A Big Reason Why There Is a Monster in the White House

One of the 2016 election’s least reported stories was how a certain candidate benefited from starring in a “reality” TV show for the 14 years before he ran for president. The program was The Apprentice, sometimes known as Celebrity Apprentice. It was created and produced by a man named Mark Burnett, now the head of MGM Television. Burnett is the subject of an article in The New Yorker written by Patrick Keefe. Here are excerpts regarding the program’s star performer.

Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six [the New York Post‘s gossip page]. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success…. [Mark Burnett’s] legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world. “I don’t think any of us could have known what this would become,” … a producer on the first five seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me. “But Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”

Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which falsely presented Trump as its primary author, told me that he feels some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture. But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater,” adding, “ ‘The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.” Schwartz has publicly condemned Trump, describing him as “the monster I helped to create.” 

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But … Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, … the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. 

“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [one of the show’s editors] told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” [One of the producers] recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”

Trump maximized his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price. (After becoming President, he offered a similar arrangement to the Secret Service.) When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them.

More than two hundred thousand people applied for one of the sixteen spots on Season 1, and throughout the show’s early years the candidates were conspicuously credentialled and impressive. Officially, the grand prize was what the show described as “the dream job of a lifetime”—the unfathomable privilege of being mentored by Donald Trump while working as a junior executive at the Trump Organization. All the candidates paid lip service to the notion that Trump was a peerless businessman, but not all of them believed it…. Fran Lebowitz once remarked that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” and [one contestant] was struck, when the show aired, by the extent to which Americans fell for the ruse. “Main Street America saw all those glittery things, the helicopter and the gold-plated sinks, and saw the most successful person in the universe,” he recalled. “The people I knew in the world of high finance understood that it was all a joke.”

This is an oddly common refrain among people who were involved in “The Apprentice”: that the show was camp, and that the image of Trump as an avatar of prosperity was delivered with a wink. Somehow, this interpretation eluded the audience. [An editor] marvelled, “People started taking it seriously!”

The show was an instant hit, and Trump’s public image, and the man himself, began to change. Not long after the première, Trump suggested in an Esquire article that people now liked him, “whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.” [A Trump publicist said] that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him. All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking. He was a hero.”

The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.

Originally, Burnett had planned to cast a different mogul in the role of host each season. But Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” … Producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self … I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited… We didn’t have to change him—he gave us stuff to work with.” 

By the time Trump announced his campaign, ratings for “The Apprentice” had fallen, and the show had been repackaged as “The Celebrity Apprentice.” The contestants were now D-list celebrities… Still, everyone gamely pretended to take it seriously….

Burnett’s reluctance to discuss the Trump presidency is dismaying to many people involved with “The Apprentice,” given that Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show…. When Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

I asked [a psychologist] what kind of personality profile he might have prepared for Trump as a candidate for the show. He said he would have noted “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives—‘great,’ ‘huge,’ ‘horrible.’ ” What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, … and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” he said. “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

There has likely never been a man who, in his own lifetime, has been as widely spoken and written about as Donald Trump. Politics has never been so spellbinding. “It’s the reason people watch a schoolyard fight,” [the psychologist said]. “It’s vicariously watching someone act out and get away with it.” Burnett once remarked that “Lord of the Flies” is so absorbing because all the characters are suddenly transported into a world in which “the rules are changed, and convention, law, and morality are suspended.” It’s an apt paraphrase of the Trump presidency.