someone whose fame was concretized through the vehicle of a reality TV show," she says, "I don’t think we can continue to look at reality television as a frivolous form of ‘low culture’ that doesn’t really matter in any substantive way.

To Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, the lines between celebrity and politician have been blurring for years. Mr. Trump’s presidency has blurred those lines even further, he says, and reality TV showed him how to "cut through the mists to reach an audience."

"His media experience tells him that he must reach audiences in a direct and simple fashion," Mr. McCall says. Mr. Trump’s political rallies and his governing style share many of the same features of a reality show: short, repeated themes with bold and direct messages, little room for nuance, and sometimes unpredictable turns.

"Trump revels in that style and likes to keep audiences wondering what will happen next," Mr. McCall says, "just like on The Apprentice."

A Bigger Stage

Alison Hearn, an associate professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, says Mr. Trump has always been a self-promoter; reality TV just gave him a bigger stage on which to advance his own interests. She recently wrote a piece for the journal Television and New Media titled "Trump’s ‘Reality’ Hustle," in which she enumerates the "reality rules of self-promotion" and argues that these days, we’re all forced to sell ourselves. Trump is, she writes, "the boss of a nation of celebrity apprentices."

So what exactly are the "reality rules of self promotion?" They start with a simple premise, Ms. Hearn says: to break the rules.

"The way you get attention is to not play according to the rules," she says, "and then to proclaim that you’ve broken the rules, and then to repeat it loudly and often, the way he would constantly talk about himself as a winner."

“I used to say I feel like he's crashed through the TV into our real life. But now it's more like he's pulling us all through the TV screen into his spectacular delusions.”
For Mr. Trump, "the mechanics of the spectacle" win out over substance, Ms. Hearn says. And he’s always focused on "his ability to attract attention, and praise, and market share. For him, votes are market share. There’s no sense of public duty, or doing something because it’s right, or true. It’s just about winning attention, and if that means making up things, he’ll do it."

"I used to say I feel like he’s crashed through the TV into our real life," Ms. Hearn adds. "But now it’s more like he’s pulling us all through the TV screen into his spectacular delusions."

Derek Arnold, an instructor at Villanova University who teaches communication, says the president's use of Twitter lets him "simulate reality TV," keeping control of the "script" by bypassing the traditional news media. "Each display is no more than a sentence or two," Mr. Arnold says, "keeping issues small and condensed, showing readers that, just like a reality show, many issues can be summed up in just a few key thoughts."

Viewers can "check in a few times a day to make sure the issues will get solved," Mr. Arnold says, "and, ultimately, see that our president is ‘on the job.’ It’s like we are binge-watching some kind of ‘America’ television show, in small bites, happy there are  no commercials to fast forward through."

Impact on the Election

So did being a reality-TV star help Mr. Trump win the presidential election, by making him seem more presidential — or at least more familiar? The consensus among these professors is that it did.

"When television comes into our homes, the people we see, whether fictional or real, we think we know them," Mr. Johansson says. "It’s human nature. You hear them speak, you see them act enough, and it’s as if they’re living next door. The reality is you’re getting a two-dimensional, highly edited version of who that person is. Not a lot of people stop and think of it that way."

Mr. McCall isn’t convinced that Mr. Trump’s hosting of The Apprentice helped him seem presidential. But, he says, "it would certainly have raised his profile as a celebrity." And that elevated profile might have been more helpful to winning votes than appearing presidential.

"There is a lot written about how people bond with TV characters," Ms. Hearn says. "People thought Trump was more authentic than Hillary. That because they’ve seen him on reality TV, they know who he is."

She points to the popular idea that Mr. Trump’s supporters didn’t take what he said seriously, but took him seriously — while his detractors didn’t take him seriously, but took what he said seriously.

"People were willing to believe the character he developed," she says. "When he said outrageous things, people saw it in the framework that he didn’t mean it. And now he’s doing everything he said he would do."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.

Correction (2/15/2017, 1:26 p.m.): This article originally spelled the name of a faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology inconsistently. He is Mike Johansson, not Johannson. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.