When, during the final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump whether he would promise to accept the election results and Trump responded that he would rather “keep you in suspense,” and when, at a campaign rally later that week, Trump announced dramatically, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historical presidential election—if I win,” commentators were quick to point out that his remarks were like something out of reality TV. This was a common refrain throughout a campaign that featured a contest between a former First Lady with a complicated backstory and a celebrity real-estate developer best known for firing aspiring entrepreneurs on a successful reality show. Trump especially, it was often said, was a master at leveraging our desire for conflict and suspense to keep the spotlight on himself. On November 8th, we were waiting for the results of the vote, but we were also waiting to find out what Trump would do if he lost.
Perhaps because I have long loved reality TV—though it has taken me some time, as a literary scholar and psychoanalyst-in-training, to grow comfortable admitting it—the comparisons struck me as flat-footed. In the strict sense, presidential campaigns have been a kind of reality TV since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, and in recent election cycles we have become increasingly accustomed to the camera catching candidates in private or “unscripted” moments (as in reality TV, just how unscripted they are tends to be a matter of controversy). What was distinctive in this case, for those of us familiar with the genre, was not that Trump knew how to take advantage of generic narrative devices like suspense and shock, it was that the contest between Trump and Hillary mimicked in so many ways the dynamics—including but not limited to gender dynamics—that we have grown accustomed to seeing on our favorite shows. Our focus on Trump as an actual reality star—and our submission to his demand for that singular attention—risks obscuring the extent to which reality TV can also help us understand our response to Hillary, and the relationship between the two candidates.
The Apprentice casts Trump as the consummate winner, and the most important advantage he was able bring to his presidential bid from his stint on reality TV was his reputation as a man who could not lose. Yet reality TV has been defined as a genre not only by competition shows like The Apprentice but also by shows about groups of women, which generate drama by staging an almost continuous confrontation with loss. The demand that women reckon with loss is part of what allows us to classify shows like Teen Mom and The Real Housewives of Orange County as specimens of “realism,” in that they share many of their conceits and conventions with the nineteenth-century novels that were the earliest exemplars of the genre. And it is precisely such a reckoning that we have demanded of Hillary again and again.
Realism is always about the politics of social life. As such, it is about acts of looking. By this I mean that realist narratives place their subjects in a field of vision. Tolstoy did this repeatedly, writing scenes—the opera in War and Peace, the horse race in Anna Karenina—in which audience members are pictured staring at each other as much as, or rather than, the spectacle before them. In the latter scene we witness Vronsky exchanging glances with some of his fellow riders, Vronsky failing to see other riders and Karenin in the stands watching his wife as she watches Vronsky fall, realizing from her reaction that he has been made a cuckold. In the realist novel, “all the world’s a stage”—but what creates the drama is not the author calling the shots from the sky, but merely all the other sets of eyes.
These eyes bring with them a new kind of moral imperative. When I am seen by another, I am forced to acknowledge that I am, for others, an object. Having a sense of myself as an object can be variably exciting or degrading, but either way it tends to mitigate grand pretensions. Before the advent of the novel, literature was most often about heroes and great deeds: the feats of Achilles and Odysseus, the fates of King Lear or Prince Hamlet. Realism by contrast dethrones the royal predominance of any individual, picturing instead a wide array of characters—not only noblemen and kings but also children, commoners and criminals—as worthy of interest in their own right. Indeed, for the modern realist protagonist, grand aspirations often get in the way of prosaic achievements. We suspect from the beginning that Pip will eventually be divested of his “great expectations,” just as Balzac alerts us in his title that Lucien de Rubemprés will “lose” his illusions. Tolstoy’s Napoleon is no Achilles, because he is a character not of the epic, but of the novel—he may not know it at the beginning of War and Peace, but he will by the end.
This is not to say that other forms of literature do not picture their heroes’ defeats: tragedy of course revolves around failure, but there is a magnificence to tragic pain that ennobles its subjects even as it humbles them. Realism on the other hand has little patience for megalomania, whether in the form of the actual French invader (as in War and Peace and many other novels) or in the glimmerings of his ambition that hibernate, as Tolstoy put it, inside all of us “little Napoleons.”
Although the realist novel’s “realism” is usually evaluated in terms of its verisimilitude, the most important strand in the genre’s DNA is its staging of the confrontation, as Freud might say, between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. In his essay “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning,” Freud describes two dialectically opposed currents that interact within the human psyche. The pleasure principle fantasizes about past pleasures in order to secure maximum enjoyment, while at the same time guarding against the incursion of pain. But, says Freud, when fantasy proves incapable of ensuring the satisfaction of real needs, another psychic principle develops: the reality principle. Associated with the civilizing effects of experience and education, this is the mental tendency that requires us to recognize we exist among others, thereby helping us to acknowledge our own limitations and accept the possibility of loss.