The Germ Has Spread: How America Elected a Reality Show President

April 7, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 9 10 min read

Back in June, an article titled “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win” (penned by Michael Moore) showed up on my news feed and, because I was tracking the election rather closely, I read it. I then read it again. After the third time, I shared the article around and asked for people’s’ opinions. While this article and his subsequent rounds on talk shows have made Moore one of the many prominent figures that will be forever tied to Donald Trump’s unlikely run to the White House, there is one person who has him beat by roughly 30 years. When Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business back in 1986, he set his sights on what he saw was a change in the way society was being swayed by the spectacle of the visual message in media. Unfortunately, even he could not foresee how his look into the harmful influence of television and media overexposure was completely foreshadowing the rise of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, and our first “Reality Show President.”

covercoverIt is necessary, before we juxtapose the Trump candidacy to Postman’s work, that we fully understand a few of the theories posed in Amusing Ourselves to Death. To rationalize his theory, Postman quotes the philosopher Lewis Mumford who, in his book Technic and Civilization, deconstructs our society’s propensity to become addicts of information. For this, Mumford uses the invention of the clock as an example. He believed that when we created this tool to measure increments of time, we effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.” In other words, we created a tool to measure time, and in doing so, produced a new form of currency that would come to shape our society — we crafted the golden calf and then worshipped at its feet.

Looking at our current relationship with media and what constitutes news in this day and age reveals that we have learned nothing from creating false idols. News and information are now produced in cycles, with hundreds if not thousands of people working to create content for every second of battery life on your cellphone. Postman, writing long before the smart phone, would trace our poisoned, ever-flowing information stream to our fascination with celebrity. He begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by claiming that our society’s unhealthy attraction to polarizing characters in media is reminiscent of the brilliance and spectacle of a city like Las Vegas:

Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into into congenial adjunct of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.

While it stands as a perfect representation of the times, and likewise a great visual, the analogy of Vegas seems almost pedestrian now. Postman was writing in the age before the reality star; a time when MTV was just a channel dedicated to music, and outlandish public spectacle did not equate ratings. Popular TV shows at the time included The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Family Ties — shows that served as reflections of what we told ourselves were American values. Conflict was only just beginning to seep into our TV sets, mostly through trashy talk shows hosted by the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Richard Bey.

While Postman looked to television as the source of our media addiction, the Internet age has amplified this by orders of magnitude. Retweet, Repost, Tag, and Repeat have become embedded into our everyday mantras along with brush your teeth and wash your hands. According to studies like one carried out by ZenithOptMedia, Americans consume almost eight hours of media per day, with that number steadily rising. Postman’s world became reliant on the effectiveness and speed of the televised message; we have grown into a society that gets bombarded by thousands of different messages each day. This has become so ingrained into our society, and we have become so numb to rolling this boulder up the steep precipice, that we have now slipped into a practice of relying on information that is served in small, bite-sized portions in order to consume more. I myself found Amusing Ourselves to Death only after reading the small blurb posted by a friend and clicking a link. Information served to us in this buffet format forces us to be selective. We can’t process everything, so instead we fall for “clickbait” articles, hashtags, and buzzwords. We have become a society hooked on riskier avenues of information, with riskier personalities at the helm.

I always take whatever Moore produces with a grain of salt, but I took notice of his open letter to America in which he detailed why Trump was destined to win in November. Moore likened the American public to a person who, looking at the spectacle of Niagara Falls, “wonders for a moment what it would feel like to go over that thing.” Trump was too much of a magnet, too much of a spectacle, for us to ignore. His supporters, people so dissatisfied with the effectiveness of their government, boldly chose to brave the roaring falls of a Trump presidency. To his opponents, Trump still served as a form of amusement. Both camps were fueled by entertainment we were fed by the sometimes ludicrous missteps of the media.

