People are quick to point out that we elected a “reality TV star” as our president, but it’s rare we find them actually discussing that show. That might be because NBC’s The Apprentice, which found Donald Trump presiding over a band of business hopefuls in pursuit of a position at one of Trump’s businesses, is, like his tax returns, nearly impossible for one to get their hands on. Some used copies of the first season are online, but the only means of watching the rest involve “occult methods.”
That’s how Pulitzer-winning critic Emily Nussbaum puts it. For a new piece for the New Yorker, “The TV That Created Donald Trump,” Nussbaum rewatched the entire series (including its latter-day “celebrity” renditions), and discovered that the show offers a glimpse at the Trump we now recognize but also one that’s been more or less retired.
On the former front, both the show and an accompanying panel discussion from 2004 (moderated by Billy Bush, natch) that can be found at the Paley Center For Media, reveal a Trump obsessed with ratings and numbers. His misogyny is also on full display; not only is he routinely commenting on the looks of his female contestants, but the panel discussion finds him describing Joy Behar a “fat slob who can’t stand me.”
A bizarre rant during an episode in the show’s fifth season is even more revealing:
In the fifth season of “The Apprentice,” Ivanka Trump chastises a contestant for bearing grudges. Trump cuts her off: “Who doesn’t! I do. Nobody takes things more personally than me. When somebody says something personal about me, I hate them for the rest of my life. It’s probably wrong, but I hate people.” He pauses. “Do you understand that? I hate ’em. … I never recover from it.”
This kind of stuff didn’t matter, though. The show was an incredibly effective means of rehabilitating Trump, who in the late ’90 was considered a “disgraced huckster who had trashed Atlantic City; a tabloid pariah to whom no bank would lend,” according to Nussbaum. The Apprentice not only scrubbed Trump’s history from the minds of America, it also helped posit Trump as more brand than man. With Celebrity Apprentice, Trump broadened his appeal by painting himself as a philanthropist. And during those same years, he upped his credibility as an entertainer with guest spots on TV shows and his now-infamous stint in the WWE.
Through a combination of these endeavors, Trump essentially conjured up a new identity as a means of reinvention. As Nussbaum puts it, “[I]f ‘The Apprentice’ didn’t get Trump elected, it is surely what made him electable.”