It wasn’t so long ago that politics became one big reality show, with every conflict endlessly parsed and the biggest spotlight claimed by the most outlandish personalities. Now, politicos are becoming actual reality stars. The trend started, of course, with Sarah Palin’s Alaska, but hit a new milestone this past Sunday when three current or potential officeholders invaded prime time. There was Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory on CBS’s Undercover Boss, donning a fat suit and disguising himself as a sanitation worker; newly minted conservative icon Donald Trump demonstrating his boardroom bravado on the latest iteration of NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice; and, on the Sundance Channel, Cory Booker taking a breather from Twitter on Brick City, an Emmy-nominated mini-series about Newark’s turbulent turnaround efforts.
All of which points to a new tool for appraising politicians. It used to be asked which candidate you’d rather have beers with, but that was during a simpler era, when they didn’t essentially move in with you for the duration of the campaign, via the Politico-ized political media and the ceaseless sketchily funded ads. Today, there’s a better yardstick we might use: Could he or she win America’s Next Top Pol?
The Reality Show Rule can be tested on the GOP’s presidential aspirants, a group that, as conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg has argued, suffers from a divide between the “fixers” and the “fighters.” On one side are the wonks, personified by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and ignored by much of the country. Some of them, straining to break free of the label, have committed the disqualifying sin of trying too hard: Think of the milquetoast former Minnesota governor and possible presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, referring to the federal debt as a “pile of poo” and sounding phony and desperate in the process. No way his audition tape makes it past the MTV casting directors.
On the other side are the agitators. Here, Trump the brand-name real-estate tycoon proves that bombast has its appeal, wowing audiences at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February and running just two points behind Obama in one poll. (Notably, without the successful turn as reality-show star that resuscitated his career, Trump wouldn’t be in a position to flirt with a White House run in the first place.) The problem with this kind of persona is that it doesn’t wear well. We demand transparency of today’s politicians, and there is a kind of bravery to those who submit themselves to the exposure required of the job. But when we learn that the Mama Grizzly isn’t actually so handy with a gun after all, it becomes clear that charisma, pluck, and a way with sound bites only go so far.
A balance is needed, and Cory Booker may provide the model. As with Palin’s and Trump’s, Booker’s TV work does not betray a great humility, but he emerges from Brick City looking more appealingly complex than you might expect given his tireless-cheerleader shtick. He is appealing, in fact, because he follows the playbook of the genuinely popular reality-show star: Be driven without being inhuman, confident without being too off-putting, distinctive but not a freak show. As it happens, Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor—and sometime Brick City villain—shares many of those characteristics. No wonder so many conservative commentators, Goldberg included, can’t stop cheering him on.