In his tart and devastating takedown of Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention, Mike Bloomberg said: “This isn’t reality television – this is reality.”
But actually, it isn’t.
The election of 2016 is reality TV on a screen the size of a Montana sky, and if they gave out Emmys for Best Direction of a Political Series, Best Actor in an Unscripted Mega-Drama and Best Audience Manipulation, Trump would walk away with a fistful of statuettes.
Everyone in America has a different and often changing-by-the-day opinion of Trump. Pick your persona: He’s a clown in bad makeup, a brilliant businessman with a tower on Fifth Avenue, a flimflam man who fleeces the naïve, a tell-it-like-it-is patriot, a draft dodger who abuses Gold Star parents, a beloved dad with a gaggle of adoring kids, a crass misogynist, a candidate who speaks for his abandoned and fearful countrymen, an egomaniacal and dangerous fascist, a refreshing and honest voice vs. purveyors of stale Establishment pabulum and correctness, a hater of Mexicans and Muslims, a guy who believes in rules and just wants to keep our shores safe, a dunce who doesn’t understand geopolitics or trade or economics, a tough dude who will stand up to China, bring back jobs and make other nations pay up if they want the U.S. to police the world.
The possible interpretations of Trump are endless. But who doesn’t have one? The name “Trump” in Google’s search box produces 492,000,000 results.
“Folks,” as the man who loves the podium might say, “I must tell you, we’ve been played.”
For over a year, the nation has been riveted – whether in anger, nodding agreement, horror or bemusement – on The Donald Show, the most successful, can’t-look-away reality TV production in history.
The Kardashians for all their gender changes, naked selfies, contrived feuds and feverish pursuit of notoriety are pathetic amateurs compared with Trump.
He is a master at keeping all eyeballs glued upon him, and he does it with an instinctive feel for what makes emotion-churning political theater.
It has been said that Trump the director has borrowed from World Wrestling productions with their bombast and caricatures. And it’s true that he loves to create battles with evil or wildly flawed opponents -- whether it’s “pathological” Ben Carson, “lyin” Ted Cruz, “crooked” Hillary Clinton or the diabolical media – and build sometimes fantastical story lines. But pro wrestling is highly scripted and fake-y.
The Donald Show is almost completely unscripted, usually non-linear and entirely real.
Trump almost effortlessly introduces new plot twists, shocking developments, fresh characters to love or hate, gasp-inducing moments and tune-in-tomorrow cliffhangers.
Until the recently deposed Roger Ailes, the canny architect of Fox News, surfaces someplace else, Trump can rightly claim the crown as king of political media.
And the network suits have celebrated his success.
Last February, CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves made the now notorious pronouncement about the Trump candidacy: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
But The Donald Show hasn’t just driven ratings and revenue: It may have changed modern American politics.
For one thing, Trump has awakened the electorate, and he has been a one-man, bring-out-the-vote machine. In 2016 about 7 million more Americans voted in the GOP primaries than in 2012, for a total of 28.5 million (with 13.3 million of those votes for Trump).
More important, whatever you think of Trump, he has put professional politicians on notice that if they want to engage voters, they can’t keep feeding them the same bromide-laced swill that the country has been forced to swallow for too many election years.
That’s the new reality.