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Gather around the TV, kids. Walk-on-the-moon-type history is being made and it’s coming to you in HD clarity and flat-screen brilliance. The 2016 presidential race is America’s first interactive reality show, with a carefully coiffed candidate who has more in common with Real World-ers, Real Housewives and contestants on America’s Got Talent than serious civic leaders. In fact, Donald Trump reminds me of the AGT contestant a few seasons ago who called himself “Horse,” whose sole talent was having people kick him in the scrotum. The live audience screamed in delight at every strike, so naturally, the judges voted him through.
Like Horse, Trump has delighted the voting audience by enduring a series of kicks to the nether region from the political left, right and center that would send any other candidate staggering to the nearest podium to suspend his or her campaign in shame. Shame is a byproduct of conscience that keeps us on a moral path. Without shame, we permit ourselves to perpetuate any offense without recourse. That’s why the American public always has demanded contrition from any politician who has sinned against us by lying, misleading or performing an act of corruption. Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and more have been shamed in the pillory of public opinion. All publicly renounced their lamentable actions and, with humility false or true, asked America for forgiveness.
But there is no shame in reality TV. The stars perpetrate the most heinous acts on each other without an iota of self-awareness or the moral foundation that fosters shame. In their “confessionals” to the camera, they indignantly justify their own bad behavior with twisted logic and blame the others for their own betrayals. They confuse having character traits — like cruelty, self-deception and rudeness — with having character. They think malevolence and malice is the same as grit and grace.
If anyone has cause to be ashamed, it’s Donald Trump. His Kevlar athletic cup has protected him from shots to the groin that include, most recently, his misogynist statements, his indecision on major issues, his contradictions and his outright lies. In the past couple of weeks alone, he has been caught in four separate lies: He claimed not to have supported the Iraq War, but actual interview tape was revealed that showed him offering mild support. He claimed not to have pretended to be publicists John Miller and John Baron, alter egos who bragged about Trump’s achievements, but tape was revealed of him admitting to being both. He announced his support of veterans by claiming to raise $6 million, $1 million of which was a personal donation, but reporters found the sum of money actually raised was considerably less, and his own donation was never given until reporters kept digging. He then argued that he’d never said he’d raised $6 million even though there is video proof. He suggested Vince Foster, a former Clinton confidant who committed suicide in 1993, might have been murdered, even though several investigations all concluded it had been suicide. Later he said he didn’t mean it. Which is worse: that he lies so much, that he’s so bad at lying despite so much experience at it, or that his supporters think that lying is part of his charm? Perhaps supporters echo the old saying, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” He’s a liar, but he’s our liar.
“But wait! There’s more!” as TV infomercial announcers cheerfully declare. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, despite the fact that every candidate since 1976 has done so. The other night on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, he agreed to debate Bernie Sanders. The next day he said that he was just kidding.
What happens on TV stays on TV. For reality show stars, they are separate realities.
Why no outraged backlash from the public, especially his supporters? After all, if they support a person of such bad character, doesn’t that reflect on their own character and intelligence? Not on reality television! We forgive reality stars their moral trespasses and boorish behavior because that is the source of their popularity. These qualities, so horrific in real life, are gold on TV. The more outrageously they behave, the more we come back to shake our heads in superiority and rub our hands in delight. So, it’s no wonder that when we run a reality TV character for president, we hold him up to a different set of moral and behavioral standards. We expect outrageous, inappropriate and shocking behavior because that’s the nature of the beast — and the source of ratings.
But Hillary Clinton we hold to the standards of a public official. We rightfully question her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. However, Trump and his supporters have so far completely ignored the fact that State Department investigators found that former secretaries of state under President George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, also received, or had top staffers receive, classified information through personal email accounts. To them, the past does not illuminate the future; it’s like old seasons of The Bachelor, buried on Hulu or Netflix, without relevance to the new show.
Reality TV tells us that anyone can go from obscurity to national prominence, fulfilling not the traditional American dream of success through merit, but the new vacuum-packed, microwaveable, Kardashian-branded American dream of instant fame without any talent. The new reality is that everyone deserves fame by a willingness to act like a toddler. Leaders once challenged the American conscience with “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Today we have the new mantra of Ikea-like, easily assembled candidates like Donald Trump: “Are you not entertained?”
Abdul-Jabbar is an author, cultural commentator and NBA Hall of Famer.
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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