It’s saying a lot about us when we come to fully accept the deceptive candidate propaganda and attack ads that are built into our political climate. It’s saying even more when any candidate who attempts to take the “high road” and stick to the issues does so at the risk of coming off as human (just ask John Kasich). While some of us groaned and complained about “dirty politics” and the lack of civilized discourse, we also tuned into the presidential debates in droves to see what horrible thing Trump would say next. It became less about policies and more about quotable insults to post and share. As a result, the movement to get Donald Trump elected was fought on two fronts: one of image and one of misinformation. While Trump the candidate scowled into the camera and provided the entertainment value without any actual credible evidence for his claims, others worked to circulate false information online. While this is par for the course in politics, for this election, it proved to be highly effective in reinforcing the Trump base. According to a Florida PPP poll held in October, while 84 percent of Trump supporters believed that Hillary Clinton should have been imprisoned, another 40 percent legitimately claimed to believe that she was an actual living demon. Even to this day, months after Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, there are many fanatics who believe the toxic message spread throughout the campaigns.

Postman writes, “American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display.” During Trump’s run, the media produced several pieces of damning evidence to discredit him. Like the showman that he is, Trump turned the blame back onto the media, describing them as corrupt and “crooked.” In short, when Trump undermined the validity of the mainstream media, he effectively gave agency to fringe news outlets. Maybe during Postman’s time these outliers spreading fanatical misinformation would be nothing more than people handing pamphlets out in subways or having their hateful propaganda relegated to hard-to-find shows on the radio dial. But during our election, the Internet allowed for the sharing and re-sharing of this misinformation. And by the time anyone was ready to strike these claims down, it was 1,000 to 2,000 shares too late — the germ had spread.

Trump rolled through the entire process speaking (and tweeting) whatever he wanted to, knowing full well that, as Postman describes, “It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”

Trump dominated his own message throughout his run — seemingly alienating women, immigrants, and the Black and Latino vote. But just like a train-wreck of a reality show, he was only rewarded for behaving badly. According to The New York Times, although he ranked the lowest in actual spending on advertising during his run, Trump received close to $2 billion in free publicity by news outlets and social media — yes, the same media he was condemning. As described in this article, the significance of “earned media” (as it’s called) “typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.” This, coupled with Trump’s continued mastery of 140 characters to manipulate both his supporters and detractors into keeping his messages in circulation, led to a fundamental change in how we have attached truth to “celebrity” in this country.

By the time Election Day came, the Democratic Party (and eventually the media) had wasted all of their efforts trying to prove that he was unfit for presidency when in actuality, to his supporters, he became legitimized the more popular culture rejected him.  The Left, after finally deciding to take him seriously, tried to attack the man’s character without acknowledging that he was a character. That he was a product of a society that has been groomed, through the popularity of reality television, to reward people whose sole motivation is to rock the boat, even at the detriment of those who can’t swim.

In validating our reality show president, we may have just incited the absolute worst product of any reality show — the spinoffs. In electing Trump based on nothing but his celebrity status alone, this has allowed for the emergence of toxic figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon to be featured on our TV screens.

But Postman didn’t just warn us against the popularization of polarizing figures. In its most telling chapter, entitled “And Now … This,” Postman explains the start of the Reagan era, citing details eerily similar to those we have seen in our 45th President, more than years later. He writes, “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general.” Substitute their names in this quote and maybe Trump’s insistence to evoke similarities between himself and Reagan are worth some merit.

What may provide the most revealing mirror of our current culture is what Postman writes about the quality of information circulating at the time. While Reagan was providing dubious claims on specific events throughout the world, the media was faltering in its attempt at properly providing a filter for its audience. He states:

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

In just this small section, Postman sums up what our news outlets and mainstream media sources have been up against in Trump’s first 30 days in office. In that time, I have yet to find a better definition for what we are now calling “fake news” and “alternative facts” than the one Postman outlines in this chapter.

Postman warns that during the Reagan presidency, this all led to an oversaturation and overexertion by the press and the people who avidly follow politics. Reagan’s “disinformation” eventually became so common that the news outlets and citizen’s seemed to care less about its validity. In other words, they had reached a threshold for the amount of “disinformation” the public could absorb before the abnormal became the norm, regardless of how many articles reporters produced. In other words, while the press continued its stand on fact-checking the president, the audience (the American public) became complacent in the face of the constant bombardment.

