It’s Wednesday night and I’m getting ready to watch the season finale of “Survivor,” the amazingly long-running CBS reality show.
I’ve watched nearly every episode of the show that started in 2000. I was probably drawn to the show because in 1999 I had “survived” a similar experience – hiking the Appalachian Trail. I was outside in the elements for six months, alongside every kind of person, uncomfortable, hungry, homesick at times, rash- and bug-infested, sweaty, dirty and stinky – just like the contestants on “Survivor.”
While I was also attracted by the beautiful island settings, physical challenges, feats of daring and athleticism, as well as the internal and external suffering thrown at the contestants by the producers and Mother Nature, what has kept me a devoted viewer is the psychology behind the show. Anybody familiar with “Survivor” knows there’s a lot going on inside camp, even if it looks like the contestants are just lazing about.
The key thing to know about “Survivor” is that its motto, “Outwit, outlast, outplay,” really doesn’t fit into traditional game models. The show is different because the best person hardly ever wins. You would think the tall muscled guy who’s a doctor in real life would win because he’s smart, overpowering in physical challenges and can probably get along with people.
But in “Survivor,” these excellent attributes make him a target, and his fellow game players will no doubt seize an opportunity to “vote him off the island” long before the season finale rolls around.
What’s left at the end are people who figured out how to slide through. The ability to not intimidate or stand out is a talent “Survivor” rewards.
This aspect of “Survivor” turns a lot of people off. I even went through a period when the show seemed silly because each season people I thought should win were sent packing because they were targeted as physically strong, smart or honorable, attributes that would help them win challenges and, at the end, make the jury (ousted contestants) want to vote for them.
But that’s the difference with “Survivor.” The “best” players reach the last episode because they are mediocre, or at least they have made everyone think they are mediocre because they’ve veiled their skills.
This rise of the mediocre is fine and dandy on a TV game show, but I’m afraid we’re seeing something similar in American politics. We now have the mediocre in charge of the country.
Transport yourself back 25 years, when a Yale graduate, World War II fighter pilot, successful oil man, wholesome family man and all-around upstanding guy was president.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush was in the White House and Donald Trump was boasting about raking in $1 million a day and mucking about on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” OK, with that yesteryear mindset, try to imagine life in 2017: Did you ever think the American people would settle for a man like Trump as president? Probably not in a thousand years, let alone 25.
I’m not sure the social scientists will ever figure out how we devolved to want Trump, but make no mistake, Trump was the sole survivor, like the winner of the CBS show, of the 2016 election. He was a mediocre candidate by historical standards. Because he was lackluster, no one gave him a chance. But Trump craftily dismantled his competition by first outwitting them, true to the motto of “Survivor.” He gave them condescending pet names like “Low Energy Candidate” or “Lying Ted.” An honorable candidate would never do that.
He outlasted his rivals even when the media doomed his chances after major failures of judgment. He chided a dead Muslim American soldier’s family, but somehow survived. He objectified women in the “Access Hollywood” trailer, but somehow survived. That’s mediocre, not presidential, behavior.
Trump simply outplayed his fellow candidates because they failed to realize the electorate wanted a mud thrower and name caller. The American people were sick of well-spoken candidates who didn’t do anything, including Hilary Clinton, whom Trump beat in the general election. Voters thought Trump would do something better for the country because he wasn’t an insider. Maybe they actually liked his mediocrity?
So, does beating all these traditionally “better” candidates make Trump a winner, a survivor, or a “Survivor?”
Of course, he’s all three. To liberals’ chagrin, he won fair and square. He also survived a huge GOP field and the nastiest election in recent memory. And he Survived, with a capital S, because he somehow bumped off the better candidates.
While I’m hoping Trump shakes up the system, I just hope it doesn’t take 25 more years to find a worthy figure to fill the presidency. Allowing one Survivor to slide through to the presidency is enough and I hope voters have learned to treat their ballots with more respect next time.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.