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Trump’s America is a rerun

‘The Apprentice’ showed us who Trump really is. His presidency is just syndication.
you're hired

Trump’s America is a rerun

‘The Apprentice’ showed us who Trump really is. His presidency is just syndication.

In the half millennium since a broke German blacksmith invented movable type, innumerable reformers and politicians have attracted public support through books, pamphlets, and broadsheets. From Martin Luther nailing his theses to a Wittenberg Church, to the federalist papers of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, these works conveyed transformative philosophies to those seeking a new way. But as we slump into the second decade of the 21st century, the best way to assess the future of the American republic is a thorough analysis of why President-elect Donald Trump fired Omarosa.

You can argue that Trump’s pseudo-memoir, The Art of the Deal, articulated a more cogent summary of his ruthless negotiation tactics and narcissistic appeal. But Tony Schwartz, the book’s co-author, has repeatedly claimed that he wrote every word. And since we’re left with practically no concrete policy proposals other than building “a big beautiful wall” and tax cuts and AR-15s under the Trump brand Christmas tree, that only leaves NBC’s The Apprentice as Trump’s Mein Kampf.

When the Mark Burnett-produced show first appeared in early 2004, few would’ve guessed that Friends would provide a lead-in for a future crypto-fascist presidency, but Chandler Bing has blood on his hands. Buoyed by the Must-See TV slate, The Apprentice’s first season found Trump becoming, in his words, “big league.” Whereas his celebrity had mostly been previously confined to outré behavior in New York social circles, suddenly “The Donald” was being broadcast into 20 million homes a week. It ranked as the most popular new program of 2004, finishing No. 7 overall.

If this seems absurd, it’s because it is. But inferring governing strategy from a reality show feels far more sober than getting Mexico to pay for a border wall. Besides, I really could get analytical about 2010’s “The Ultimate Merger,” in which Trump decided whether Omarosa was more romantically suited for R&B singer Ray Lavender or R&B legend Al B. Sure. Yes, this was a real show starring our real president and the sultry New Jack swinger who sang “Nite and Day” — it is the very definition of looking presidential.

In the first season of The Apprentice, you can spot the hallmarks of the impending Trump presidency: an Omerta-like obsession with loyalty; a Manichean good-versus-evil worldview (“yuuge success” vs. “total disaster”); his cynical gift for emotional manipulation, autocratic leadership style, and inevitable attempts to merge America’s brand with his own. We’re two months away from Chinese-made “Make America Great Again” hats being sold on

If you’re blissfully unaware of the show that he parlayed into the Birther movement and ultimately, the White House, it’s essentially Survivor but with Trump voting candidates off the island. The premise hinges on 16 applicants engaged in a lengthy job interview in which they’re forced to do tasks that range from the menial (selling lemonade) to the grandiose (running a Jessica Simpson concert at Trump’s floundering Atlantic City casino). It’s as 2004 as Nick Lachey wearing a Von Dutch T-shirt — which actually happens in the finale. Sprinkle a few rhinestones on the grave of Christian Audigier as you see fit.

In the month since the election, Trump has appointed a Suicide Squad of dubiously qualified cronies, whose only ideological consistency is that they supported him from the start of his presidential gambit. So it’s no surprise that neither his putative pick for secretary of education nor her children have any actual experience with the public school system. After all, she donated $9.5 million to his campaign.

Trump has appointed a Suicide Squad whose only ideological consistency is that they supported him from the start of his presidential gambit.

This explains why Rudolph Giuliani could be secretary of state despite being a political pariah for nearly a decade. Or why Steve “The Big Game” Bannon is his closest confederate. Or why the national security advisor is Michael Flynn, despite his unsavory ties with the Turkish government. To Trump, they’ve proved their loyalty, an ideal paramount above all.

“The greatest thing is to surround yourself with a talented team, who also happen to be loyal,” Trump tells his would-be apprentices. “You never know what makes a loyal person and if they’re not loyal to you once, don’t given them a second chance because they won’t be loyal the next time.”

