Andy Dehnart is a journalist and critic who publishes the reality television news site “reality blurred.”
Every episode of “The Apprentice” began with the same artfully filmed and carefully curated images: Donald Trump walking in slow motion from his helicopter and onto his plane; New York City’s towering buildings; Trump’s name on buildings; piles of cash.
This is the Trump who reality television, and master producer Mark Burnett, are credited with, or accused of, offering to the world — an unequivocal business success, immaculately presented. With this Trump, there was no hint of business failures or crass behavior, no expensive tie held together, on the back side, with tape.
Yet watching “The Apprentice” episode after episode, season after season, revealed a different Trump — a version that presaged much of what we’ve seen during his first 100 days in office with acute, unnerving accuracy.
On the show, Trump’s politics were rarely visible, but his methods and values certainly were. The familial favoritism, the bravado, the blame-shifting — it was all right there. The lack of evidence-based decision-making. The refusal to take responsibility for an action. That was the Trump we saw week after week.
After announcing which contestant he’d fired, Trump would frequently say a version of: I had no choice. He said it as if there were no other option, when there were, of course, many courses of action available to him. I really had no choice. It was an act of self-convincing, followed by ritual, unwavering reaffirmation by those sitting at Trump’s side in his made-for-TV boardroom.
Those same words — “no choice” — have echoed repeatedly in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, regardless of the context or subject. “We have to get rid of ISIS. We have no choice,” he told employees at the CIA the day after his inauguration. Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act? “I think we have no choice,” he told Republican members of the House and Senate in January. The next month he told county sheriffs, “We’re going to be very strong at the border. We have no choice.” Returning to a “ruthless” war on drugs? “No choice.”
Trump doesn’t question or agonize over his own actions or words, on a TV show or as president. He just acts and moves on.
Two years ago, when Trump faced television critics at a news conference for his final season of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” he was the same person we have watched during his first 100 days in office. He took credit for things he couldn’t possibly be responsible for, such as the fame of people who were on a show based on their fame. “Nobody heard of Trace Adkins when he came on,” Trump said. He was unapologetic about his tweeting, saying, “That’s the way I am. Whether people like it or don’t like it, I’m not changing.”
Backed into a corner about blatant falsehoods — in this case, inaccurately claiming high ratings for his flailing show — Trump’s only concession was vague blame: “That’s what I was told,” he said of the ratings.
Sound familiar? Those are the words Trump used in a February news conference when challenged about his false claim that he’d secured the biggest electoral college win since President Ronald Reagan: “I was told — I was given that information.” Just last week, Trump found fault with “somebody” for creating expectations for his first 100 days, which he now says is an “artificial” measure: “Somebody, yeah, somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan,” he said.
Reality television continues to be blamed for Trump’s rise, or at least used as a label to demean him: He’s a reality-TV president, not a real president. But reality TV was only a window into Trump’s behavior and methods, not the cause of them.
Reality television is, of course, still edited and produced. Could it have presented him as worse than he really is? That’s not likely. Editors who worked on “The Apprentice” said they were instructed to excise the frequent contradictions in his statements and create a coherent narrative out of often nonsensical decisions.
But even edited, sanitized Trump was the one who told a female contestant that “must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees” on television. He was not fundamentally different from what voters saw unfiltered for more than a year during the campaign, nor from the version we’re seeing in office.
He was authoritarian, once threatening to fire any of the celebrities who said they wouldn’t vote for him. He valued loyalty to a contestant’s team over rational arguments. He replaced his trusted, experienced advisers with his children. He was reckless and persistent once set on a particular course by the latest thing to capture his attention.
After being fired by Trump on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Penn Jillette described the show’s appeal to the show’s cameras: “That’s what’s beautiful about it: the fact that Donald Trump is a loose cannon. And he also does what he wants and doesn’t back down.”
That loose cannon made for great television. It’s no less riveting, just more terrifying, now that it’s in the White House. Trump was always real. Now there are just more consequences because of it.