It’s just a TV show. It’s just a song. It’s just a movie. I’ve made these excuses to protect my faves and guilty pleasures; there is content I enjoy that I know isn’t particularly wholesome. But while I don’t think escapist entertainment needs to pass a purity test, I do believe our entertainment choices matter. Giving attention to people elevates them, their points of views, and their values.

Like many others, I’ve written about the mud-wrestling match between Donald Trump and Omarosa. I mused that if fewer people had watched The Apprentice, perhaps America wouldn’t have taken this path into the darkest timeline. When it comes to national politics, name recognition is half the battle, and popularity—no matter its source—is a plus. Notoriety can take you places. And there’s no industry that spins out more shamelessly notorious people than reality TV.

I’m old enough to remember when the reality TV boom started with The Real World on MTV. Except we didn’t call it “reality TV” then. The program was filed under “documentary,” a label that didn’t quite fit, even then. The Real World cast people with different backgrounds and political views in the same house hoping for fireworks, and they got them. And it was raw: No one knew what was going to happen, least of all the cast.

I remember when The Real World changed after Season 4, which was shot in London. Everyone cast had been too laid back, too well-adjusted, too mature. For the most part, they all got along and lived their separate lives. It was one of my favorite seasons, but I don’t think that was the feedback the show’s producers got. The following season, set in Miami, had the roommates working together in addition to living together. That element of forced companionship, a subtle form of sequestration, was what really amped up the pressure and the drama. Its sister show, Road Rules, added a cramped RV and competition into the mix, setting the stage for Survivor, which was when the “reality” label took hold and the format went truly mainstream.

MTV then flipped the genre on its head in 2002, when it began airing The Osbournes: a series that documented the family life of retired Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne. Celebrity reality shows are so ubiquitous now that it’s easy to forget what a revolutionary concept this once was. Ozzy Osbourne wandering around his mansion mumbling incoherently and occasionally shouting “Sharon!” was absolutely riveting. And hilarious. But it was occasionally uncomfortable, too — particularly when the show addressed Osbourne’s history of drug abuse.

Voyeurism has always been a part of reality TV. Many of the conflicts that made for “good TV” only benefited the audience; not so much the people involved. Some moments need not be preserved for posterity.

As reality TV shows — and their casts — aged enough to warrant reunion specials that aired years or even decades after the original, it became clear that some cast members had fully embraced the personas they’d portrayed on-air and weren’t able to move on from the franchise they’d built their careers on. They’d do it all again, and more, in a heartbeat. Their willingness to expose themselves made them more deserving of our judgment, it seemed.

The inability to pin down what’s actually happening — to separate what’s real from what’s fake — seems to have infected everything.

A mean-spiritedness became associated with the genre. People were being cast specifically to be humiliated and ridiculed; no show was complete without a villain — no matter that they had to return to ordinary life once the nationally-broadcast show wrapped. The notion that reputation was important eroded. As long as what we saw was entertaining enough, the personal integrity of the performers — and they are performers — was irrelevant. Besides, the cast members were in on it; everyone had their roles down pat.

Reality TV became truly insidious when the genre began producing genuine celebrities. There was life after the show, a life where people with no talent beyond shamelessness could profit like bandits. It was one thing for multimillionaires like the Kardashians to cash in, but there was something particularly disturbing about the spectacle made of cast members on shows featuring average people. A classist sneering seemed to undergird everything: Wealthy, educated executives propping up ordinary people, sometimes children, as avatars of “what’s wrong with society.” It wasn’t enough for audiences to look or even gawk anymore. Heaping scorn, laughing at, not with, reality stars…feeling superior to them was the point.

Why did reality TV cannibalize so much airtime? The Writers Guild of America strike in 2007–2008 played a role. There were no new episodes being written, and something had to air. It was also cheaper to find an unknown cast, prod them to behave ridiculously, and follow them around with cameras than it was to develop, write, and produce scripted television.

But it’s deeper than that. There was a time when The Learning Channel (TLC) actually focused on learning. There was a time when Bravo programmed cultural events. Now, entire networks have been revamped to prop up reality shows that aren’t even real. As a result, the inability to pin down what’s actually happening — to separate what’s real from what’s fake — seems to have infected everything.

Take the 24-hour news cycle. The crop of pundits paid to fill airtime and spew talking points are just like those kids on The Real World, who knew exactly why they’d been cast and played their roles with gusto. In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before there were political consequences for blurring the line between real and fake.

