Oval with the word Survivor in the middle and a drawing of a guy with a torch and the words Outwit Outplay and Outlast on the perimeter

When the TV show Survivor premiered in the spring of 2000, I was fascinated. Every time those plucky castaways gathered to vote another contestant off the island, my stomach was tied in knots. Would they finally get rid of that evil Richard Hatch, or would another teammate again fall victim to his conniving, backstabbing ways?

Somehow, it always proved to be the latter. Hatch went on to become the show’s first “sole survivor,” ending up with a cool million for his efforts.

After that first season, I kept watching Survivor for several years, but the initial thrill was gone. And it’s definitely vanished now that we’re living in the real-life version of the show, otherwise known as the Trump presidency.

What we didn’t realize back at the turn of the century was that Survivor was establishing the template for “reality TV” shows. Producers discovered that what we wanted wasn’t sweetness and light, even though we might think we did. What we wanted was people displaying underhanded and all-around nasty behavior. If evil sometimes triumphed, we might complain, but secretly we ate it up. Aren’t villains always more interesting than their heroic adversaries?

One of those subsequent reality shows was The Apprentice, created by Mark Burnett, a prime force behind Survivor. As the star of this new show, Donald J. Trump excelled at playing the imperious billionaire who weekly said “You’re fired” to folks who may or may not have deserved it. Viewers didn’t care. Either way, it was compelling drama.

After years on that hit show, it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump learned life lessons that proved to be valuable in his later work as a politician. The results were clearly on display in the first Republican presidential debate in August 2015. While the other candidates tried to debate each other on policy matters, Trump threw out one-liners and insults, coming off as a cross between a class clown and a playground bully. The public was transfixed; more importantly so were the media. They proceeded to give Trump wall-to-wall coverage that helped to grease his way to the White House.

Since then, Trump has stuck to the tried-and-proven techniques he learned on television. Whether you’re one of the millions who love him or one of the more millions who love to hate him, you’re only proving that he’s sticking to the playbook.

Remember Richard Hatch? I don’t recall if he ever spouted the line that would become a reality TV cliché—“I’m not here to make friends”—but he obviously wasn’t. When he wasn’t bragging about how he was going to cheat and manipulate his way to victory, he was scandalizing viewers and fellow contestants alike by cavorting around the beach in his birthday suit.

We can all be grateful that Trump hasn’t tried that stunt, but he’s done everything else he could think of to keep tongues wagging. In recent weeks, he has revisited a tack he first introduced during the campaign, launching insults at esteemed war hero John McCain. The fact that Sen. McCain is now dead doesn’t seem to make a difference. Trump still sees him as an appropriate target.

Of course, Trump has done so many outrageous things before and since taking office that savaging a deceased statesman barely raises an eyebrow. Attacking the parents of a fallen warrior? Paying off a porn star? Calling white supremacists “fine people”? Subtly or not so subtly inciting violence? After the earliest such incidents, commentators liked to ask whether he’d finally gone too far. Later, they started asking if there was such a thing as “too far” for Trump. Trump himself said there wasn’t, infamously bragging that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

To be sure, Trump’s popularity is based on more than his childish behavior. He’s kept his conservative base happy by paying lip service to its ideals and prejudices, and sometimes by performing actual favors. But the lessons he learned from reality TV have been his greatest asset. They’ve allowed him to keep his fans enthused while ensuring that the press keeps covering him even while he’s lambasting it as an enemy of the people.

Progressives have long been waiting for the day when Trump finally faces a comeuppance for all he’s done to degrade society while serving his own interests. Will it ever arrive? Such a day did come for his role model, Richard Hatch, who was sent to prison after the IRS caught him trying to evade paying taxes on his Survivor winnings.

But the thing is, Hatch faced justice in the real world, not the world of reality TV, which rewarded dishonesty and outrageous behavior. Thanks to Donald Trump, those two worlds are now one and the same.