I’m a Cabernet-sipping coastal elitist, so of course I never watched The Apprentice at the time it aired. But after Donald Trump emerged as the Republican front-runner in the summer of 2015, I decided I’d better look at him through the eyes of his many fans.
I thought back to those bouts of reality TV after reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s profile of the television producer Mark Burnett in The New Yorker. Burnett, of course, was the creator of The Apprentice. The profile offers a sardonic behind-the-scenes look at how Burnett’s show created a fake Trump in place of the real one. Here’s the paragraph that has everyone talking.
“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,”[Jonathon] Braun 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.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, 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.”
It’s a satisfying exposure of an illusion that seduced millions of voters.
But what exactly was the illusion?
The Apprentice presented a false image of Trump’s wealth and success, yes, just as Keefe so pungently describes. But viewers were presented with something even more attractive and even more false: an image of a titanically rich man who carefully weighed individual contributions to team effort—and held to account those who did not perform.