I’ve long avoided railing against reality TV, even though I’ve had serious misgivings about it for a long time. The notion that it was the “death of thought” seemed overblown to me. In addition, so many of the people lambasting the genre seemed like horrible snobs. For a long time, I simply chose not to watch. If other people did, what did I care? But I never could get that niggle out of the back of my mind, the one telling me, “Elevating these people and their warped ethics is going to end badly.”

I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that a cultural force as dominant as reality TV couldn’t be harmful. Culture matters. Stories matter. There’s a reason conquered people are forced to stop speaking their languages, sing their songs, and practice their religions. These things bind us together and provide solidarity. They give us something to gather around. They create shared meaning.

What were people gathering around when they watched Donald Trump on The Apprentice? What meaning were they sharing with him, and with each other? It couldn’t have been just “entertainment.” Donald Trump is the president of the United States in part because people bought into the persona he played on The Apprentice and identified with the fawning contestants kowtowing to him. He was on TV. He was rich. He was ostentatious. He was tough. And it was enough. It was enough because he was on the box we gather around to hear stories, and the box told us to value him.

It was propaganda so powerful it got a nation of workers to cheer as the boss sneered, “You’re fired.”

I always knew the “reality” in reality TV wasn’t real. The thing I didn’t understand—the thing I underestimated egregiously — was how many people hadn’t put it together, who couldn’t spot the con. I thought they were watching purely for entertainment, escapism. I didn’t know how many of them believed what they were seeing. People believe what they’re watching on YouTube, too. The lid is off Pandora’s box.

There have never been more attention-seeking people with relatively large platforms from which to spout their misinformed opinions, and it’s created a feedback loop that’s reinforced on broadcast television, podcasts, radio, YouTube, and social media. Every narcissist with a WiFi connection can build an audience. Important discourse is being shaped by people who lack the range or desire to truly wrestle with the issues and ideas they’re discussing.

A “blue wave” isn’t going to fix this. Impeaching Donald Trump isn’t going to fix this. American society is broken, and it’s collapsing.

This has always been the case to some extent—hacks have always existed—but not at this scale. Media literacy is the only thing that could have stemmed the tide, but the degradation of the humanities in service to STEM and finance means media studies is something most people don’t even know exists, much less have any real grasp on. It’s why they can’t spot the obvious grifters who are #MAGA or #Resistance, strictly for profit.

There’s a huge heist happening right in front of us. Cynical people who believe in nothing but lining their own pockets are using the upheaval of this moment in history to rob their followers blind. They look real to credulous people who’ve been conditioned not to know the difference.

Reality TV mattered, and we should have realized it. If more of us had, perhaps we could have cut things off at the pass. Going forward, we have to understand:

YouTube matters.
Instagram matters.
Facebook matters.
Twitter matters.
Snapchat matters.

This isn’t only about what people see in their feeds; it’s about how they process that information. It’s about whether they’ve been educated well enough to evaluate it critically. That’s not a sexy thing to grandstand about, though. And there’s the rub: It has to be sexy enough to get airtime. It’s why climate change won’t get the coverage it deserves until we’re on the brink of living in the Thunderdome. Hate-clicks on an article about genteel Klansmen is what keeps on the lights.

A “blue wave” isn’t going to fix this. Impeaching Donald Trump isn’t going to fix this. American society is broken, and it’s collapsing. Its peer nations have built robust welfare states; they have forms of universal health care. Those that had mass shootings immediately clamped down with strict gun control laws and all but eliminated the phenomenon. They’ve positioned themselves in ways that allow them to solve large societal problems. The United States hasn’t.

Reality TV and its metastasis show just how committed Americans are to the myth of rugged individualism and the vague notion that “toughness” wins the day. Anyone on The Apprentice, or some other competition show, who couldn’t take the thrown elbows shouldn’t have signed up for it. Anyone who can’t take being too impoverished to afford their price-gouged prescriptions shouldn’t have signed up to be American.

Because the unspoken rule on reality shows is, no matter what’s hurled at the cast members — no matter how degrading — they agreed to it. It’s an ethos, a value system in which attention is the ultimate prize; humiliation, the cost of entry. It’s cruel. It’s vulgar. It’s indecent. It’s empty. And it’s in the White House.