For Trump, loyalty is one-way. He repeatedly cheated on wives, stiffed countless contractors and clients through four bankruptcies, and gleefully fired so many people that he tried to trademark the phrase. Even Carolyn Kepcher — his consigliere on the first seasons of The Apprentice — got swiftly cut. According to the New York Post, “Trump felt that Kepcher's newfound celebrity status had kept her too busy with speaking engagements and endorsements to focus on her responsibilities.”

It’s the monomaniacal obsession expected from Joseph McCarthy or a Mario Puzo anti-hero — one that overrides more rational considerations. A tribal loyalty endemic in Pashtun warlords, religious zealots, and Kevin Garnett. In the seventh episode, he dropkicks apprentice Tammy Lee for making an offhand and accurate joke that her team leader had been duped, rather than fire the leader who was actually conned. When Omarosa fucks up in the finale (inevitably at the request of conflict-seeking producers), Trump reprimands runner-up Kwame Jackson for not immediately firing her on the spot.

“When someone deceives me, I like to fire them,” he taunts. During the presidential campaign, Omarosa, now head of his African-American outreach program, reaffirmed Trump’s infatuation with loyalty: “It’s the most important quality he looks for… It means everything.” He’s a prevaricator uniquely suited to politics — one who can look at a pitch black polluted sky, put on a $10,000 pair of sunglasses, and say the sun is too bright.

If Trump’s long-distance relationship with Vladimir Putin appeared as one of the more perplexing Notebook-like plotlines of the 2016 campaign, you only need to watch a few Season 1 episodes to understand their bond. Both men revere strongman tactics: the egomaniacal worship of strength and revulsion of weakness. In Season 1, Episode 6 he cans Wisconsin marketing executive Jessie Conners for remaining tactful in the face of a scathing Omarosa rant.

“She treated you both like dogs, but worse than the rudeness was the way that Jesse took it,” Trump said. “I hated the way you took so much crap from Omarosa. It was a form of weakness to me. It was repulsive, but worse was the way you took it.”

It’s a psychologically telling decision that reveals why some of the first people to celebrate his win were Putin, Democracy-snuffing Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan, Filipino vigilante justice advocate Rodrigo Duterte, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s not that Trump is inherently sympathetic to the Russians but more that he admires Big Brother’s autocratic leadership style. It’s the same one Trump’s used in a half century of real estate deals and branding scams. Don’t expect much cooperation with Angela Merkel or the remaining few diversity-minded and empathetic leaders of Western Democracies. Justin Trudeau won’t be taking him to Tim Horton’s anytime soon.

Despite the inherent staged entertainment of a reality show, Trump clearly operated without a script. His rants seemed largely improvised, save for the off-camera voiceovers at the start of every episode. His advice is little more than the Zig Ziglar and Napoleon Hill bromides that every second-rate salesman has been parroting for generations: think outside the box, don’t negotiate with underlings; in business being emotional can kill you, it’s not “sexual assault” if you’re a star (said off camera, but it counts).

His conception of the world is entirely binary, the rudimentary and easily cleaved divisions that most of us jettison when we realize that good men can do terrible things and terrible men can become commander in chief. It’s evident throughout The Apprentice. He builds the most “spectacular places in the world,” “Trump Tower is the greatest building,” the penthouse has the largest windows in the city… the highest ceilings, “my apartment is the nicest apartment in New York,” his golf club is No. 1 in the country, his estate in Westchester is obviously “the nicest in the state.”

Losing teams receive lacerating abuse. They’re “losers,” “decimated,” “cut down like dogs,” “creamed,” and “slaughtered.” They’re a disaster or, in the ultimate Trump diss, “low energy.” His path out of the Republican primary starts here. Jeb Bush wasn’t the first to get branded “low energy” and certainly won’t be the last. He delivers these insults with pursed golf-ball-sucking lips. There’s never a sense of irony or a smile. When he does grin, it’s like a door coming off its hinges, a leg being waxed, a black hole being ripped into the space-time continuum. Back to the Future Part II became a documentary, and we have Mark Burnett to blame for giving Biff the Sports Almanac.

