Wissot: Love affair with reality TV produced Donald Trump, our first ‘authentic’ president (column)
America has loved reality television for almost two decades. Whether it was a cast of unknowns who became familiar over time (“Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “Jersey Shore”) or celebrities who opened their private lives to public consumption (“Keeping Up With the Kardashians”), reality television emerged as a popular programming staple.
Not surprising, therefore, that the reality star of the widely popular show “The Apprentice” would become our first “authentic” president. Other presidents attempted to be authentic but fell short. Lyndon B. Johnson was clearly authentic when speaking to reporters. He didn’t hesitate to pull up his shirt and show them his surgical incisions or hold his beloved beagles by the ears. But when he delivered a speech, he seemed stiff, uncomfortable, robotic.
Bill Clinton did his best to convince us he was a good-old boy munching Big Macs and wooing women. But his Southern drawl belied a duplicitous, untrustworthy nature earning him the nickname “Slick Willie.” Barak Obama spoke in measured tones and seemed preternaturally unflappable, “No Drama Obama,” but America found him excessively cerebral and not easily approachable. “Intellect in Chief” is not a winning political image with the “I yearn for authenticity” crowd.
Ronald Reagan came the closest. A Hollywood actor, he seemed very natural standing in front of a camera and speaking before a mic. He also was good at ad-libbing and offering improvisational responses to tough questions. But when Reagan gave a speech or conducted ceremonial duties, he looked and acted presidential. His authenticity fell prey to the role he was playing: President of the United States. The real person became lost in his public role.
None of those constraints seem to be true for Donald Trump. His claim to fame is that he is un-presidential in tone, mood and manner. The persona he has carefully cultivated in public for over four decades is too enormous to be contained by the comparatively smaller role of being president.
Trump is a 24/7-improv president. No president before him communicated to the country in stream of consciousness. He is a sound bite waiting to happen, a never-ending photo op in the making. He doesn’t dominate the news cycle. He is the news cycle. He guarantees that he will be the first thing we hear about and talk about when we wake up each morning. He controls the news with his Twitter feed. He creates buzz and demands attention at 5 a.m. every day.
Like him or hate him, Donald Trump is America’s first authentic president. His authenticity is rooted in a genuine anger toward authority. He truly believes the world has treated him unfairly. He is contemptuous of political correctness, expressing his prejudices, challenging norms of civil decorum, belittling critics of his behavior with self-righteous indignation.
He shares with his base the belief that the establishment is elitist and views them with barely disguised condescension. Feeling insulted and rejected, the politics of grievance serve both the leader and his followers.
Trump is often viewed as a pathological liar. I disagree. I see him as an inventor of truth, a manufacturer of fabrications. He is his own novelist, telling a story and making up facts to fit the narrative. He believes in the veracity of his fabrications because they emanate from his mind. His only reality check is his own reality. Whatever he says must be true because he said it, and any contradictions with what he may have said before are conveniently ignored.
Negative news is “fake news” because he views any criticism of himself as false. The fact that he utters bold-faced lies is not a result of a deliberate intent to deceive. He doesn’t consider his lies to be lies because they applaud him and fit with his vision of himself as always right and always successful. Challenges to his version of reality are fake because they deviate from the facts determined by his inventive mind.
Trump’s authenticity was never more on display than during the 2016 presidential debates. Hillary Clinton was clearly the more knowledgeable and qualified candidate. Her answers were fact filled and informed. Trump relied on a repetition of campaign-tested sound bites, invective-filled rants, incoherent blather and snarky remarks.
Clinton won the debates on merit, according to the pundits. But Trump won the award for unadulterated authenticity and endeared himself to his base, which was looking for attitude, not aptitude.
The political veteran with the better credentials to be president lost. The novice candidate won. Authenticity triumphed over capability.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.