Reality TV shows should not rehabilitate fascist careers

If there are no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, someone forgot to tell the reality TV competition apparatus. Shows like Dancing with the Stars often seem to exist just to milk drama and titillation out of comeback narratives for faded stars.

Incredibly, though, a confluence of shady interests has recently extended the same redemption mechanism that brought Nick Lachey and Honey Boo Boo back (briefly) into our lives to diminished politicians as well. Sarah Palin sang “Baby Got Back” on The Masked Singer back in 2020, for instance, and Sean Spicer did what is reportedly considered “the salsa” on Dancing with the Stars a couple years prior. At a certain point, this kind of moonshot PR tactic is not merely tacky but despicable—and we actually reached that point long before Rudy Giuliani appeared on Wednesday night’s episode of The Masked Singer.

I can’t believe I need to say this but reality competition shows should not platform fascists.

What in the world could possibly move anyone to feature Rudy Giuliani on a primetime competition show in 2022? From the most cynical standpoint, doing so is sure to stir up controversy and negative press attention, including this very column. What’s the worst that could happen—a boycott? One that possibly leads to an anti-cancel culture news cycle on Tucker Carlson, and then a reverse boycott of the show?

There are other ways to court such a response besides welcoming guests who were actively and intimately involved with Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Celebrity Trumpers like James Woods or Scott Baio might make a similar impact. Liberal viewers would work themselves into a frothy boil over it, which in turn would make many conservatives at least pretend to be in favor, just out of principle. Voilà: outrage! The key difference would be that, unlike Giuliani, neither Woods nor Baio currently has any potential criminal exposure from an attempt to overthrow the government.

The reason Giuliani must have seemed palatable to The Masked Singer’s executives—as opposed to hosts Ken Jeong and Robin Thicke, who both walked off the set in protest—is because the former mayor is widely considered a buffoon. In 2020 alone, he was bested by Borat, became the face of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco, had hair dye dripping down his face on live TV days before memorably farting on live TV, only to eventually be stiffed on legal fees by Trump for his efforts. There isn’t enough greasepaint in the world to cover all of Giuliani’s clownery.

However, it is an enormous mistake to reduce Giuliani to a punchline.

If all the goofy things listed above had happened in a vacuum, they would (possibly?) be very funny. But they happened in service of Trump’s extensive efforts to overturn the 2020 election! And the reason they happened in such a goofy way is because no legitimate lawyer would risk eviscerating their reputation by getting anywhere near such obvious chicanery. Giuliani was among the only lawyers with a high public profile willing to sink to the level of the situation, and the sheer incompetence and malpractice on display explains why.

Giuliani’s election lies and wacky behavior cost him his license to practice law in New York (at least for now) and helped inspire Dominion Voting Systems to sue Fox News for $1.6 billion over alleged defamation. As a result, Giuliani is now officially too toxic even for Fox News, where he is banned, but somehow not too toxic for the Fox network. What’s next: Steve Bannon on Holey Moley? Eric Trump on the Stranger Things kid’s prank show? A “Whoops—All Capitol Rioters” season of So You Think You Can Dance?

It gets even worse, though. Wednesday night’s appearance on The Masked Singer seems suspiciously timed to coincide with Monday’s news that Giuliani reportedly talked Trump down off the ledge from attempting to seize voting machines after the 2020 election. It reeks of a coordination. In an alternate universe, one where outrage works just a little differently, the Trump news breaks, Giuliani appears on The Masked Singer, and suddenly a path to public forgiveness emerges. After all, the sooner disgraced public figures can laugh at themselves—and get the country to laugh with them—the sooner the source of their disgrace recedes into history, right?

Thankfully, this universe doesn’t appear to operate that way.

Despite the fact that Fox should absolutely not, under no circumstances, host political figures who dabble in fascism, the worst-case scenario is an unlikely result. Americans have proven somewhat discerning about which figures from Trump World they allow to rehab their reputations and to what extent. Many have cashed out with book deals, and some have been absorbed into national news organizations, but none have been widely embraced by the public at large. At least not yet, anyway.

Sean Spicer has not mended his reputation. He did not get to sweep his authoritarian lies under the rug. All PR attempts to turn him into a Cute Thing ultimately failed. He has instead been rejected by the mainstream and relegated to the fringes of Newsmax as an interchangeable pro-Trump talking head. Perhaps it has something to do with the uniquely disagreeable character of Sean Spicer. But perhaps it’s a sign that people aren’t as docile and automatically accepting of what The Powers That Be feed them as those powers think.

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