In late May, as the candidates crisscrossed the Golden State in advance of its delegate-rich primary, New York Times correspondent Yamiche Alcindor filed a dispatch from “Bernie or Bust” country that seemed, at a glance, to explain the entire campaign. Speaking with Victor Vizcarra, a 48-year-old IT worker from Los Angeles, at one of Sanders’ raucous rallies, Alcindor confirmed the suspicion that had been at the heart of the commentariat’s analysis all along—that an electorate inured to spectacle had finally submitted to it, as desperate as the residents of Panem to see the competitors in this quadrennial Hunger Games draw blood. “A dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in,” Vizcarra admitted. “There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen. It’s like reality TV. You don’t want to just see everybody be happy with each other. You want to see someone fighting somebody.”
Here was the bitter pith of American politics, the riptide running through wave after wave of stump speeches and Sunday-morning sit-downs: After years of treating presidential elections as a mere diversion, a horse race won by navigating the minefield of “news cycles,” “zingers,” and “gaffes,” the parallel lines of reality and television had reached their vanishing point. As Alcindor noted on Twitter, Vizcarra’s was “a feeling I came across more than once,” and arsonist-progressives of this sort, whether or not their interest in the circenses of the crumbling empire came cloaked in revolutionary sentiments, were no longer so far removed from the broken center to be passed over for op-eds by The Daily Beast. There was, of a sudden, a shadow of Weimar afoot in the land, its wine-soaked extravagances and brown-shirted factions, its charismatic strongmen, its strange entertainments, its nihilism.
That Trump is the “reality TV candidate” has, of course, been the framework for understanding his campaign from the start. In September, as if to account for his then-inconceivable lead in GOP polls, MSNBC, Vulture, and the Times offered, in the space of ten days, three variations on this theme, but for all the allusions to The Apprentice in the time since, all the invocations of “You’re fired!” as Trump’s “decisive” catchphrase, the genre itself—perhaps the most significant innovation in the medium since the advent of CNN—has rarely merited much more than passing mention. (The exceptions, it’s worth noting, have largely come from critics: NPR’s Linda Holmes, an incisive analyst of reality programming since her days at Television Without Pity, and filmmaker Robert Greene, whose own work reconsiders the role of role-playing in the realm of nonfiction.)
To insist, without explanation, that reality TV is central to Trump’s success, as though simply uttering the phrase were enough to prove the point, is to dismiss the format’s appeal, and thus to misunderstand it—which sounds, despite the lessons we were supposed to have learned in the course of the primaries, suspiciously similar to the treatment of the Trump campaign itself. More than a year after the self-made brand descended the escalator in his eponymous New York high-rise, the extent to which pop-cultural pageantry is seen to account for our “insane” politics, per The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch—with requisite allusions to Kanye West and Duck Dynasty—is dispiriting, if only because it so often papers over Trumpism’s actual menace. To describe Trump as the “reality TV candidate” as though this were a new phenomenon is to forget that dictators-in-waiting have long been masters of mass culture, and thus to downplay the dangers we face.
T.S. Eliot, a poet defined by two dread encounters with the gathering storm, recognized, in this vein, that the mere diversion carries risks of its own. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” he asks in “Gerontion,” published in the aftermath of the First World War:
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.
In retrospect, The Apprentice, by which Trump parlayed his regular presence on Page Six into even greater prominence, resembles a long rehearsal for the current campaign, in style as well as substance. The series premiere, which aired on NBC January 8, 2004, opens with an introduction to Trump’s New York that now seems to me a coded message from the impenetrable heart of darkness, a nightmarish premonition of the present: Images of limousines, private jets, Mercedes-Benzes, and $100 bills jostle for viewers’ aspirational attentions, emblems of the heady days between the dot com bubble and the Great Recession that have since hardened, after years of stagnant wages and declining wealth, into an album of the national desire. “What if…” title cards inquire, “You could have it all?”
With The Apprentice, Trump was, as always, selling himself, listing his business ventures—hotels, casinos, golf courses, airlines—and assuring us he’d “mastered the art of the deal.” But he was also selling an ersatz version of the American Dream that came troublingly close to the real one, as “classy” as his board game and his brand of bottled water, more Calvim Klain than Calvin Klein. As the camera flies high above the Manhattan skyline and descends to the floor of New York Stock Exchange, as a sprawling stone mansion dissolves into the Statue of Liberty, The Apprentice reproduces the same slippage between high ideals and ulterior motives that’s marked the country from the start, when self-determination was reserved for white men and “freedom” enabled citizens in eight of the original 13 states to own slaves.
