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The Reality TV Primaries

If you can get yourself to read past the third sentence of this article you may just learn how this year’s primary election is less about politics, or political solutions to America’s problems, and more about the confluence of three things: technology, the power of narrative, and the collective conscious of America.

Try to get through the next sentence knowing it is neither an endorsement for, nor an indictment of, a Presidential Primary candidate.

Politics aside, Donald Trump is the best-qualified candidate to win the Presidential Primaries.

The Most Qualified Candidate Has a Different Kind of Credential

I say this because he has the most experience of any of the candidates in the most powerful force driving the process—reality television. He is the only candidate who actually has hosted his own hit reality TV show. What does this have to do with politics? Nothing. Remember, I said, “Politics aside…”

Everyone is turning their minds in circles writing articles and creating commentary trying to explain what they call, “The Trump Phenomenon.” They chalk it up to the angry voter, the desire for Washington outsiders and a number of other theories.

The problem with all of these theories is that they neglect to consider the collective mind of the American people and the effect that reality television has had on it since the 1990’s. (MTV “Real World”, credited with popularizing the genre, launched in 1992).

On Air illuminated sign

Reality TV – on air, 24/7

According to the most recent survey by the Labor Department focusing on how American’s spend their time, the average American watches television two hours and 49 minutes per day, up ten minutes from the previous year. (You can see the survey results on the Bureau of Labor and Statistics website: “American Time Use Survey Report”.) Aside from sleep, and work, this is the most time we spend on anything during the day.

The American Collective Conscious and Presidential Primaries

So, what does all of this have to do with the Presidential Primary Elections? For almost 16 years we have been increasingly watching reality television shows where individuals are voted off of the show until one person is left and finally proclaimed the winner (think of “Survivor”, “The Biggest Loser”, “Top Chef”, etc.). Anyone who has watched “American Idol” will tell you that the winner isn’t always the most talented. These shows are careful to develop narratives around each of the characters so that the audience can find themselves emotionally attached to them. Then the contestants “perform” and are critiqued prior to the “vote.”   This is the formula we’ve learned to understand for almost 16 years. It’s how reality TV shows work.

Along comes this year’s Presidential Primary and Donald Trump, who by the way once told the producer of “The Apprentice”, “… politics is kind of a TV show.” He often refers to his poll numbers as “ratings,” the debate platform as “the stage,” and exclaimed during his recent fundraiser held the same night as the Fox News debates, “Look at all of the cameras in here! There must be more than at the Academy Awards!”

Whether you love him or hate him (there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people who are indifferent to him), Donald Trump understands that this is the first time since September 26, 1960—the first televised Presidential debate in American history—that the medium of television can have a major impact on an election. I’m not referring to advertising or what the media says, I’m referring to the relationship between reality shows and the American collective mind.

If you find my last statement a bit of a stretch, consider how the media is covering the debates. If you forget about politics and just listen to post-debate coverage you will hear judges critiquing individual performances. Even the media has found themselves behaving to and following the format of a reality show.

Reality TV Primaries: “… politics is kind of a TV show”

Donald Trump understands that we don’t believe what most politicians say during primary campaigns. History has taught us better. He also understands that after almost sixteen years of conditioning, our conscious minds have trouble differentiating televised campaigns from the reality show format. His unspoken strategy is to play his campaign like it’s a reality show and he’s the star. In this way, we don’t need to hear the specifics of what or how he’ll fix the economy or any other problems our country faces. He simply has to keep us interested in watching the show.

The biggest problem with what is happening is that the consequences of a Presidential Election are far more important than any reality show could ever be. When a winner survives to the end of a reality show, we—as a nation—are largely unaffected by the consequences.

This article isn’t about whether we should or shouldn’t elect Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. It’s about understanding ourselves culturally. The Donald Trump Phenomenon is more about the role television has played in the conditioning of our collective mind than it is about angry voters.

I’ve never been one to tell people who they should vote for or against and I’m not going to start now. As one who has studied culture and the collective mind for well over thirty years, I was compelled to write this article to help people understand what is happening so they can stop themselves from playing along to the reality TV narrative of these Presidential Primaries, and begin to truly analyze the politicians who are running in a more perspicacious context.

After all, we are about to vote for an American President, not an American Idol.


© Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership. Reprints available with permission.


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