Act II, Scene III: Reality Bites
By the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, Trump would need another miracle to keep the myth alive. He got one in 2004.
Reality television had been around since the dawn of television. Most were quiz-show-like formats.
But a new brand of reality show soared in popularity. They featured real people in real-life situations, often pitted against each other in unusual circumstances.
Mark Burnett, a British-born American television producer, pioneered the genre with the show “Survivor.”
He was fishing around for another idea that wouldn’t take him to so many exotic locations. He came up with “The Apprentice,” billed as the ultimate job interview.
Burnett needed a high-profile host, preferably a corporate CEO. Donald Trump immediately came to mind.
Trump, who had been vigorously licensing his name at the time, had exactly the profile Burnett wanted.
But even Trump was skeptical of the idea. Reality television “was for the bottom-feeders of society,” he told friends.
He was right. Over 14 seasons, Trump molded what would become his political base out of reality television fans across the country, so-called non-college educated whites.
Before the show, he was perceived as a self-promoting dealmaker who built glitzy towers. He was a twice-divorced philanderer on his third wife, and a TV huckster who slapped his name on cheesy products.
But “Apprentice” fans saw him as something else; a tough-minded, straight-shooting business mogul who ended each episode by coldly telling a contestant: “You’re fired!”
It was totally on brand. Trump grew into the character.
The show did more to cement Trump, the myth, in the minds of the American public than “Art of the Deal” could ever do. The show averaged between six and seven million viewers each episode.
The format was as simple as it was inane. Contestants were given mundane tasks to test their business acumen.
Then, Trump would choose who had succeeded in a boardroom setting that often included daughter Ivanka and various executives from his company.
In 2008, the show’s eighth season, the format shifted to feature celebrities competing to win money for charities.
Trump often humiliated them, which played to his fans as well as his own ego.
His insecurity around celebrities went back to his days on the club scene; he was regularly snubbed.
It was, perhaps, the only glimpse of Trump, the man, to pierce the myth on the show. But behind the scenes, the real Trump was on full display.
Noel Casler, an “Apprentice” and NBC staffer for six years, painted a far different picture of Trump off-camera.
Trump routinely crushed up Adderall and snorted it because of nervousness and difficulty reading, “often after flying into a rage and cursing out the Script Dept., because he couldn’t read a three-syllable word.”
His racist tirades and use of the n-word were legendary and often recorded by the audio crew, Casler says.
(Burnett has refused to release the tapes.)
Trump’s drug addiction triggered incontinence, requiring him to use adult diapers. He also had an STD and a creepy relationship with daughter, Ivanka, Casler said.
“He snorts Adderall as his maintenance high. When he gets too wired, this is tempered with benzodiazepines,” the standup comedian, claimed.
Casler, who also worked for Trump’s “Miss USA” and “Miss Teen USA pageants,” said Trump routinely hit on teenage contestants.
“He’d line ’em up like they were pieces of meat. He’d be like ‘You, you, and you. If you want to win, I’m in the penthouse suite. Come and see me.'”
Casler long recognized Trump as a master conman. “He knows what he’s doing, in the sense of advancing his own interests. He is like a Godfather,'” he said in a wide-ranging interview.
(Trump often bragged about walking into dressing rooms while the girls, even the teens, were in various states of undress to “check on things.” He could do it, he asserted, because he owned the show.)
“Trump wants music to play when he walks in a room, he wants to get high and he wants to grab women; Ivanka and Jared want to rule the world.” Casler said. “I fear them more.”
“The Apprentice” hardly seemed like a platform to launch a political campaign.
Trump had talked about running for president for years, usually when he was grousing about some government action he didn’t like.
But he’d been largely apolitical. His personal and business interests, more often than not, drove his political interests, mostly on the local level where he focused most of his campaign contributions.
He registered as a Republican in Manhattan in 1987 and changed party affiliation five times. He was a Democrat in 2001 before switching back to Republican eight years later after Barack Obama was elected president.
He flip-flopped on issues almost as much.
He supported the Iraq war in 2002, before coming out against it. In 2003, he had a financial interest in opposing the war.
Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts planned “to sell $485 million in junk-grade bonds, but the uncertainty of war complicated Trump’s bond sale,” according to The Newark Star Ledger.
For most of his adult life, he’d supported abortion. His views only shifted when he seriously began considering running for president.
At the same time, he developed a particular animus for Obama. Trump was an outspoken advocate of the so-called “birther” movement.
He repeatedly claim, falsely, that Obama was born in Kenya. He pushed it even after it had long been debunked. But it won him wide support among hard-right and white supremacist groups.
He didn’t run for president because of “The Apprentice,” but without “The Apprentice” there would be no candidacy, according to the show’s executives and producers.