Once, it seemed as if no politician could test the line between reality TV and modern campaigning as boldly as Donald Trump. But now, there’s Caitlyn Jenner. Shortly before announcing her bid for California governor, the athlete-turned-reality-star strutted across the stage in a gaudy phoenix suit on “The Masked Singer.” On the trail now, Jenner travels with her own film crew. And late this week, Australian tabloids reported that she has absconded from the state altogether—and is currently in Australia, preparing to film “Celebrity Big Brother.”
You could chalk it up to a typical career move for Jenner, a veteran of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and the post-transition spinoff “I Am Cait.” But the former Olympian is hardly the first Republican to cross over from politics to reality TV, and vice versa. In recent years, GOP politicians and operatives—even some who aren’t as openly theatrical as Jenner or Trump—have embraced the cheesiest and most outrageous corners of reality TV, unafraid of ridicule, artistic failure or the scrutiny of a thousand entertainment recappers.
Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer did a controversial turn on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2019, not long after former Texas governor Rick Perry and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did their own two-left-feet tours on the show. Trump’s former comms director Anthony Scaramucci and aide Omarosa Maginault-Newman—who first met Trump on season one of “The Apprentice”—went almost directly from the Trump White House to “Celebrity Big Brother.” And of course, there was Trump himself, whose springboard to the presidency was a character he played on “The Apprentice”: a successful, no-nonsense businessman with a tangential connection to actual reality and a ridiculous catchphrase, “Ya fired.”
But while over-the-top reality TV has become a familiar launching pad and soft landing spot for Republicans, there is something curiously missing from that ecosystem: Democrats.
You could chalk it up to yet another irreconcilable difference between the parties, driven partly by history, partly by demographics and partly by Trump himself, who applied the rules of reality TV to the Washington news cycle. If Trump was an affront to liberal sensibilities, so might be any reality show that feels bawdy, brash, over-the-top and open to showboating.
“There’s an enormous dignity gap in the culture,” says Steve Schmidt, a onetime Republican political consultant who left the GOP in frustration over Trumpism and co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. He says Biden and Trump voters have different standards for a public servant’s behavior. A Biden fan is inclined to judge politicians by “your bearing, how you comport yourself, how you act,” he says. “‘Am I going to go on ‘Dancing With the Stars in a sequined outfit?’ ‘No, I’m not.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I was governor of Texas for four years.’”
But Schmidt also acknowledged that reality TV has become, not just a useful political tool for anyone who is sufficiently shameless, but a game-changer in public discourse. “It represents a slice of the communications ecosystem in which a goodly portion of the country receives their information, right?” he says. And the tropes and values of the medium, zapped into households every night, have changed expectations for the way public figures can and should behave—with humiliation-proof Trump as the chief example.
“Has reality show culture, on a 20-year basis, shaped the character of the country?” Schmidt says. “Every bit as much as the wars … that were fought over the exact same amount of time. Probably more.”
And right now, it’s mostly Republicans who are taking advantage.
The reality genre, a television staple for nearly 30 years, is so broad by now that it’s impossible to assign it a single aesthetic or political bent. It encompasses social experiments (from MTV’s classic “The Real World” to the current Netflix series “Love is Blind); creative showcases (“Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” “Cupcake Wars”); docu-series that mock the rich and famous (“The Simple Life,” “The Osbournes,” the Kardashians universe); docu-series that celebrate blue-collar work (“The Greatest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers.”) Most shows purport to be politically neutral, even as they play-act the culture wars; “The Bachelor,” has, with notable stumbles, taken on gender relations, religion and, most recently, race, while trying somehow to remain popular with everyone.
Some shows really are popular with everyone; polls consistently show that “Survivor” ranks high with both Democrats and Republicans. But in general, TV preferences over the years have broken down along political lines. A 2011 report by the consumer research firm Experian, commissioned for Entertainment Weekly, surveyed self-identified “liberal Democrats” and “conservative Republicans” about their favorite shows. Liberals preferred “literate media-savvy comedies” like “The Daily Show,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation.” Conservatives were drawn to crime dramas like “NCIS” and “The Mentalist.” And, more than liberals, conservatives were drawn to reality shows, from “Swamp Loggers” and “Pawn Stars” to “The Bachelor” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
In part, Schmidt says, that’s a function of education. Whether you have a college degree, he points out, is a major predictor of which political party you’ll support—and cultural preferences are often intertwined with political ones. When highly-educated liberals watch reality TV, it’s often with a sense of detachment: taking part in a guilty pleasure, as opposed to an outright pleasure. But fans of “Dancing With the Stars” are generally there for unironic joy. And at this point, “Dancing with the Stars” base is, for all intents and purposes, the GOP base, too. A 2019 report in Variety noted that of the 10 markets where the show had recently performed best, eight were in states that went for Trump in 2016, and the top one was the Florida market that covers Mar-a-Lago.
Politicians understand what’s in it for them—and what isn’t. In 2010, when Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol was cast on “Dancing With the Stars,” a casting director for the show told the Los Angeles Times that she often reached out to Democrats, to no avail. By 2011, Al Sharpton had turned down the show three times.
When Democrats do entertainment, they tend to choose a different approach—less risky, less broad, more consciously self-aware. When President Barack Obama wanted to drum up support for the Affordable Care Act in 2014, he deadpanned with Zach Galifianakis on the droll hipster web show “Between Two Ferns” and bantered with Jerry Seinfeld on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” making certain the audience knew that he was only playing the game because he had a policy to plug. In 2018, the Obamas inked a Netflix deal that called for documentaries and scripted series with a high-minded mission: “to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples.” And while Hillary Clinton did good-natured, scripted turns on “Saturday Night Live” during her presidential campaigns, US Weekly reported that in 2017, she was offered a spot on “Dancing with the Stars” and declined.
