From Donald Trump to Matt Hancock, reality TV is ruining democracy one viral show at a time

By Louis Shankar

Published Nov 24, 2022 at 01:23 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

From Donald Trump to Matt Hancock, democracy and reality television are becoming increasingly intertwined—and it’s increasingly worrying and corrosive to our core political principles.

Of course, celebrity and politics have long been close personal bedfellows: Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor before he was the Governor of California, a post later occupied by Arnold  Schwarzenegger, aka the Terminator. Meanwhile, across the pond, Boris Johnson was a regular guest host of the long-running British panel show, Have I Got News For You?

Not all overlaps between celebrity and politics are negative though: Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine since 2019, was a comedian and actor before he was a politician—playing a fictional Ukrainian president in the satirical show Servant of the People from 2015 to 2019.

But reality TV presents a different challenge, not least given the ongoing blurring of lines between reality and fiction. The early wave of reality television arrived in the 1990s—most significantly The Real World, which aired on MTV from 1992 to 2017—but quickly exploded in the new millennium. Documentary format programmes also came thick and fast: The Osbournes (2002), The Simple Life (2003), Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007), etc.

Competitive shows with public votes spawned and soon spread internationally: Simon Cowell and  Pop Idol (2001), The X Factor (2004), and various Got Talent competitions (for instance, Britain’s Got Talent started in 2007). Voting became commonplace, even if it was primarily a way for the channels to make money from calls and texts. People would vote for the strange and stupid, occasionally  celebrating the eccentric but also resulting in multiple dogs being hailed as the greatest talent this country has to offer (no offence, Pudsey). Expert advice was ignored in favour of impulsive and emotive decisions. And some of the most successful acts after the fact—One Direction, anyone?— failed at the time to win enough public support.

So, did such patterns of behaviour have long-term impacts? It’s hard to know for sure. A 2015 study found that more 18 to 22-year-olds in the UK voted on reality TV shows than were planning on voting in that year’s general election. This does seem to have shifted in the years since though, perhaps due to divisive events such as Brexit and even more divisive individuals like Trump—after all, gen Zers were the key in stopping the predicted ‘red wave’ in this year’s US midterms.  

Then there’s The Apprentice—hosted and produced from 2004 to 2015 by the disgraced former US President, which helped catapult him to household celebrity name status. Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump all starred on the show in various capacities, and would go on to play a number of roles in their father’s administration.

Trump was only fired by NBC when he announced his candidacy for President because the network disagreed with remarks he made about Mexican immigrants. No one intervened when he made his scurrilous foray into politics by spreading birther conspiracy theories that questioned Barack Obama’s American citizenship. He later appeared on Good Morning America and The View to further emphasise these arguments—appearances that elevated his political profile in the years leading up to 2016. He was essentially the first reality TV president, now the question is—will he be the last?

The Apprentice UK has been hosted since 2005 by Lord Alan Sugar. The British businessman is hardly compatible with Trump in terms of his affect on national politics, but the show still gives him influence and a national platform—despite spewing sexist and racist abuse on Twitter, such as that time he compared the Senegal World Cup squad to people selling sunglasses. It’s also worth noting that he remains a lawmaker in the House of Lords for life. Plus, the show was ultimately responsible for Katie Hopkins, surely one of the most abominable so-called commentators to have been featured in British public discourse. Can anyone remember a winner?

Politicians Ed Balls and Ann Widdecombe both memorably appeared on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. The latter went on to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in 2018, coming second to Australian drag queen Courtney Act.

Widdecombe was subsequently elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Brexit Party in the 2019 European Parliament elections, serving until the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. Meanwhile, Penny  Morduant, who ran twice to be Conservative leader this year and is the incumbent Leader of the House of Commons, appeared on the short-lived diving reality show Splash! in 2014, donating all of her £10,000 appearance to charity.

I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, which has aired annually on ITV since 2002, has regularly  pushed the limits of what it means to be a celebrity in the public eye. In 2012, Nadine Dorries took part in I’m a Celeb, without informing the chief whip. She lost the party whip as result, but it was returned in 2013 and she was readmitted to the parliamentary party. Dorries subsequently served as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from 2021 to 2022 under Boris Johnson—literally putting her in charge of television for the government.

Remember when Ant and Dec used the show to criticise Johnson over Partygate? What’s become of political journalism when such platforms become vital satire?

Matt Hancock—the health secretary who served during most of the COVID-19 pandemic, oversaw tens of thousands of excess deaths, and was forced to resign after breaking his own lockdown regulations—entered the infamous jungle this year. He too had the whip removed but is still a sitting MP, despite being entirely unable to serve his constituents for the duration of the show. Hancock has used his primetime to ask for forgiveness and evidently promote his autobiography —why has he been granted this right?

Multiple members of the Trump administration have also sought rehabilitation in the public eye  through appearances on reality television: Sean Spicer, the disgraced former press secretary,  appeared on season 28 of Dancing with the Stars. Rudy Giuliani—once the respected Mayor of New York City but better known now as Trump’s personal lawyer and peddler of 2020 election  conspiracy theories—was revealed to be Jack in the Box earlier this year on the American version  of The Masked Singer.

Several judges walked off immediately and the internet responded in shock,  but given that the show is produced by FOX Entertainment and aims to create the most shocking reveals possible, perhaps this isn’t as surprising.

Politicians are using reality television to raise and rehabilitate their public profiles. Reality TV  regularly courts controversy to increase viewership and generate discussion on social media.  These interlinked dynamics create a vicious and damaging cycle—in turn, elevating and often  celebrating the fringe and the controversial.

Should reality television and politics ever operate in the same sphere? Increasingly, the genre is becoming more divorced from reality—‘surreality’ television might be a more apt name—while the real world effects of politics are becoming more direct and brutal. At the end of the day, it’s important to be able to separate the two. The stakes are too high otherwise.

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