In the course of the series’ opening sequence, Trump frames his rise as inextricable from American capitalism’s core promise, its central plank, which is the notion that the industrious succeed and the indolent fail. “If you’re not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out,” he explains, as we glimpse a figure sleeping on a bench. “But if you work hard, you can really hit it big—and I mean really big.” That Trump was born to privilege goes unmentioned in The Apprentice, for Trumpism is, in at least one sense, distinctly American: To dream the dream has always demanded ignorance of its darkest implications, its authoritarian leanings, its interwoven histories of classism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. “America First,” the fascist slogan that Trump’s adopted as his own, isn’t a dog-whistle so much as a foundational principle, ruthless individualism on a global scale.
It’s curious, then, if not entirely surprising, that the discussion of Trump’s stint on The Apprentice and its celebrity spinoff has largely neglected the ideological connection to Trump’s campaign. Although the series’ absence from streaming platforms presents a challenge to those in search of specifics (as opposed to broad strokes), it’s not an insurmountable one—there are clips from earlier seasons sprinkled throughout YouTube’s far reaches, if vanishingly few full episodes. The likelier culprit, I suspect, is the commonplace notion that reality TV, the tacky stepchild of the medium’s “golden age,” requires no close reading, that it either speaks for itself or says nothing at all. Many media critics—including this one—reinforce this logic, describing the genre as a “guilty pleasure” or ignoring it altogether, such that reality TV has come to be treated, in some quarters, as a form prima facie without substance, akin to romance novels, supermarket tabloids, and infomercials.
As any historian worth his or her salt will tell you, however, the most popular artifacts from a particular period, its dime novels and soap operas, its broadsheets and blockbusters, often suggest hopes and fears that “high art” doesn’t deign to touch, and it’s no stretch to imagine reality TV as future scholars’ point of entry into the Weltanschauung of Trump’s America. Its fantasies—of fame (American Idol), of beauty (America’s Next Top Model), of love (The Bachelor), of leisure (The Real Housewives), of comfort (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), of wealth (The Apprentice)—are necessarily ours, as are its implicit anxieties, and one ignores the grain of truth in each of these at his or her own peril. In writing off Trump as the “reality TV candidate,” in focusing on the medium rather than the message, critics, op-ed columnists, and cable news contributors alike meant to indicate the shallowness of his populism, and in the process disregarded the depths of his supporters’ attachment to the political program that accompanied the persona.
Watching The Apprentice now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the contours of the campaign were set long before his rambling disquisition from Trump Tower, before even his 2012 dalliance with birtherism. He knew, for example, that divisiveness dramatizes complex issues to a public starved for information and overwhelmed by white noise—pitting women against men in the series’ first season, and proposing another that would be white versus black. He understood that his audience was sensitive to elitism—culling contestants from the ranks of small business owners and firing one for describing himself as “white trash.” He surrounded himself with yes-men and yes-women, flanked in the boardroom for much of the series’ run by the same inner circle that recently ousted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—his adult children, Ivanka, Eric, and Donald, Jr. And, foreshadowing the rhetoric of his frightful rallies, he savored our signal failure to distinguish between the frank and the honest, between the conviction of fiction and the complication of facts. “I’m being truthful, and I’ll always be truthful,” one contestant protests in fifth season premiere, and Trump’s response, as he turns to dismiss her, is telling. “How stupid is that?”
Deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities: If there is a more precise summation of Trumpism, I am unaware of it, though it turns out that those ambitions, those vanities, are not his and his alone. They’re those of Europe’s right-wing nationalists, of Brexiteers motivated by nativist sentiment and craven Remain leaders who trusted there’d be no backlash against austerity’s pinch, of dispossessed white workers whose resentments the GOP has cultivated since the days of the Southern strategy. The conventions of reality TV may be the mechanism by which Trump communicates meaning, but it’s the content of those communications that’s won him support from such a sizable swath of the electorate, for at the heart of his fear-mongering over ISIS and immigration, his protectionist stance on trade, his fact-deficient discourses on Obamacare, Iran, and the Second Amendment, is the same promise of The Apprentice’s opening sequence, the promise that we can have it all, that we, like him, can be rich.
This is, of course, his most elemental lie, his most insidious, and even if we became prosperous by implementing his proposed regime, one reminiscent of Hitler’s Europe—mass deportations and religious bans, steep tariffs and sabre-rattling—the cost of that wealth, if history has taught us anything, is likely to be dear indeed. We know this. In fact, if we’d been paying heed instead of poking fun, we’d have known it all along. Trump himself told us as much. “You don’t sell products, benefits, or solutions,” a 2010 Trump University “playbook” advised. ”[Y]ou sell feelings.” “The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” he wrote in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. “I play to people’s fantasies.” “I’ve been duped. I’ve been duped. I’ve been duped many times. Everyone’s duped,” he once explained to a contestant on The Apprentice. “You’ve been duped also.”
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? If Trump wins in November, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.