Donald Trump and I got into TV at about the same time. It was New York in the early 1990s. And as an actress on soap operas and TV commercials, I remember being surprised when I heard he was filming a spot for Pizza Hut. I was baffled that someone as rich as Trump was plugging fast food like I was, and I laughed at the possibility of running into him in a casting office.
I didn’t realize that Trump had (and still has) an instinct for how to tap into an infinitely renewable resource: human drama. He sensed what the writers of the soap operas knew and what producers of the then-emerging reality shows were banking on — that friction creates energy, and energy generates power. All you have to do is put two opponents in the same room and let the cameras roll.
By constantly creating controversy, Trump pits people against one another, just like what's found in a soap opera or, as many have noted, an episode of "Real Housewives" or "The Bachelor." He’s not so much dividing the country as throwing us all on the same soundstage and executive producing the chaos.
Whether you voted for Trump or not, you should be concerned about the way this affects you. As executive producers of the show we’re all participating in, Trump and the other billionaires in power are not public servants. They are not even politicians. They are businesspeople, and their current product, under Trump’s leadership, is entertainment.
That’s why Trump doesn’t need to tell the truth. He isn’t talking to us as citizens of the United States. When he tweets or gives a press conference, his purpose is to create drama — to fire up the fans and bait the detractors.
Ratings are more important to Trump than attending intelligence briefings because his endgame is not “draining the swamp” or peace in the Middle East: It is an even bigger show. He may or may not be an actual racist. He may or may not be secretly pro-choice. He may or may not even accomplish some good in his presidency. Like TV shows based on actual events that start with a disclaimer, any resemblance to a real president is purely coincidental.
Trump is president because all of us have sold our souls for entertainment. We wanted to watch the catfights, and we wanted our own 15 minutes of fame, too. Now we are all celebrities on our personal Facebook and Instagram channels, creating episodes out of selfies and Twitter wars.
There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. The danger lies in not knowing the difference between entertainment and reality. Trump and the other executive producers know it’s not real, but how many of us understand it? How many of us have recently written off a lifelong friend because we assume his vote for Trump was a vote for bigotry? How many others have dismissed a favorite cousin’s support for Hillary Clinton as liberal elitism?
Like every other human being on the planet, the cousin and the friend have both good and bad qualities. They are not characters on a TV show. Real life is much more complicated, and we must not forget it.
The more we participate in this alternate reality, the dimmer the real world becomes and the less likely we are to chat with our neighbor, who may have put up that yard sign during the election that made us cringe but who also mowed our lawn when we were sick.
Now more than ever, we have to talk face-to-face and include pauses for listening — long, boring pauses that would be edited out of a TV show. We have to argue passionately but respectfully and then do the tedious follow-up of thinking about what the other person has said and revisiting the discussion later. We have to stop confronting one another like soap opera divas flinging insults and throwing tantrums.
Otherwise, we run the risk of turning our most vital causes into entertainment. At that point, we won’t have to worry about our rights being stolen from us. We will have already given them away with the popcorn.