Given her base, that probably felt like a logical move. Longtime Democratic consultant Joe Trippi muses that prominent liberal politicians would face a penalty from voters if they skipped straight from government office to goofy reality shows. “I think a lot of Democrats would think it lacked seriousness,” he says. “’With all the things that you could be doing with the experience you built up, that’s what you decided to do with it?’”
But on the right, there’s no apparent penalty for good-natured humiliation; if anything, you win points from the base for being approachable, anti-elitist, and a good sport. Within months of his high-camp appearances on “Dancing with the Stars,” where he spun around a tractor in a pink satin vest to the sounds of the “Green Acres” theme song (and spent some of his airtime talking about the needs of veterans), Perry had a new job in Trump’s Cabinet, as secretary of energy.
The first GOP politician to fully embrace the possibilities of reality TV—as a medium for image-honing, star-making, and sticking it to your foes with a smile—might well have been Sarah Palin. After her polarizing turn as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Palin resigned the Alaska governorship and doubled down on television. “She became, in all the history of the country, the first politician to quit mid-term to become a celebrity,” says Schmidt, who, as a senior advisor to McCain’s campaign, unwittingly helped launch her into the stratosphere.
Before long, Palin had booked a TLC reality show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which portrayed her as a combination of fierce mama bear and backwoods pixie dreamgirl: scaling rocks, wrestling fish and shooting a caribou. If it didn’t extend her career in elected office, it at least solidified her image as a kind of conservative mascot, proudly antithetical to the liberal establishment.
Years later, Palin is still using reality TV to stay relevant. She went on “The Masked Singer” herself in 2020, dressed as a pink-and-lilac bear in fuzzy leg warmers, and sang an exuberant if off-key version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Liberal literati was predictably aghast: “Sarah Palin Marks End Times With ‘Masked Singer’ Performance,” read the headline in the Daily Beast. But to the cheering crowd, Palin delivered a joyous performance and, if you squinted hard enough, a sly feminist message. (She pointed out that she had put a gender twist on the song, and while she never would have put it in these terms, she was essentially making a statement about the male gaze.) On the aftershow, Palin told host Nick Cannon that she thought of her appearance as a “walking middle finger to the haters.”
For Republicans who have been battered in the mainstream press, reality TV can be an attractive way to fight back. Sean Spicer was mocked mercilessly on “Saturday Night Live” during the Trump administration, played by Melissa McCarthy as a grumpy troll who bleated out insults to reporters. When Spicer turned up on the “Dancing With the Stars” premiere, he seemed, to the naked eye, equally emasculated; he wore a lime-green ruffled shirt and shook his booty arythmically to a Spice Girls song. But Spicer had the cheers of the crowd behind him and a paycheck to take home in the end. And as the weeks went by, his profound lack of dancing ability become its own front in the culture wars, as his supporters—goaded on by Trump—kept voting for him, over the objections of the professional judges.
Spicer didn’t win the show’s mirrorball trophy, but he walked away with a bolstered sense of goodwill from the GOP base and another TV job, this time at Newsmax. That seemed a natural fit, too; the most pugnacious right-wing networks are, in many ways, an extension of the reality aesthetic, and a turn on a competition show can feel like a dry run for a firebrand hosting gig.
Indeed, it might be possible to trace the roots of Tucker Carlson’s reinvention—from conservative intellectual to unapologetic Fox News bomb-hurler—to his own appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006. Carlson, an MSNBC correspondent at the time, was an objectively terrible dancer who only lasted long enough for one performance; for much of it, he simply sat in a chair as his partner gyrated around him in a feathered leotard. And though the judges were cruel—“You looked like you were sitting on a toilet!” said Italian choreographer Bruno Tonioli—Carlson seemed unfazed. He credited Tonioli for “kind of an artful put-down” and overall seemed giddy about the experience: “I can’t believe I just did that! I loved it, actually!”
It was almost as if Carlson had decided, in real time, to embrace a reality culture that favors a certain type of figure—bold, showboating, fearless, aggressively of-the-people. Some of the biggest stars in politics today—figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene—have parlayed those same qualities into elected office and fundraising success. From the earliest days of Hollywood, the entertainment industry has inspired the way politicians carry themselves, says Purdue University historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell, whose book Showbiz Politics traces the behind-the-scenes relationships between Washington and Hollywood. “One of the things I’ve … come to see in my research,” Brownell says, “is that how we define success—how political operatives, how journalists, how commentators, how elected officials, how they define success—can create new cultural values about what we’re looking for in elected officials.”
Those reality traits are destined to land differently with Republicans and Democrats, Trippi says. In focus groups, he’s found that voters of the two parties have conflicting ideas about what makes an ideal leader. In election years when voters are craving change, for instance, Democrats tend to gravitate toward candidates with out-on-a-limb policy ideas, while Republicans talk about simply throwing everybody out. It’s easy to guess which of these would also be the ideal reality TV character: the one who comes in and turns everything upside down, for better or worse.
Still, every once in a while, a Democrat turns up with a glimmer of reality TV spirit—a willingness to use a little mild humiliation to project a populist appeal, and to stay famous, on some simmering level, forever and ever and ever, perhaps until the next political opportunity comes around. When he ran for president in 2020, Andrew Yang went from obscurity to notoriety by accepting that no publicity is bad publicity and testing out Trumpesque slogans (“MATH”). Now that he’s lost his bid to be mayor of New York, it’s not hard to picture him tripping over himself on a celebrity dance competition, or even jumping on giant balls on some version of “Wipeout.” On the next season of “The Masked Singer,” who knows who could be inside one of those suits.
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