From Reality TV to Reality Politics

Column: What Cohen, Omarosa, and Avenatti know that Democrats don't

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Between June 16, 2015, and July 25, 2018, Donald Trump flummoxed his opponents. He flouted the conventions of American politics, violating the norms that have long governed the behavior of both candidates and presidents. Telegenic, volatile, and dramatic, given to accusations, insults, nicknames, and conspiracy theories, and capable of outrageous and sometimes mystifying behavior, Trump presented a challenge to his rivals: How to respond?

The basic approach was to pretend as if Trump wasn't a serious threat. Decried as a clown, a carnival barker, a showman, an interloper in the rarefied world of campaigns and elections, Trump was dismissed and underestimated. He was a fad, these critics said. He would be gone by Labor Day. There was no reason to deviate from one's initial plan. Trump could be defeated the old-fashioned way. Negative television advertising would highlight his flaws. Debates would expose his lack of governing experience. His rhetoric and Tweets would alienate the groups he needed the most.

Summer turned into fall, and fall into winter, and 2015 into 2016. Trump did not change. He continued to slap silly names on his opponents, to exaggerate, to personalize conflict, and to embrace audacious proposals: a southern border wall paid for by Mexico; a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on"; locking up his Democratic opponent. Trump's adversaries said he was a racist, a demagogue, at the very least a naïf. Neither his positions nor his political trajectory altered. Quite the opposite: It was the conventional politicians that hewed to the decades-old playbook, from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, who lost.

Another reaction was to adopt Trump's style. Marco Rubio, in a final attempt to stop Trump's momentum, famously went on a discursive monologue insulting the Republican frontrunner, joking about his "spray tan" and calling his hands small, "and you know what they say about guys with small hands." What happened next was instructive. The fusillade boomeranged. Not only was Rubio, an apprentice at smash-mouth politics, unable to outshine the master. Rubio also undermined his long-standing image as the nice young man, the son of immigrants who embodied the American dream. As a career politician, Rubio was held to a different and higher standard than Trump, the outsider whose candidacy was premised on the idea that political insiders had crippled the United States.

Trump's fame, wealth, and marginal position in the worlds of government, news media, and finance exempted him, in the minds of his supporters, from the informal rules that had conditioned the words and actions of candidates and presidents for years. Such freedom allowed him to bring into the political arena methods and practices from the worlds he knew best: tabloid journalism, professional wrestling, and reality television.

Shocking claims, conspiracy theories, and hints of lurid revelations that never quite pan out are straight from Page Six and the National Enquirer. The tent-pole rally, the braggadocio, posturing, invective, and prowling around stage are drawn from the WWE, and Trump's long ties, Brioni suits, and unmistakable hair are all part of his "character." His flair for operatic and unexpected shifts in direction, ambiguity and unpredictability in relationships, Twitter as "confessional," emphasis on appearance, and love of the cliffhanger made his job-competition game show remarkably successful and durable.

Trump went from star of reality TV to sole practitioner of reality politics. He turned Republican, national, then world politics into a riveting spectacle, a new sort of contest in which the stakes are nothing less than the fate of the United States and the protagonist must face down a staggering number of opponents to win the prize. And Trump had an advantage. He alone was familiar with the contents of the reality politics rulebook. Which meant that his antagonists, from Bob Corker to Robert Mueller, from Chuck Schumer to Elizabeth Warren, from the media to the NFL, from Ayatollah Khamenei to Xi Jinping, were on defense.

This asymmetry ended last month. On July 25, Trump confronted something he had not seen before: An opponent who not just understood reality politics, but who also could practice them wholeheartedly because he was not beholden to elite institutions. Michael Cohen's announcement that he had secretly taped Trump discussing payments to Stormy Daniels exemplified the new political mode. It was a stunning betrayal by a shameless man who said he had more secrets to spill. And the tapes themselves, surreptitiously recorded, played perfectly in a heated media environment where audio and visual recording is much more important than the gab-gab-gab of punditry.

It cannot be an accident that, in another development fit for sweeps week, Cohen was soon joined by a second Trump protégé. Last week, when Omarosa launched her new book by playing tapes of her own on NBC, she began executing a series of moves familiar to any Trump watcher. She made headlines not only with her charges against the president, but also with her suggestion, without any evidence, that there exists a secret recording in which Trump says the N-word.

What Cohen and Omarosa learned from Trump is that, whether it is true or not, the media will latch on to a hyperbolic statement just for its sensationalistic value. They were also taught that the very utterance of a hair-raising accusation shifts the playing field in favor of the accuser. And Daniels's attorney, Michael Avenatti, has internalized both of these lessons. At first, one is inclined to dismiss Avenatti as a silly and ineffectual attention-seeker. Then one realizes that, in our celebrity culture, there is a Say's Law of fame. It creates its own demand.

Adopting charged rhetoric, earned media, and childish taglines of his own, Avenatti has used the Daniels controversy to lay the groundwork for a presidential run. By the canons of reality politics, he is running laps around the traditional candidates. When Avenatti appeared at the Video Music Awards recently, a journalist asked him what he was doing there. "I was invited," he said, as he basked in the cameras. Sure, he looked like an opportunist. Maybe Kamala Harris ought to have been similarly grasping.

I had assumed that Trump's unusual background would limit his influence over candidate behavior. As Cohen, Omarosa, and Avenatti show, one has to be removed from statehouses and governor's mansions to practice reality politics. Recent events give me second thoughts. The emergence of these anti-Trumps suggests that there is a future for outsiders versed in tabloids, wrestling, and "structured reality." (Jesse Ventura shows there is something of a past there, as well.) Maybe Americans can't get enough of the drama. Or maybe they will be so exhausted at the end of the road on which we have embarked that they will revert to the tried, the placid, the conventional, the deliberate, and the upright.