There’s a widely held conviction among people who support Donald Trump for president that goes something like this: Despite some of the more wacky things he says, or a lack of specific policy proposals, they say, “He’s a successful businessman.”
When CNN’s Poppy Harlow recently talked to voters in Ohio, a swing state that’s struggling economically, she heard that line “a lot.” Harlow asked one woman what about Trump’s career made her confident that he’s a “successful businessman.”
“First of all, he had a television show,” the woman said.
She was of course talking about “The Apprentice,” the NBC reality show hosted by Trump that was a giant hit when it premiered in 2004 and is still very much at the core of his appeal to his voters (though after 14 seasons, he’s now off the show for good). I’d argue it’s even the principal reason he’s been able to become the Republican nominee for president.
Of course, Trump was famous long before “The Apprentice,” as a colourful New York City real-estate figure, one who was known at least as much for his failures, extravagant lifestyle, eccentric behaviour, and checkered romantic history as for his accumulated assets. A 1991 feature in Spy magazine summed him up with the headline, “How to Fool All of the People, All of the Time: How Donald Trump Fooled the Media, Used the Media to Fool the Banks, Used the Banks to Fool the Bondholders, and Used the Bondholders to Pay for the Yachts and Mansions and Mistresses.”
“The Apprentice” made Trump a national pop-culture figure way beyond New York tabloids and glossy magazines, but more importantly, it promoted a different view of Trump: a confident but measured businessman who knew how to spot a good deal and foster success, and when to cut someone loose with a simple, “You’re fired.”
What you learn about Trump on ‘The Apprentice’
I recently rewatched the very first episode of “The Apprentice.” Seen in retrospect, it almost looks like a roadmap for Trump’s campaign strategy in 2016.
The show starts with Trump introducing the business world of New York City, “the real jungle,” where you can “make it big.” The implication is that Trump owns this city.
“My name is Donald Trump, and I’m the largest real estate developer in New York,” he tells the camera from the back of a limo.
In fact, he wasn’t and isn’t. The claim, often made by Trump, has been widely debunked. “He’s a dear friend of mine, but it wouldn’t be accurate for him to say that,” Richard S. LeFrak, a scion of one of New York’s most active real estate families, told The New York Times in 2004. The New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law, ranked him as the 14th most powerful person in New York real estate in 2011.
“The Apprentice” touts Trump’s properties, from resorts and residences to Miss Universe. It mentions the “billions of dollars in debt” Trump once faced in the early ’90s, but he tells us, “I fought back and won, big-league” (a taste of an expression that’s become commonplace from him). He also says his company is “stronger than ever.” It’s a trajectory he also promotes on the campaign trail.
At the time of the show’s premiere, however, Trump’s Atlantic City casino holdings were burdened by $2 billion in bond debt that they struggled to repay, according to The New York Times, which goes unmentioned in the first episode of “The Apprentice.” (Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts sought bankruptcy protection in 2004 and Trump’s stake in the company was reduced.)
“The Apprentice” repeatedly spouts superlatives including Trump calling his name the “highest-quality brand” with no evidence. “The Apprentice” was a show under NBC Entertainment, not its news division, and Trump was hardly running for office. As on most reality shows, fact-checking was less than rigorous.
How Donald Trump thinks about women
Most of “The Apprentice” runs on the high-concept gimmicks of your usual reality competition. Sixteen people compete in silly weekly tasks that have little to do with the work of a business executive for the “dream job of a lifetime.” Trump’s “boardroom” is actually a studio, and it’s made to look darker than a movie mob hangout.
But Trump’s personality plays a crucial role in the middle of all this. His commentary is peppered with themes that have popped up again and again in the current election.
For example, Trump’s treatment of women adds a strange flavour to the competition.
“Women have a tougher time in the workplace — or so they say,” Trump tells his mix of male and female contestants. (He eventually splits them up into separate teams of men vs. women, in a gender war that admittedly makes for entertaining TV.)
“I’ll tell you, they’re looking awfully good, fellas,” Trump says of the female team to the men.
The gimmick of the first episode is that the teams have to sell lemonade on the street. One woman gives her phone number to a man in exchange for buying a cup of lemonade, and later admits, “I was surpised that, yeah, I did use sex to sell lemonade.”
The women win.
Trump is ‘like really, really rich’
The prize of the winning team on the first “Apprentice” episode is that they get to go to Trump’s penthouse home in his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
The women are impressed from the moment they see the giant, sparkling gold front door.
“This is, like, rich. Like really, really rich,” one says.
“When we went up to Donald’s apartment, words can’t describe how beautiful it was. Everything you saw was breathtaking,” another says to the camera afterward.
To me and I suspect many people, Donald Trump’s home looks a little ridiculous. There’s an indoor fountain. Nearly every surface of the apartment is plated in gold. It’s hard to imagine how you wouldn’t get dizzy living in it.
But the contestants are floored. This is the life they want.
“If you’re really successful, you’ll all live just like this,” Trump tells them.
“We can only wish,” one contestant says.
Trump has been making a similar pitch to the American people since launching his presidential campaign in 2015: that he can help out those who have fallen on hard times because he knows how the system works. He can help you live more like him.
“The Apprentice” put together the best possible version of Trump it could. The “successful businessman” you see is a TV fantasy, and one the show sold well. Editors on the show have described how they stitched together the footage. Trump’s role was reportedly “carefully crafted and manufactured in postproduction to feature a persona of success, leadership, and glamour, despite the raw footage of the reality star that was often ‘a disaster.'” Editors claim that on the set, Trump had trouble reciting facts and talked about how he’d like to “drill” female crew members.
“We were told to not show anything that was considered too much of a ‘peek behind the curtain,'” Jonathon Braun, a supervising editor on the first six seasons of the show, said.
That strategy has served Trump well. Without “The Apprentice” and the carefully curated image of Trump it insinuated into millions of American homes, it’s hard to imagine how Trump could have ever sold the American people on his ultimate pitch: becoming president.
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