Since Big Brother first exploded onto our screens in 2000 I’ve been a fan of reality TV. In 2002 I wrote a book that included a defence of the genre’s democratising impact on our culture.
Where many commentators and more than a few of my academic colleagues dismissed reality TV as dumbed-down trash pandering to the baser instincts of the mob, I preferred to regard it as a prime location for the untold, self-revelatory, often intimate stories of ordinary people.
Shows like Sylvania Waters, Driving School and Airline showed non-celebrities – “real people” – going about their business, revealing their emotional and psychological quirks, overcoming the obstacles of everyday, previously unexamined lives.
The Apprentice exemplified a particular sub-genre of reality TV, giving us a glimpse of what it was like to build a business and struggle for success in corporate life, the dynamics of team-building and peer rivalry, the hubris that brought down the blowhards and the self-regarding.
“You’re fired!” was the catchphrase of Donald Trump (and Sir Alan Sugar in the UK version). It was informative and also entertaining. Trump was good at it, bringing his tough, no-nonsense management style into our living rooms.
And if that’s where his “tell it like it is” approach had remained, we would probably be looking forward to four, maybe eight years of President Hillary Clinton. Instead, we face the ascendancy to the most powerful office on Earth of a man formerly known to most of his voters as a reality TV star.
It’s as if Kim Kardashian, or, god save us, Kanye West was suddenly running the country (Yeezus for POTUS in 2020, anyone?) – surreally shocking in a way that the elections of former film stars Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the presidency and the governorship of California respectively never were.
Trump presents himself as an outsider, though his reality TV celebrity means that he comes from the heart of mainstream popular culture, as well as being a fully paid-up member of the rich capitalist elite he affects to despise – one who proudly pays no taxes, has been near bankruptcy several times, and convicted for racial discrimination in his real-estate operations among other alleged ethics violations such as the Trump University scam (settled out of court in December).
The white working- and middle-class stiffs who voted for him in such numbers appear to have forgotten the latter, or to not care, while rewarding him for his readiness to say the refreshingly (for them) transgressive things he thinks they want to hear.
From the beginning of his campaign Trump deliberately transgressed the conventions and codes of political communication in America. He already had the “Birther” slander on his political CV, the mark of a racist who simply couldn’t bear the idea of a black man in the White House.
At the outset of his campaign he proposed his wall on the Mexican border, and insulted that nation with crude stereotypes. He expressed racist views about a judge who was handling one of the many legal actions against him because the man had Mexican roots.
He promised to ban all Muslims from entering the US until “we’ve figured out what’s going on” with Islamic State – a pledge now downsized to include only those Muslims who come from countries with a history of terrorism. Will that include France and Belgium, one wonders? Or Australia? Or the UK? All of those countries have produced homegrown Islamists who have fought and killed for IS.
None of that put off the people who would eventually vote for him. He famously mocked a disabled reporter in front of a huge rally of baying supporters. It only made them love him more.
As did the release of the recording in which he observes that when you’re famous – and you got the sense listening to that tape that he was talking from experience – you could “grope” women’s “pussies” with impunity. The man actually boasted about how easy it was for people like him to commit what most people would regard as sexual assault.
He ran beauty pageants, and it seems reasonable to speculate that he would have enjoyed groping a few of the competitors along the way, when he was not insulting them for their body shape or attitude. Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping were his names for Alicia Machado, Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump took over the franchise. Apparently she ate too much.
In one televised debate he obliquely referred to a female journalist’s menstrual cycle, and routine misogyny has been a key element of Trump’s transgressive pitch. He “loves” women, he insists. You can imagine him joshing to his alpha male mates - why else would he marry and grope so many of them?
He invited the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails (and they did), and praised the sound management skills of dictators such as Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein and Rodrigo Duterte.
In the past, the merest hint of a candidate’s admiration for the Russian Bear or Saddam would have killed a campaign stone dead. Not Trump’s.
Having spent a century denouncing the USSR and Russia as the existential enemy par excellence, the American political system and public were now embracing a man who actively favoured Putin over his own president – the same Barack Obama who Trump regarded as an imposter in the White House.
Not one of these transgressions made the slightest dent in his image, or slowed his rise. On the contrary, his supporters recognised a kindred spirit. Hell yes! Pussy groping, disability-mocking, casual racism and sexism, joking about getting away with shooting people in the street because you’re so popular – that was the American way, and after eight years of a black man running the show and spoiling their fun it was time to remind the world who’s boss.
Trump’s transgressions were not gaffes of the type that sunk Gary Hart in 1988 or Gerald Ford in 1974, but delivered with a skillful eye for the attention they would attract in the news media. He succeeded in setting the 2016 news agenda way beyond his wildest dreams.
It’s reliably reported that neither he, nor his campaign team, seriously thought they could win the presidency when the race started, but so hopeless were his 16 competitors in the GOP camp that he was able to take the nomination and go on to challenge Clinton – one of the “nasty women” he despised so much.