This leads to a section of Postman’s which should be outlined and sent to anyone who is already beginning to feel “Trump fatigue.” Our president and his mouthpieces are attempting to use the same tactics Reagan and his administration used to handle things such as White House leaks and unflattering press. As a result, the usual way to engage in critiquing our current presidency is doomed to fail. Simply pointing out inconsistencies and outright fabrications will not be enough to win out in the end. To understand this better, Postman does a fantastic job at describing the two schools of discourse at play here. Explaining his own upbringing, he calls his approach “typographic discourse” which is a linear way of disseminating fact from fiction. To Postman, an essay written by one of his students cannot contain a paragraph with one view posed as “true” and then be directly followed an opposing viewpoint that is then also posed as a truth. Postman writes, “The difference between us is that I assume…one paragraph and the next to be connected, to be continuous, to be part of the same coherent world of thought. That is the way of typographic discourse, and typography is the universe I’m ‘coming from.’” He then explains that the new form of discourse — one that we are facing right now during this presidency — is fragmented discourse, which he describes as “The fundamental assumption that the world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.” Trump’s uncanny ability to brush aside full-blown media pieces about his numerous inconsistencies and contradictions proves that this is a coordinated effort to use fractured discourse to demoralize opposing voices.

There are differences between the world we live in and the one Postman is outlining in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wrote that while the Reagan administration was tactfully adjusting the the quality of information coursing through the country to best suit its needs, it wasn’t actively trying to bend the mainstream media to its whim. He explains, “The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.” Aside from the Russian propaganda parallels (which today pick up a whole new meaning), many people wonder whether Trump is in fact trying to do that very thing. His war against the media — going as far to name The New York Times, WaPo, and the AP by name as detriments to society (“enemy of the American People!”) is, for many, a move to control or outright silence media who print dissent. And, many could say, the “lies defined as truth and truth defined as lies” has been part of the Trump mainstay since he announced his candidacy.

For those who did not vote for Trump, it may be assuring to know that Neil Postman survived two terms of the Reagan Presidency. Does Postman offer any advice on avoiding electing another reality show president?  While he admits that he lacks the competence to find a “cure” for America’s addiction to spectacle, he does offer a few ideas. Most notably, Postman believes we should curb the amount of time spent within the media loop to avoid oversaturation. A second, more humorous, piece of advice would be to “require all political commercials to be preceded by a short statement to the effect that common sense has determined that watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual health of the community.”

For now, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is a must-read in the Trump era, both for the public and those covering this presidency — a resource for those of us who aren’t here for the spectacle.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

is a Bronx-born writer out of New York. His writing has been featured in The Rumpus, Entropy Mag, and Points in Case. His literary essays and reviews have been selected in The Millions and Fjords Review, with his most recent being translated into Italian. He is currently writing a book about his life that would make a terrible movie. You can follow his calculated musings on Twitter @SmilingDarkly.


  1. When I was in seventh grade, we had a “Sex Ed” class (this was the early ’70s), in which we were taught about, and discussed, all sorts of things… almost anything but Sex, in fact. The word “sex” (or “intercourse”) came up, from time to time, but never to the extent that I was lead to believe that what we were “learning” had anything to do with naked grownups going at it. And this is what essays and discussions about “Media’s Impact” on politics and human psychology remind me of: the discourse always manage to swerve around The Action. The Action is Propaganda…. which you mention, Alcy, in the article… but not to the extent that it’s identified as the most powerful and ubiquitous tool “They” have got for delivering the various outcomes discussed in your article.

    Yes, Trump is the “Reality Show Contestant” President… in a country in which the seat of government has been deliberately presented as a “Reality Show” since before Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio ( 1933- ’44), including, for example, the drama of Frankin’s polio and Eleanor’s popular (and controversial) presence as a media construct herself. The chief function of a President (or any powerful politician), especially in a media-saturated Empire, is to provide an Image, human face… a *simulated personality* constructed for maximum impact… on top-down socio-economic decisions that the Electorate will need to be persuaded to live with or even rally around (eg declarations of War). Like any Reality Show, the Whitehouse Reality show looks *real* while being largely (or entirely) scripted.

