October 20, 2018

Why Trump is Velcro, not Teflon (and how that helps him in the age of reality TV)

If there were a Pulitzer Prize for getting the best quote from a random person at a political event, it would have to go to Yamiche Alcindor, the New York Times reporter on the Bernie Sanders beat.

The winning quote comes from Victor Vizcarra, 45, of Los Angeles. At a Sanders rally in Anaheim last week, he ue happiness. Sure, some people may champion standards other than entertainment value, like: Is it important? Does it make me a better person? Does it make us a better society? But those people can’t get arrested unless they first can command attention.

A surefire way to occupy our attention is to tell us a story. Stories require conflict; without conflict, there’s no change, no drama, no plot. Trump is a walking attention magnet. He’s the never-ending story, the prince of plot, the king of conflict, the drama queen of TV and Twitter. A Trump presidency guarantees change. “Even if it’s like a Nazi-type change,” in Vizcarra’s words, it will never, ever be boring.

No wonder attacks on Trump aren’t working. Voting for president feels like making a casting choice for a reality show. The people in those shows may not be called actors, but they’ve been chosen to fit the genre’s types. They’re as formulaic as the characters in kabuki, commedia dell’arte and Punch and Judy shows. The players are fixed. There’s always a bad boy. That’s the part Trump is auditioning for.

Call him a bully, a liar, a xenophobe, a narcissist, a racist, a misogynist, an ignoramus, a big baby. He’s all those things. But those aren’t liabilities for the character he wants to play; they’re qualifications. The more you say it, the more equity you add to his brand. He’s not Teflon; he’s Velcro. What sticks to him just makes him a stronger candidate for the bad-boy role.

Hillary Clinton has a presidential temperament. Her script promises stability. If the choice in November is between “ ‘The Apprentice’ Goes to Washington” and “The Progressive Who Gets Things Done Show,” which one will the audience vote to watch?

Trump says, Let me entertain you. Vizcarra says, “A dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in.” He’s not alone. But what happens in a reality show only has “stakes”; what happens in reality actually has consequences. Clinton’s challenge is to persuade America’s Vizcarras that their lives, not just their amusement, depend on the difference.

 Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.