Clinton had her vulnerabilities too, and Trump skilfully exploited them, which is what we expect in a political campaign. But he transgressed by calling on the Russians to assist, and by – it is alleged, and currently under investigation by the US intelligence agencies – actually conspiring with Putin’s security services to damage the Clinton campaign.
Which brings us to the Buzzfeed dossier, of which the most exotic if not politically significant feature is the assertion that Trump was videoed while in Russia engaging in “perverted” sex acts with prostitutes.
Let’s tell it like it is, in the spirit of The Donald. He is alleged by a Russian source in correspondence with a senior former MI6 operative, regarded by the CIA as credible enough for the dossier to have been passed to Obama, to have employed prostitutes to piss on a hotel bed previously slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama.
It is further alleged in the unverified dossier that, as a result of this and other sexual transgressions recorded on videotape, Trump is vulnerable to blackmail in his dealings with Russia.
This may or may not be true, and we may never know now that Trump himself is in charge of the US security apparatus, but the mere fact that we regard it as even possible in the context of a US president is, when you think about it, the most transgressive thing of all. Bill Clinton was Slick Willie, but at least the Monica Lewinsky affair happened in the security of the White House, and he came close to impeachment for lying about “not having sex with that woman”.
Trump’s alleged transgression was only exposed after the election, and despite the implications for US and global security – if the allegations of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the FSB to distort the US political process are true, Trump would be guilty of treason – it does not seem to have seriously disrupted the transition.
Neither his voters, nor the great of majority of Republicans in Congress, seem the slightest bit worried that their man in the Oval Office could be a Russian stooge with a taste for golden showers. So deep is their hatred of the “liberal elite”, political correctness and all the other bogeymen of their nightmares that they seem able to let the scandal and the sleaziness wash over them.
And that means, alas, that those who think Trump will settle into a more conventional presidency, constrained by wiser heads like Rex Tillerson or Mad Dog Mattis – Mad Dog being the voice of moderate reason in this administration – are deluding themselves.
There is no precedent for the Trump presidency in modern times, and no limit to where he can go from here. He has transgressed and broken taboos all the way to the White House, and been rewarded.
He will continue to smash political conventions built over decades and centuries, using Twitter to goad and mobilise his supporters as required, attacking the free and independent media as well as dissenters in general, embracing murderous dictators and corrupt capitalists all over the world where he has business interests.
He will start a dynasty, and use the venerable office he now occupies to boost family members and businesses, friends and cronies. No-one seriously doubts that, and no-one in the GOP except for John McCain and a few sidelined others can be relied upon to stand against it.
For Trump, transgression has worked as a campaign strategy, and he can be expected to pursue a similar approach to governance, as in his recent comments about the EU and Germany. Until he fails, and fails so badly that no amount of scapegoating muslims or liberals can cover it up, America is his to do with what he will.
His transgressions will shift the culture and may even become mainstream, so that the kinds of racist and sexist discourse we have spent decades erasing from public view will again be respectable. The new culture of unapologetic bigotry and bullying will spread. Political success in a volatile ideological market place drives imitation.
In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will have a go at emulating Trump. In the UK, Nigel Farage is hovering menacingly. In France, Marine Le Pen could easily become president of the republic, and so on.
All over the world, hitherto marginal figures who share Trump’s contempt for fact-based rationality and informed policy making, good manners and basic civility will be jumping on the populist bandwagon.
Some media organisations will strive to maintain critical scrutiny over the Trump administration, others will become cheerleaders and propagandists such as Sean Hannity on Fox News. No-one can assume that in this atmosphere what we still call “liberal” democracy will survive.
If the democracy we have built in so many places around the world since 1945 is to outlast one or perhaps two Trump terms, all who reject the political philosophy of the strongman and the bully must prepare to counter it, in their private lives and public utterances.
They should do so in the knowledge that Trump is a minority president, defeated in the popular vote, the perverse product of a dysfunctional political and media system which for too long treated him as an absurd novelty and then, having given him the opening, had no means of preventing his rise.
He won by the rules, though if the dirty dossier is even a bit accurate, he did not play fair. We must remember that when his supporters start demanding “respect” for the office, and for Trump himself.
For a president who has transgressed so many of the conventions which make our democracies civilised and decent, respect is not an entitlement. It must be earned.
So come on Donald, prove yourself fit to be president, and prove us sceptics wrong.
If in four years time the American and global economy are just as strong or stronger than Obama helped make them; if the Chinese and the Russians have been dissuaded from their expansionist and illegal activities in the South China Sea and eastern Europe; if the progressive sexual politics and multiculturalism of the past decades have not been reversed; and if Islamic jihad has indeed been defeated as you assert only you can do – then you’ll have my respect.
I’ll even eat my Make America Great Again hat.
Authors: Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology