On Thursday night, we got our most sustained look yet at how TV is going to handle a new kind of presidential politics. The evening's Republican debate felt yet more like a retread, while the rally Donald Trump held, though ultimately nothing newsworthy, was charged moment-to-moment with the unpredictable force of his personality.
On the face of it, Trump was doing nothing revolutionary by skipping the debate: Ronald Reagan didn’t appear at the final debate before Iowa in 1980, before he lost the state and went on to win the presidency.
But Trump’s public refusal was conveyed, on Twitter and in a Wednesday appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, was conveyed in new tones. The argument that Donald Trump’s campaign is inflected by reality TV has been made often, and well. But it’s not that Trump learned lessons from The Apprentice, the reality show he hosted from 2004 to 2015. In fact, he occupies the role The Apprentice, and shows like it, occupied on the dial.
On the establishment's main stage, Trump was treated as either a joke or a nonentity by his fellow candidates. Ted Cruz made a show of pretend-insulting every candidate in order to dismiss the “Donald Trump portion,” and later threatened to “leave the stage” over perceived negative questions posed to other candidates. (Marco Rubio jokingly promised he wouldn’t.) Aspirants including Rand Paul and Chris Christie relished their new amount of airtime, though John Kasich complained about what he saw as his dearth; all seemed to be getting in as much as they could in their long-awaited moment out of a certain real estate titan’s shadow.
Given the straightforward nature of the questions—and even leaving aside the sudden absence of insult comedy—the debate felt stunningly establishment. It'd be one thing if the debate shed significant new light on the candidates' positions, but instead it felt simply cobbled-together from the playbook established in six previous debates, from Rubio's humility to Christie's invocation of 9/11.
CNN and MSNBC were all too happy to fill in Fox News's Trump-sized absence, but that was too big and too swiftly-moving a target for them: They cut away from Trump’s Drake University event as it wore on, sometime after Trump welcomed undercard candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee to the stage. This was as frank as TV gets in terms of its raggedness; no one quite seemed to know how to react to events that were developing. Even the portion of Trump’s speech that was broadcast felt jagged and poised on the edge of some TV moment or other, from Trump listing his own donors with increasing delectation to the sudden cutaway to his fans protesting a protester. What moderator would allow this presentation? The genius part was, none was asked to.
Every one of the candidates onstage in the sanctioned debate was being real; they were speaking their current positions and revealing, more than ever with a bit more airtime freed up, their own ambitions. But only one candidate Thursday night was “real” in the contemporary sense, one minted by reality TV.
Fifteen years ago, the friction between new openness in the culture at large and relative conservatism on network TV created a lane for reality programming in the mold of Survivor and, later, American Idol, The Simple Life, and The Apprentice. Anyone who came to these shows looking for a rigorous document of life as lived would tune out disappointed, but Survivor and its successors invented a way of being on television: A sort of hyper-reality, an elaborate performance of humanness in which every misunderstanding bears the potential to be a very special episode, of one sort or another.
No one thought reality TV was sustainable, but the very reasons it was pegged as potentially short-lived—its base appeal to emotions, its lack of finesse—have given it a decade and a half of life.
And Thursday's dueling events proved that Trump’s campaign fills the space in politics that Survivor did on television. Trump felt tangential to the debate, and the players in the debate felt tangential to Trump’s event; the two existed on different cable channels, and from parallel viewpoints that never intersected.
Trump’s event was governed by over-the-top emotionality and sentimentality, from the lengthy thanks to various charitable donors (including, curiously, the CEO of Marvel) to the mere fact of its being a charitable event. It read like a lengthy "confessional"-style interview, just Trump and the camera, until he presented twists he himself governed, from the introduction of undercard candidates to a panel of veterans.
Who could say Trump’s event getting him out of the debate was a publicity stunt when it was a fundraiser for American soldiers? It was a twist whose sophistication lay in how unsophisticated it was; Trump, per usual, was not acting like a person any viewer had likely ever met, and yet, allowed to flow free, his speech was as gleefully messy as the idea of reality that TV has minted.
On The Apprentice, Trump played for season after season the role of the composed moderator; set free as an agent of change in the political realm, he’s Omarosa.
But for a fleeting mention at the event’s outset, the moderators were willing to pretend Trump didn’t exist. The candidates, in large part, played along. That only makes more apparent the path that Trump is lighting for future candidates. Sarah Palin, the other great practitioner of emotionally volatile, catchphrase-generating politics-as-reality, has cast her lot with Trump.
Whatever happens with Trump at the ballot-box—whether he flames out in Iowa, on Super Tuesday, in November, or never—why wouldn’t a future candidate, watching at home, see a path to the presidency that steers clear of moderators who keep her from expressing her truth? Survivor was supposed to flop after a single season, too.