The media has groomed the consumer need for conflict, drama and disagreement for decades. The obvious next step is to make it president.
During the 2012 elections, my 13-year-old, for a school assignment, watched a debate between presidential running mates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. I watched her shift back and forth on the couch, trying to take notes. She was obviously distressed. Finally, my usually unruffled teen yelled, “Why don’t they shut up and let the other one talk?”
Facts, typically hard to come by in political debates anyway, had given way to bickering, emotional bursts of defensiveness and snide comments. My daughter wasn’t aware of foreign policy, or many of the pressing issues we have in our country, but she was certain she would not vote for the candidate most acting like her junior high peers.
For the 2016 elections, the even lower level of emotional intelligence has reached its peak in Donald Trump. And the public is eating it up.
Trump has gone after his fellow Republican campaigners the way a toddler attacks his younger sibling. Of Carly Fiorina, he said, “”Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” Of Rick Perry he tweeted, “@GovernorPerry failed on the border. He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.”
Trumps comments, however, are not unlike comments we’ve heard throughout the 25+ year history of reality TV. Following the Writer’s Guild of America’s strike in 1988, show creators looked for ways to create television without writers and focused on what humans do.
In 1992, following the popularity of a Dutch realty TV show called Number 28, MTV created The Real World, which focused on the lives of young strangers addressing issues of sexuality, race, discrimination and other real life issues as they lived and worked together.
Before long, America took a more voyeuristic look at other aspects of life, from the Rock ‘n’ Roll empire of the Osbornes, to ogling wealthy housewives throughout the country, to watching the dysfunctional friends of Jersey Shore, admiring attractive people desperate to date 30 other attractive people and marry one of them, to viewing Donald Trump’s own Apprentice, in which people compete for a job with the mogul, or celebrities trying to raise money for their favorite charities. Many of them simply needed to get back in the public eye and reignite their flailing careers.
The only way to compete for ratings was to continue raising (or lowering) the bar to more and more outrageous behavior: Snooki’s punch in the face by a drunk gym teacher friend; Bachelor Jason Mesnick dumped the girl he chose on live TV for the runner up; Teresa Giudice flipped a table and called fellow Jersey housewife, Danielle, a “prostitution whore”; and of course, Big Brother Season 15 drew the public eye by one contestant telling an African American she was already on the dark side because she is dark and telling an Asian American to go make rice.
So when Donald Trump makes the statement on a (now deleted) Twitter post, “If Hilary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” it’s par for the course.
Politics and entertainment have become one. Celebrity news shows report as much about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe as they do Hillary Clinton’s hair. Entertainment savvy politicians, such as Donald Trump, have learned to meld their policies, views, shock value and agenda into a marketable, memorable and attention-grabbing package news organizations can’t ignore.
But Reality TV, according to psychologist Bryan Gibson, creates relational aggression, such as bullying, exclusion, and manipulation in those who watch it. Gibson told NPR’s All Things Considered, “We knew from past research that people who see relational aggression in media tend to become more aggressive. Gossiping and nastiness is prevalent on these shows …” He said that though those forms of media appear to be harmless, his research showed that there can be negative outcomes for viewers.
The kind of behavior we see from our political candidates mirror the behavior we’ve come to expect from our entertainers and the kind of world we live in.
In 2012, speaking at an adult education conference in West Virginia, I addressed the top 11 issues employers say are most missing in the candidates they seek to hire. Emotional intelligence, or the ability to communicate and relate to other human beings in a way that is respectful, collaborative and productive ranked right at the top of the list.
Teachers and social workers shared stories with me about students and clients who simply didn’t know how to address them in a school or business environment. They are socially inept and educationally challenged.
The fact is that the United States, which in 1995 ranked number one in college education among 28 developed countries, has fallen to number 19, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). And it’s no wonder that Trump’s demographic tends to be working-class males with lower levels of education.
Demographic researcher Emily Elkin said, “People say, ‘I don’t even know if I like him. He’s just so interesting.’” Elkin said, “He’s also entertaining. I think people enjoy that.”
Indeed, Donald Trump appears to be the candidate of the hour, at a time when we as a nation are deeply divided on issues of race, economics, religion and political ideologies. He says what many people think and says it in a way that mimics the outrageous and entertaining way a reality TV star would say them. In doing so, he raises the ratings of many media outlets and brings in the advertising dollars.
The American public has been groomed for such a time in our history. Like sheep, we follow the loudest voice and agree with the words that most resonate with our emotions. Political affiliations are chosen he way we choose our sports teams. Sports teams are chosen based on the most entertaining players. Currently, Donald Trump seems to be the loudest and most entertaining player for the Republican Party, while the rest of the country looks on in horror.
Unfortunately, many have simply grown tired of playing the game. According to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout in the United States trails that of most developed countries. In 2012, just 53 percent of voters showed up at the polls. That Donald Trump could become the next president is not too much of a stretch.
Like watching reality TV, voters have become non-participating bystanders. They watch, comment and sometimes enjoy the drama, not realizing, or perhaps believing, that their vote has any major consequence. Unlike reality television, elections change people’s lives for better or for worse. This election is no different. Donald Trump may be entertaining for some, but reality may never become more stark than his election into office, as long as the lines of entertainment and politics are blurred.
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Photo – Flickr/Gage Skidmore