Donald Trump, reality TV, and the political power of parasocial relationships

Donald Trump is the first person in American history to win the presidency without first serving in government in some capacity. Much has been written about how a real estate developer and reality TV personality could pull off such an unusual feat. The accomplishment is especially extraordinary given how many controversial statements Trump made during the campaign, which many commentators said would have doomed any other candidate. The executives and producers of Trump’s NBC TV show, which ran weekly for more than a decade, argue that “The Apprentice” made his candidacy possible because it consistently portrayed Trump as a successful businessman who was tough but fair.

There also is a psychological aspect to Trump’s portrayal in “The Apprentice” that is worth exploring: the concept of parasocial interaction, which is the illusion of intimacy that people sometimes have with celebrities and politicians (Giles, 2002Thorson & Rodgers, 2006).

In a parasocial relationship, viewers feel a special attachment to TV personalities and other media figures they watch regularly. Viewers often see TV personalities as close friends whom they know really well, even though they have never met. During its 11-year run with Trump as the star, “The Apprentice” and spinoff “The Celebrity Apprentice” attracted as many as 20 million viewers an episode. That’s a lot of potential friends. 

The strength of the pseudo-friendship in a parasocial relationship can cause viewers to discount any negative things they hear that contradict what they feel they know about the TV personality. It’s analogous to being friends with a colleague at work for 11 years and hearing them say only fair-minded things, until one day they make a seemingly bigoted or sexist comment. You may give the colleague the benefit of the doubt because the 11-year relationship created the impression that you know the colleague’s “real” thoughts and feelings, which are different from their recent negative comments. A similar phenomenon may be at work with Trump supporters who were regular viewers of “The Apprentice,” which ran from 2004 to 2015. The reality show’s portrayal of Trump was different from his news coverage during the campaign. Trump was not shown on “The Apprentice” making controversial statements. He was depicted as steady and reasonable, whereas news coverage during 2015-16 highlighted his provocative remarks about Mexicans, women, Muslims, and other groups and individuals. Trump supporters with a longstanding parasocial relationship based on years of exposure to “The Apprentice” may have discounted incendiary remarks by the candidate because it did not fit with the “real” Trump they thought they knew from reality TV. 

The case for explaining much of Trump’s support in terms of parasocial interaction is especially strong because parasocial relationships happen the most among those who also fit the demographic profile of Trump supporters.

Research indicates that parasocial interaction is at its highest among the poorly educated and those heavily dependent on TV, of which the elderly make up the largest segment (Levy, 1979Auter & Palmgreen, 2000Robinson, 1989). Polling data suggest Trump found his greatest support among those with a high school diploma or less, as well as those ages 65 and over. In addition, parasocial interaction is most pronounced with TV personalities who are shown as themselves, such as newscasters, as opposed to playing fictional roles, such as characters in dramas or comedies (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985). “The Apprentice” portrayed Trump as himself. Finally, parasocial interaction is high when a TV personality’s portrayal is consistent over many years. As mentioned before, “The Apprentice” spent more than a decade displaying the most favorable attributes of Trump.

Parasocial interaction, of course, is not the only factor that helped Trump politically. Many supporters undoubtedly identified with his positions on key issues. However, it is interesting to note that on most major issues in 2016, such as building a wall along the Mexican border, surveys of self-identified Trump voters found that they were less likely to support Trump’s political views than self-identified Hillary Clinton supporters were to support her positions. As a result, it appears that long-term perceptions of Trump the man, which were crafted by reality TV, contributed greatly to propelling him to the White House.