It’s true that the speakers’ lineup at the Republican National Convention proves, as it has proved in years past, that there are not a lot of A-list Hollywood celebrities who are terribly eager to show up and endorse Republican candidates on a national stage. Given Clint Eastwood’s bout of performance art in 2012, that may be a blessing this time around. But the Hollywood speakers Donald Trump was able to draw to Cleveland illustrate an interesting, if under-discussed element of Hollywood’s supposed apathy towards conservatives.
Even before Trump broke out as the front-runner, in part thanks to the boost to his name recognition he got from “The Apprentice” — and frankly, even before Trump’s latest stint as a Republican or his embrace of political incorrectness as a brand — reality programming has been a relatively friendly genre for conservatives.
Willie Robertson, of “Duck Dynasty” fame and luxurious beard, may have been the most prominent reality television star on stage other than the presumptive nominee himself on Wednesday night, but he’s not the only veteran of the genre in the Republican National Convention lineup.
Scott Baio has been cast in actual scripted programming throughout his career, but he’s also turned to reality to bolster his visibility in projects like “Scott Baio Is 45 … And Single,” where he tried to work out his romantic relationships, and the short-lived “Confessions of a Teen Idol,” for which he served as a host. Antonio Sabato, Jr. may be most famous for his soap opera roles, but he also did a stint on “Dancing With The Stars,” “Celebrity Circus,” the home renovation show “Fix It Or Finish It” and a dating show, “My Antonio,” in which he was the prize up for grabs. Rep. Sean Duffy (Wis.) met his wife when they were both cast for a season of “The Real World,” and he came back for “The Real World” spin-off “The Challenge.” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke makes cameos on the Fox News legal show “Justice w/Judge Jeanine.” Dana White is president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Kimberlin Brown, also a soap opera veteran, currently hosts a webseries on interior design.
It’s possible to draw a number of conclusions from this lineup, prominent among them that Andy Warhol has been a better guide to the 2016 presidential election than many people who work as political pundits and also are still alive. It’s also a testament that reality television is like home in Hollywood: it’s the place where when you go back to it, they have to welcome you in.
But I also think it’s true that reality television, with its very low production costs and quickness to identify new niche characters, has sometimes been more nimble than the rest of the entertainment industry to give platforms to conservative figures and their families, and to broadcast conservative messages. And on a number of notable occasions, the reality television industry’s shown a willingness to try to stand by its conservative stars or weather storms around them, rather than swiftly canning them in response to protests from media watchdog groups like GLAAD.
The genre has been careful to set limits, of course: “Duck Dynasty” backwoods patriarch Phil Robinson was endearing profit center for A&E until his comments about gay people and African Americans earned him a nine-day suspension from the network, and then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal weighed in, suggesting Robertson’s free speech rights had been impinged upon. It took an actual confession of child molestation to sink “19 Kids and Counting,” TLC’s show about a steadily-expanding family that foreswore birth control: when Josh Duggar, one of those 19 children, now an adult, acknowledged that he had fondled five children, TLC killed the show in 2015.
Of course, there’s a fair argument to be made that reality television walks a line between catering to conservatives and treating them like another weird subset of humanity that might tempt an audience into gawking an hour a week.
After Sarah Palin’s run for the vice presidency, reality networks were quick to come calling, but the result, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” offered neither maverick content nor electrifying ratings; it lasted for nine episodes. Palin’s daughter Bristol also starred in a short-lived reality series for Lifetime that ended up tangled in litigation and embarrassment about state funds spent on the show.
Conservatives may decry Hollywood as a bastion of liberalism, but when it comes to evaluating ratings and their bottom lines, production companies and networks tend to show the exact sort of ruthlessness that speakers will extol at the Republican convention this week. And whether they’re chasing a paycheck, trying to build basic name recognition or spreading a message, conservatives have embraced the platforms that reality shows have been willing to extend to them.
As a matter of preference, of course I’d rather see the big ideas about the poison of rape and misogyny from “Game of Thrones,” or about the costs of totalitarian regimes and rigid political fidelity from “The Americans” making their way onto convention stages over the next few weeks. But for all some viewers may laugh at conservative reality stars or hold them up as proof of Trump’s slim pickings, the scene in Cleveland is a testament to the idea that the people on these shows aren’t just selling their own version of reality. They’ve gained the sort of power that could extend beyond the TV screen to shape our world as well.