The Great Illusion of The Apprentice

Even more than wealth, the reality-TV show promised its viewers accountability.

Chip East CME / HB / Reuters

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.

Now think of the context of the times. The Apprentice debuted in January 2004, the same month that the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq told Congress that he could find no evidence that Saddam Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. The spin-off Celebrity Apprentice premiered in January 2008, as the United States was entering its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Over those years, the American system stumbled from one failure to another. Because of the mistakes of the elite, thousands of Americans would lose their lives; millions of Americans would lose their homes and jobs. Yet almost none of those who made the mistakes were called to real account. Many made off from the wreckage with enormous fortunes.

Recollect Donald Trump’s trademark phrase, “You’re fired!” How satisfying was it to hear those words spoken inside an apparent corporate boardroom, targeted at a scheming executive wannabe—rather than some blameless working person whose only mistake had been to need a job in the throes of a financial upheaval?

The Apprentice offered a promise not only of enrichment, but of justice, at a time when Americans craved that fantasy even more than usual.

It attached that promise not to a fictional character, but to an apparent real-life billionaire, who seemed to own real buildings with his own actual name on them, all over the world. This was no case of “I’m not a businessman, but I play one on TV.” Apprentice viewers had every reason to accept Trump as NBC and Mark Burnett featured him: a businessman who cared about the team, who upheld standards, who rewarded and punished as his subordinates deserved.

I alone can fix it” made sense in the context of The Apprentice, where Trump was shown to “fix it”—week in, week out.

The experience of the Trump presidency is exploding that fantasy. Accountability, responsibility, and justice are repugnant concepts to Trump, to the extent that he can even comprehend them in the first place.

The truth is now visible to all. But to understand why the illusion worked, we first need to appreciate what the illusion was.