Once the embodiment of 1980s New York City excess, Donald Trump had become a relic, if not a bankruptcy-plagued punchline, by the time Survivor mastermind Mark Burnett gave him a chance to rewrite that history. The Apprentice, launched at the peak of reality TV’s primetime reign, capitalized on the popularity of competition shows like American Idol and Big Brother. But the core of this business battle royale was the contestants’—and to a far greater extent, the star’s—construction of a personal mythology. In the series premiere, Trump described himself as “the largest real-estate developer in New York” and proudly enumerated his various holdings.
Was it The Apprentice that convinced almost 63 million Americans he was fit for the presidency? At the very least, it helped. The show’s first and, with more than 20 million weekly viewers, most-watched season played to the American public’s ugliest prejudices with battle-of-the-sexes framing and a Black, female villain in the mononymous form of Omarosa, who later had a guest arc in the White House. Most of all, it cast Trump as a boardroom demigod—a glamorous, impeccably dressed superboss with an infallible B.S. detector, whose eloquent takedowns always ended in the masterly deployment of his catchphrase: “You’re fired.” To this day, there’s no better example of reality TV’s power than Burnett’s reverent edit of a man ruled by his flaws. —Judy Berman
Correction, August 10
The original version of this story stated that Trump won the plurality of the vote. He won the electoral vote, not the popular vote.
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