Richard Hatch took home the Survivor million-dollar prize on August 23, 2000 and kicked off a micro-age of the earth.
The Real World had been popular, but it wasn’t until Hatch showed us true political cunning in a fantasy survival scenario that Reagan voters joined the rest of us and tapped into the unique dopamine of reality TV.
Survivor was the first reality television show to reach the top spot in the Nielsen Ratings, and the new millennium surged into the unreality age. Soon to follow was an avalanche of competition shows that took up half the Nielsen top ten, and a fake successful businessman that we’ll get back to in a minute.
Nielsen ratings can be read as crude prophecy of an emerging zeitgeist, a predictor of whom we’re likely to choose as our future chief executive, or at least an illumination of the triggers of the white hegemony, whose demographic heft has, up to this point, decided our national direction.
Reagan could be seen as an expression of the white national mourning of the loss of Bonanza, Happy Days and The Andy Griffith Show.
Norman Lear created a factory of hits after the social revolution of the late 60s that highlighted the clash of generations, and the humanity and humor of black men and women. Bill Clinton’s campaign was a natural presidential heir to the work of these Nielsen points.
Dr. Cosby aided Clinton too, and gave way to A Different World and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which some boomers absorbed as the promise of young black intellect, and the ground softened for Barack Obama’s presidency and the Obama-Trump voter.
GHWB rode the depth of the Happy Days nostalgia, and GWB was a narrow reaction to the conservative angst, buoyed by a spike in evangelical fervor, over the threat of the social and sexual liberty of Clinton’s impeachment, Seinfeld, Friends, Will and Grace and ER.
Richard Hatch and Mark Burnett gave us Trump.
The 2000s were dominated by reality TV. Multiple locations were launched for Survivor. American Idol and Dancing With the Stars had a slot almost every night of the week.
And then came The Apprentice.
We’d had this vague sense from Robin Leach and Howard Stern that Donald Trump was a good businessman who could procure jets and Eastern European beauties to marry. But we got inside a fake boardroom in Trump Tower and were convinced that he was the real deal.
We didn’t hear about the Taj Mahal bankruptcy. The civil rights lawsuit against him and his father. The friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. Mark Burnett used the unreality age to concoct a leadership savant.
My wife and I watched The Apprentice every week. I rooted for Bill Rancic, and was stoked when he won. 28 million people watched Trump choose him to run Trump Chicago.
You might remember The Apprentice as a ratings hit. The premier season was the 5th rated show but it was only 3 times, outside the top 50 it’s last three seasons. That’s how most of this micro-age has gone, a series of half-ingested facts that turned out to be wrong.
In an inversion of the rule, the final seasons of The West Wing were inspired by a young Senator from Illinois, a generational political talent. The inspiration for Matt Santos became one of the 15 best presidents in the country’s history.
A subset of the white hegemony couldn’t take it. He was too radical a change from what came before. A threat to upend the modern coalitions, he was a liberal Reagan in the making. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, to whom some Reaganites turned to after their movie-star made his exit to find a new religion, saw the danger to their narrative. So they made up a new one.
Barack Hussein Obama was on existential threat. A conspiracy emerged in the tailwind of fears of Islamic terror, that he was a secret muslim born in Kenya, a sleeper agent who’d made his way through Occidental College to Harvard Law. The ultimate Long Con. Obama won anyway.
Trump found the birther conspiracy easy to champion and took it on, seeing a real Long Con himself, a raft of true believers to gather up and lead by the nose. Since Trump had conned us as a fake executive, as a fake university founder and philanthropist, he figured he might play his hand in political theatre.
He told us he had his best people on it. Many people had told him it was true. Even when Obama dispelled the rumor with facts, Trump was undeterred. His supporters didn’t balk at his error, because reality became what Trump said it was. He became THEIR guy.
He harnessed the illusion of competence, which followed him into the Republican Primaries. We’d seen the golden toilet and the jets, the Columbus Circle and Chicago high-rises with his nameplate above the door. It didn’t matter that those assets had seen cycles of litigation and serious trouble. It didn’t matter that their champion had no grasp of history or policy in the debates. They LIKED that about him.
And now we jump to the 6th of January. Many Trump supporters, were wise to the con from the early days, but went along for the promise of Judges and tax cuts. A subset weren’t in on the hustle.
In the capitol riots, the fever dream of QAnon, pedophile rings and deep state machinations was born into the real. By their telling, they were avenging a wrong. Trump had being thwarted by Democrats even before he’d won in 2016 with the Russia Investigation. Obama, Biden, and Hillary, playing a Bond-villian hand to lock in some insurance in case Hillary had lost. The socialist takeover that, not materializing in the eight years Obama was in power, was certain to come from dark forces inside Trump’s administration, with ushers named Comey, Mueller aided by Schiff and Pelosi.
Now they’d stolen Trump’s second term. Nevermind that Trump had claimed fraud in the election he won, and cooked up a voter fraud commission where even the toady Kris Kobach couldn’t summon evidence of wrongdoing.
This time, Brian Kemp was in on it. Raffensberger too, with his suitcases of ballots for Biden in State Farm Arena. The Republican Wisconsin Legislature. The legion of the dead sending in mail ballots. Not Mitch McConnell, too?! Surely, the tortoise from Kentucky had the secret intel about Biden’s crime family and the communist infiltration of our government? When were the Generals going to launch the Junta?!
They stormed the capital, a payload of mental bullshit pressing against their optic nerves, the white light of rage urging them into the Rotunda. They were self-styled patriots on a righteous mission, waved along by their President. But he didn’t “come with them.” He watched from the TV screen. He laughed and enjoyed the show with his family, as hundreds of his supporters plunged into a felony.
On January 20th, they watched him shuffle from Marine One to a podium in frigid winter — skipping town and an invitation to be a part of the executive alumni club — his spray tan unable to mask the relief of age lines in the morning light, a crowd of two-hundred of the paid and the conjured, to offer a soft applause to his limp parting. Trump had lain down his plastic sword and Q was silent as to the next important date, the next shoe to drop, a pile of empty promises inert at their feet.
The age of unreality got on Air Force One and flew to Florida with Trump.
We watched Joe Biden perform Vinay Reddy’s masterful screed on what America could be, and even with Biden’s understated delivery, the MAGA era seemed as vapid and brutish as ever, the promises of Q a tragic farce in light of high-minded rhetoric in defense of domestic tranquility.
Biden is an invitation back to reality. Yes, his inaugural was hagiography for an imaginary America — a united, pragmatic one — which has never really existed beyond an Aaron Sorkin writing room, a Reagan/Tip O’Neill brunch and a few weeks after 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. January 6th didn’t approach those in terms of fortifying bi-partisan support for a cause.
138 Republicans in the House were on the side of the fraud, voting in support of the fiction that something was amiss in Pennsylvania, committed to the Con until the end. But that’s mostly over now, unless accountability makes a rare appearance in our public life and a senate trial unfolds with a surprising outcome.
Most of our eyes are wide open, looking for a more sober, boring form of government to come into view. We want four years of cerebral, prestige TV. It’s better work than the exhausting national task of grooming a narcissist’s delusions. We’re lucky enough of us got spooked by the insanity of the last four years to try and seek out an impulse toward goodness, reality, again. We’ll see if it lasts, and what this new age, our age of culture which algorithms curate beyond the eyes of Nielsen, has in store.