Back to the Future Part II became a documentary, and we have Mark Burnett to blame for giving Biff the Sports Almanac.

As for the misogyny flashed on the campaign trail, it’s here in bits and pieces. He brings the all-female Protégé Corp. to meet his good friend, the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The two of them ogle and flatter the women with such regressive 1950s attitudes that it’s a shock that neither man slapped them on the ass and called them “toots.” He interrogates a woman about whether she finds Jessica Simpson “pretty or just beautiful.” “I think she’s beautiful,” he crows.

But at one point when the members of the all-woman team use their sexuality to obtain an unfair advantage over the men, Trump reprimands them: “You’re smart, dynamic, and attractive women, but you’re coming close to crossing the line by leaning too much on your sexuality.” He’s a callous beast but one who knows when to offer kindness — the most dangerous kind.

If it wasn’t readily apparent from his ability to come back from multiple financial and political setbacks to capture the presidency, Donald Trump is not stupid. That’s the most troubling revelation from watching 16 episodes of this mildly addictive dross. He might be a rapacious demagogue, an unsophisticated thinker with a stunted vocabulary, tiny burnt sienna paws, and racist beliefs, but he’s a savant at emotional manipulation, selling false dreams, and branding. Conveniently, these are three of the most important attributes in winning modern elections.

“Negotiation is a difficult art,” he narrates. “You’ve got to figure out your opponent, or you’ll lose big.” A century from now, historians will study the mortuary of his opponents who underestimated his ability to strike the jugular vein. Despite the insane tweets and devious lies, there’s a shark’s cunning and bloodlust. He’s been immersed in unscrupulous business dealings so long that subterfuge is second nature.

He’s genuinely brilliant at psychologically toying with the contestants, wielding the unpredictable volatility of the pitcher who “accidentally” lets a 100 mph fastball loose at your head. His would-be employees are left with Stockholm Syndrome. “I didn’t know you were so short,” he mocks a glowing aspirant. “I’m starting to think I may never hire a man again,” he smirks at the men after they lose a third straight week.

Not only did America reward this with top ratings, it derived a visceral rush from the punishment inflicted. The same one that his supporters still get when he lashes out at “crooked Hillary” or the nefarious mass media. This was his dream. He got to play God over people’s lives on national television while he was favorably lit enough to hide his double chin. And now he has the nuclear codes.

Trump got to play God over people’s lives on national television. And now he has the nuclear codes.

Trump played us all for a fool. This schizophrenic one-man good cop, bad cop routine aired for 14 seasons on network TV, right in plain view. When he spares his apprentices to live another week, it’s like a kidnapper offering a pillow to a captive who hasn’t been allowed to sleep for three days. In the heat of his cross-examinations, they start turning and attacking each other. Watching The Apprentice is like watching Whittaker Chambers rat out Alger Hiss in real time. Of course, Trump wanted to waterboard people. He would’ve done it to the founder of the Cigars Around the World club on national television if it would’ve given him an extra tenth of a ratings point.

It’s part Andy Kaufman wrestling in Memphis, part Kanye, part Puffy, part Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, part Vince Lombardi. He uses pimp game: smack them across the face then offer love and the promise that he won’t do it again — until the next time. A carrot and stick mentality breaking America’s spirit with intermittent kindness, champagne promises, and easily deferred dreams.

In re-watching this monstrosity, a dozen years after its first run, I’m struck by how susceptible we are to the cult of celebrity. The reality show breakthrough that anyone can be famous led to the same mode of thinking that could allow anyone to be the president — provided they offered the right assuredness and ability to entertain. We are a republic of drug-numb social media marketers who insist on the right to make our own terrible decisions. We would sell our souls for an extra 3 percent tip, a free ride in a 2006 Escalade Limo, or the chance to show up to the same club as Scott Disick (but not talk to him, which would be worth every penny).

