Culture

American politics have always been trashy TV. So, why can’t Omarosa win?

Celebrity culture, from reality TV to modern art, is deeply connected to American politics. It’s no wonder that the two worlds refuse to stay separate.

September 5, 2018

If you consume the news at all, you’ve had a hard time avoiding Omarosa Manigault Newman — the controversial former White House aide, former reality TV star (for 15 years, on multiple franchises) current author, iconic villain, and burgeoning whistleblower.

Omarosa (a one-name celeb like Cher, Madonna, or Satan) is many things to many people, but mostly she’s known for occupying the same semi-fictional parallel universe as Donald Trump, starring on The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice. In 2016, she joined the Trump campaign and eventually the Trump White House as the director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, until she was unceremoniously let go in early 2018.

Since her departure, from her stint on Celebrity Big Brother (an absolutely amazing piece of television that I highly recommend) to her ongoing press tour promoting her new book, Unhinged, Omarosa has released a steady stream of increasingly ominous warnings about the goings-on inside the White House. Now, she’s got receipts: a set of tapes, rumoured to number over 200, taken with a secret recorder apparently hidden in her pen.

But most members of the media seem to be more focused on her apparent untrustworthiness as a reality TV personality than on her work in the White House, or the actual substance of her actions. Every interview of her so far is a messy affair, with prying personal questions, impatient hosts, and irrelevant legal accusations. You can see her trying not to get frustrated, and it’s frustrating to watch. Omarosa is not stupid, but everyone seems to want her to be. Her being on TV is seen as a disqualification — that because she is an entertainer, she cannot be a real person.

Celebrity culture, from reality TV to modern art, is deeply connected to American politics. It’s no wonder that the two worlds refuse to stay separate.

In some ways, she almost isn’t. Omarosa’s career is an incredible example of a rags-to-riches tale, plus the kind of low-brow secret-agent caper that wouldn’t feel out of place if she suddenly adopted a Russian accent and a Cold War-era dress. In short, she’s a screenwriter’s dream. It’s a classic daytime TV storyline sitting right on our interview couches.

Everything about this feels almost too TV to be true. Like, seriously — a spy pen? She secretly taped Trump for years, and now she’s subjecting him to a slow and selective roll-out if he doesn’t do what she wants? This feels almost too far from reality to even make sense in a reality TV universe. Omarosa’s departure from reality TV in favour of real-life television is a genre-crossing masterpiece.

But this moment is a prime case study of the complicated relationship between politics and celebrity. Part of the opposition to Omarosa (beyond the simple fact of anti-Black racism) has to do with an American fantasy of politics as a pure space that exists above the drama of TV. Even with Donald Trump in office — a man who is more fiction than reality — people seem unwilling to accept that the worlds of electoral politics and reality TV trash are more alike than they are different.

People don’t seem to know how to make sense of Omarosa, but she should be our wakeup call. Celebrity is a feature of politics, just as politics has never been absent from the entertainment industry. In some ways, politicians and TV personalities occupy a similar position as representatives of the people. But the links are present materially as well. American political culture has always been deeply enmeshed with pop culture. There’s no better example of this the close relationship between Hollywood and the US military and intelligence apparatus — a relationship that’s simultaneously danced around and hidden in plain sight.

The Pentagon, CIA, and FBI have been active players in the entertainment industry for nearly a century, both as consultants (which is how they characterize the relationship) and as propagandists. American intelligence and military agencies have funded, consulted, actively foiled, and intervened in the creation of films and TV shows for decades with the purpose of ensuring their positive depiction. Their influence is felt in everything from Iron Man to Cupcake Wars, from Pitch Perfect to America’s Got Talent. The list goes on and on.

Celebrity culture, from reality TV to modern art, is deeply connected to American politics. It’s no wonder that the two worlds refuse to stay separate.

There’s nothing new about politics playing out in pop culture. Still, there’s a certain kind of political celebrity circus in 2018 that feels very true to the moment. Events like Politicon, featuring political figures and commenters like Anthony Scaramucci, Hasan Piker, and Charlie Kirk are a virtual and literal parade of political personality turned overnight celebrity. The rise of a blue-check-mark MAGA thirst trap punditry class has made otherwise unremarkable conservative women online sensations through soft-core outrage porn. This is a different, weirder relationship between politics and celebrity, where the two spheres feed off each other symbiotically.

At the risk of generalizing, it seems like the only time that Americans are aghast at the relationship between politics and entertainment is when the celebrities speaking out happen to be Black. And this is as true of Colin Kaepernick or Malcolm Jenkins in 2018 as it was for Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 — coincidentally, the same year that the CIA sabotaged Black singer Eartha Kitt’s career when she spoke out against the wildly unpopular (and illegal) Vietnam War.

All of this is just one part of a larger trend of green lighting and blacklisting that’s existed for generations. Celebrity culture, from reality TV to modern art, is deeply connected to American politics. It’s no wonder that the two worlds refuse to stay separate. With Omarosa, the world of reality TV is made more real than real life. She’s a sort of cinematic parallel to Trump in the way that makes for great TV. Omarosa is playing a fantastic narrative game. I hope she wins.

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