'Making the court jester the king': New report shows how Trump went from reality TV businessman to fake president

'Making the court jester the king': New report shows how Trump went from reality TV businessman to fake president
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Despite the image that won him the presidency, Donald Trump is not a business genius. Many successful entrepreneurs don't have the best grasp on the broader economy, but Trump is particularly ignorant about economics, as he reveals on a nearly weekly basis. And his knowledge of policy is even thinner.

His track record before politics was hardly impressive, bolstered largely by the fact that his father was indeed a real estate giant. In the 1990s, Trump suffered a series a major business blunders. As I discussed last week, Trump's subsequent apparent business success came it seems, at least partly from a massive influx of foreign funds — especially from Russia — that allowed him to recover after American banks realized he was a terrible investment.

But there was another phenomenon at least as important to Trump's emergence as a supposed titan of industry: "The Apprentice."

And in a new report for the New Yorker, reporter Patrick Radden Keefe dove deep into how Mark Burnett, the producer of the president's reality show, built the myth that propelled Trump to the White House.

Burnett, Keefe reported, saw something special in Trump — but it wasn't his business acumen. It was his star power.

"Mark is extremely smart,” said Richard Levak, a consulting psychologist for “The Apprentice,” to Keefe. “Mark has an eye for casting, and he cast Donald Trump.”

Keefe continued:

I asked Levak 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, Levak continued, 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.”

While it's unclear from the article how much Burnett truly bought in to the myth of Trump — did the salesman buy his own pitch? — but Keefe found that, at least now, others who worked on the show say they saw right through the charade.

“Most of us knew he was a fake,” Jonathon Braun, an editor on "The Apprentice" told told Keefe. “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.”

“We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture," said Bill Pruitt, another producer. "We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”

Is this really what they believed at the time, or a post-hoc justification? Keefe said that many on the show claim they believed they were basically creating a satire about Trump. But in his view, nothing about the show really winked at the audience or revealed any tongue-in-cheek intentions.

And as for the public? It's indisputable that the myth of Trump was swallowed wholesale.

The piece recounts:

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.” Jim Dowd, Trump’s former publicist, told Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, the authors of the 2016 book “Trump Revealed,” that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him.” Dowd noted, “All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking,” adding, “He was a hero.” Dowd, who died in 2016, pinpointed the public’s embrace of “The Apprentice” as “the bridge” to Trump’s Presidential run.

In the end, it seems Trump's rise didn't work out that well for Burnett. By becoming president, Trump destroyed the brand of "The Apprentice" and ended the producer's profitable property.

But he maybe should have seen it coming. Keefe notes that, in a Washington Post interview in 2016, Burnett pointed out that Trump had repeatedly brought up the topic of running.

“Donald mentioned a number of times, ‘Maybe I’ll run for President one day,’ ” said Burnett. “And sad to say, politics is kind of a TV show.”

Since reality TV doesn't have to be real, Trump didn't need to actually be a successful businessman to play the part. And because reality TV is the one venue in which Trump was truly a star, he brought that framework with him to the White House. Now, he sells a fake presidency — telling an unprecedented number of lies at a blinding pace, creating the reality he'd like his supporters to believe in, rather than one grounded in facts.


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