You can see this infatuation with the spectacular gilded emptiness that coruscates at every corner. The real estate broker and closet crush porn enthusiast who tells the camera that the best day of his life was shaking the sweaty palm of a crass real estate developer, born with a silver spoon and a quicksand mind. The women who squeal when they enter his apartment, as though it were a Pretty Woman phantasmagoria. It’s not Edward Lewis, suave wealthy businessman with a heart of gold, but Donald Trump, pussy-grabbing potentate with cold blood, a lurch-like walk, and a heart that has probably been surgically coated with gold.

In 1972, Hunter Thompson wrote, “This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” But it didn’t become absolute until almost a half century later with an agent orange savant who made Richard Nixon look like Richard Dawkins.

These contestants do the sales for him like the idiot political surrogates who go on cable news and spew lies — leaving the notion of the truth as artificial as his hairline. The apprentices coo about getting “a taste of the lifestyle.” They mouth absurd self-delusions that you have to want these things in order to get them, as though a homeless beggar lies prostrate in the gutter because of his lack of desire for a penthouse apartment built for a Medici pimp.

When the apprentices meet Regis fucking Philbin, they’re starstruck as though they just met William Shakespeare’s ghost and he offered them hashish. It reminds you of that probably apocryphal conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, where the former says, “The rich are different than you and I.” And Hemingway counters, “Yes, they have more money.” Except that’s not entirely true. The Apprentice was Trump’s first campaign ad, one paid for by General Electric. The ruse is that somehow Trump convinced 35 percent of America that he’s just like them: Every indigent American is a billionaire in disguise, waiting for the right apprenticeship.

The Apprentice was Trump’s first campaign ad, one paid for by General Electric.

There he is, advertising his real estate portfolio, his casinos, his golf clubs, and Trump Ice, his brand of bottled water — “the purest, best-tasting water you can imagine.” We went from greed is good to greed is God. Trump tells the world, “Take a look. If you’re really successful, you’ll all live like this.” He leaves them a bottle of champagne with the note, “This is a taste of the life you could lead.”

These are the lies that the rich tell the poor in order to keep their lottery dreams alive, as though a simple matter of positive thinking or strong will could magically produce a penthouse suite and a mail order Slovenian model. Here lies the blueprint of the brilliant bullshit artist, a figure as American as apple pie (which we stole from the Germans). Trump is the most gifted of the snake oil salesmen, that final top-hatted Chautauqua orator belatedly pulling into town.

At the height of the gilded age, there was a man named Russell Conwell. He’s largely forgotten today, but he was the most famous orator of the era, billed alongside William Jennings Bryan, that brilliant silver-tongued idiot, champion of the rubes. In the course of his travels around the country, Conwell mainly delivered a single speech, which he estimated to have declaimed 6,153 times. It’s called “Acres of Diamonds.”

“I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich. ... The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly ... 98 out of 100 of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money.

That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. ... I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins ... is to do wrong. ... Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings...”

For 120 years, we have heard that speech in various permutations, but only now do we have the proper mediums to transmit that ruthless message, the social Darwinism of the No. 1 stunner, Donald “All I care about is money and the country that I’m from” Trump. Trumpism has been with us forever in all our shallow graven mythmaking, our lust for obscene wealth and insistence that class divides are arbitrary delusions. Watch The Apprentice once more and you can see the American dream start to collapse in slow motion, the adjustable rate mortgage brokers and Goldman Sachs credit swappers, the stockbrokers and venture capitalist horse traders, all getting excised one by one, the desire for 15 minutes of fame breaking like yolks, until finally, there’s no one left but Trump and the realization that this has only just begun.