    To single Trump out for this kind of critique blinds us to the fact that the pathology under our microscope is not, contrary to the fantasy, an isolated example… it’s ubiquitous… it is US. The old (worn-out) G. Santayana saying, about those who cannot remember the past being doomed to repeat it… is weirdly off. The question is: when does the Past become the Past? In many ways, things are almost exactly the same now as they were a century ago… we are “repeating” The Past, in some respects, simply because we never left it (in some respects).

    Where, before, the Newspapers and Radio carried The Reality Show of Government, to sway the masses one way or another, we’ve added a few high tech media, we’ve tweaked the character descriptions (there are now “Negroes”… laugh… featuring in the Reality Show, and more powerful Women and “Homosexuals”)… but it’s still a show, and the show is still delivering Propaganda, and The Masses are still, basically, clueless about the provenance and function regarding the “information” they (or we) are getting.

    For most of us, now, to actually see the Big Picture, regarding the topics this essay (and Postman’s book) addresses, would be very much like us 12th-graders, back in 1971, seeing actual intercourse, in class, instead of weirdly evasive (and disinformational) feints and abstractions which told us Nothing. Would we have been ready for it? More importantly: how much would it have hurt us of we weren’t…?

    PS Meanwhile, re: Trump: now that Trump has officially started his career as a War Criminal, illegally bombing sovereign nations for political (and corporate) gain, why can’t we bash him for THAT? Is “grabbing ’em by the pussy” that much worse than blowing children’s heads off?

  2. @steven augustine
    About your PS: I wouldn’t try to gauge how “grabbing ’em by the pussy” stacks up against bombing children and civilians in some grand calculus that assumes the two can be objectively weighed. The matter doesn’t come down to a judgment we’ve made so much as the idea we have of what it is a president should do, what a president has permission to do (as well as the concepts we have of America’s position as arbiter of world conflicts and/or the caller of all the world’s shots; an outdated position, I think, but one that to my mind has come unchecked since the Cold War ended). There’s been this pernicious sense from 2001 on that a president’s duty is to engage in decisive military action against foreign enemies, and all that behooves him is whether to kill with a modicum of judgment, sobriety, or ambivalence or clumsily and indiscriminately. The question of the cost of such force is not asked, or else given a platitude for an answer (it’s lamentable but necessary; it had to be done; it was the only way out). The issue of whether to use force at all never comes up. (I recall this tweet I saw just a couple days ago, to the effect of “All president have to bomb people. We need a president who’ll bomb people responsibly.” An insane amount of equivocation in that line; but an understandable sort when you realize how much we’ve come to value some absurd notion of pragmatism and “reality.” The latter being the same reason, for some, that “grabbing ’em by the pussy” wasn’t all that bad: because it’s a *reality* that if a woman puts herself in a compromising position with a more powerful man, he’ll take advantage.)

    We’ve ceded so much ground to this concept of what a “pragmatic” American president must do in a geopolitically complex age—in which it’s assumed we don’t have the “luxury” of being moral; in which the moral position is the child’s way of looking at the world, not the adult’s. I have the sense this may be the same thing you meant your comment to express. I just have some issues with the way your last question came off. It’s not about which is *worse*, but what we’ve become inured to. When in reality, we shouldn’t be inured to either of these things: to a man, a person with power, getting what he wants out of another, like a woman with less power, to whose body he is entitled, by force; or to a person wielding the power to kill who “wage[s] war without knowing war,” to borrow from James Carroll—drops missiles or drones because people in his own nation or administration find it decisive or just necessary and is weighed or judged by that action solely by what it means for his own nation’s or administration’s politics or position, not in any genuine sense judged by what horror he has wrought or might wreak as a result.

    Side note: The concept of what a president “should be” is also one element of the outrage Trump received for the “pussy” comments. A much, much smaller element than the genuine anger felt by and on behalf of those who’ve had that experience and experiences like it and the anger felt by those who are incensed at the thought of a woman or any other human being treated in that way, but still part of it. That’s not the kind of thing a *president* is supposed to say…

  3. Hello I!

    Well, part of my point, in that “PS”, is that blowing off children’s heads is *clearly* worse, all current social conditioning aside, by orders of magnitude, distilled to the objective comparison between murder and the perpetration of a socially-calculated indignity (death is absolute; mores shift)… and how sick have we become that the former (techno-ritualized) act doesn’t have us shouting about it every day? Which point I think you also touch on. But, at the risk of triggering a reference to Godwin’s Law… there’s an ugly precedent in the cultural conditioning alibi, no?

    Also: when will we admit to ourselves that Trump is not the only “pussy grabber” to have leered-up the Oval Office, and why are some of us so naive as to sort of kind of allow ourselves to think he might be? Let’s cast a realistically broad net for “pussy grabbers” and have a serious look at things as they are regarding the nature of Power… and the mind-clouding power of the Propaganda (delivered from cradle to grave, wall-to-wall, 24/7) which is worthy of discussion and study.

    The inability to discuss The Propaganda is, of course, a function of the effectiveness of… The Propaganda. Our culture is *made* of it. That’s what I was trying to get it in my first, typo-ridden comment on this essay.

    Thanks for the chat!

  4. I do find the case you’ve made a just one, steven augustine. But I think people keep getting dragged into fruitless conversations about which acts are or aren’t worth objecting to that prevent us all from acknowledging *both* are worth objecting to, strenuously. We can hold our politicians—if not all people—to standards that are clear that no such exercise of power to take away someone’s control over their body, someone’s life, is permissible.

    Your last point is a good one. It’s strange; over the last few weeks, in particular, I’ve been struck with what’s in a sense a twisted sort of relief that with Trump, some of the long-buried rot in American politics is finally coming to the surface. I feel like a lot of us are coming face-to-face with our illusions, even as those have been dissipating for a while now. Whether we’ll do something with this new sight, of course, remains to be seen.

  5. ” I feel like a lot of us are coming face-to-face with our illusions, even as those have been dissipating for a while now.”

    Agreed: some are, in the vernacular, “woke”. Will we reach a critical mass of Wokeness? The “Reality Show” of Empire would still seem to have excellent ratings, but maybe that’s the biggest illusion of all and things are on the verge of changing (for the better)…

  6. The Syrian missile strike was not a war crime. Had Obama done something similar you all would be praising it. Those on the ground were warned an hour in advance at the airfield. Righteous indignation and a clear message to Assad do not a war crime make.

  7. Thank you, Kirk, for pointing this out. With the exception of Trump’s uncouth behavior and comments, I can’t see that he has done anything that his predecessor had not also committed, including bombings, deportations, and surveillance. As I read somewhere, when a Democrat occupies the White House, progressives go to sleep.

  8. @Gail and Kirk

    “With the exception of Trump’s uncouth behavior and comments, I can’t see that he has done anything that his predecessor had not also committed, including bombings, deportations, and surveillance.”

    As I always say: when Pepsico gets a new President, do they start bottling champagne…?

    Which is not to defend Trump (who will soon be invading and bombing and droning and torturing, on the flimsiest or the most blatantly phony pretexts, with the best of them) but to point out that the charming/ caring/ humanitarian masks worn by his predecessors could only ever have fooled us if we *wanted to be fooled*.

    Trump has quite a way to go before he catches up with BHO or Billary but he’s shown that it won’t be for lack of trying if his kill count falls woefully short in 4 or 8 years. And, of course, whichever Kardashian takes the office, after DT is gone, will pick up exactly where DT left off…

    PS See the fiendishly clever beauty of the system? Whoever is in office, half will be for him/her, the other half will be against… by default… without a shred of cognition informing either position! Such a “stalemate” is eminently stable, meaning The Machine is never threatened, and will continue to perform its intended function (churning out one new 1%-er for every 1,000,000 Serfs it mints) like clockwork.

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