Donald Trump’s entrance earlier this week at the Republican National Convention — buttressed by strobe lights, fog and a soundtrack (Queen’s “We Are the Champions”) — may have raised some eyebrows. But not for loyal viewers of “The Apprentice.” That’s how the Donald has rolled ever since becoming a breakout TV star in 2004. Just take an episode from the first season, during a challenge set at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Donald swoops in like Bruce Wayne via his own Trump-branded helicopter, then strolls through the casino’s lobby, shaking hands with wide-eyed gamblers. “How are you doing everybody?” Trump says, sounding like a political candidate.
In the months leading to Trump’s coronation as the Republican nominee for president, the press has parsed through his old interviews, TV appearances and even chapters from his aspirational tome, “The Art of the Deal.” But what about the most telling document about what makes Donald run? To get a glimpse into the brain of the elaborately coiffed executive, I binge-watched all 15 episodes from the first season of the hit NBC series.
Even knowing the winner in advance (an earnest Bill Rancic), “The Apprentice” still holds up. The series is at times a vestige of a bygone era, when flip-phones didn’t allow for the possibility of Googling in a cab. Jessica Simpson makes an awkward cameo in the final episode, where Trump’s then-girlfriend Melania proclaims her fandom, and some of the properties Trump touts (like the Atlantic City hotel) are no longer under his ownership.
“The Apprentice,” created by Mark Burnett, was an overnight sensation. Many of the other big reality hits from the early aughts, such as “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” relied on physical challenges. But “The Apprentice” masqueraded as something smarter. Debuting at a time when blue-collar workers struggled to keep their own jobs in a lousy economy, “The Apprentice” was presented as a crash course in the business world. “This isn’t a game,” Trump says in the first episode. “This is the job interview.”
The series foreshadowed other shows that valued skills over stamina, such as “Project Runway” or “Top Chef.” “The Apprentice” was also groundbreaking in that its first-place prize was a job: $250,000 for a year as the president of one of Trump’s companies. (Is that all?) The 16 contestants were evaluated through weekly challenges — such as selling fine art or renovating a Manhattan condo. And the Donald happily assumed the role of master-of-ceremonies, the Gamemaker of these “Hunger Games.” The show even included regular corporate aphorisms that rivaled fortune cookie wisdom. “I’ve always said negotiation is not really an art,” Trump says, looking directly into the camera. “A negotiator is born.”
Here’s what I learned about Trump’s rise to fame from re-watching the show that made “You’re Fired!” into a catch phrase.
1. “The Apprentice” is Donald Trump’s “The Audacity of Hope”
Most White House contenders bother to actually work in government before they run. On the other hand, Trump has often been called America’s first reality TV presidential candidate. You can see why from the pilot episode. Trump may have been a well-known business mogul in some circles, but the series turned him into an unlikely working-class hero. Sitting in the back of a chauffeured car, he offers up a glowing version of his own Horatio Alger story. “My name is Donald Trump, and I’m the largest real estate developer in New York,” he enthuses. “I own buildings all over the place, modeling agencies, the Miss Universe Pageant, jet liners, golf courses, casinos and private resorts like Mar-a-Lago, one of the most spectacular estates anywhere in the world.”
2. Trump Is a Shrewd Businessman
“The Apprentice” introduces 16 entrepreneurs (allegedly selected from a pool of 215,000) all duking it out for a job in the Trump organization. Although the show was later revamped with celebrities, the non-famous contestants are understandably starstruck by Trump. They also build up the myth of their boss as a shrewd businessman. “Trump has given everybody short cuts to the American dream,” says one contender, Troy McClain. Later, as Rancic awaits Trump’s final decision, he notes that winning “The Apprentice” could change his “kids’ kids’ lives” and bring him “generational wealth.” Apparently, $250,000 went a lot farther in 2004.
3. The Trump You See on TV is “Really, Really” Rich
Although Trump alludes to past financial hardships — “I was billions of dollars in debt,” he says, in a fleeting moment of candor — those days are over. Just don’t expect him to get overly introspective. In the first episode, instead of explaining how he escaped financial apocalypse, Trump presents himself as a man firmly in control of his real estate empire. He separates the contestants into two teams by their gender, and tells them to go out into the wilds of Manhattan to hawk cups of lemonade. When the women emerge as the victors, he rewards them with a tour of his penthouse palace. “This is like rich. Like really, really rich,” gasps one of the contestants. Trump uses his own version of Versailles, bathed in gilded walls and shimmering chandeliers, as tangible proof of his billionaire status. “Look,” he tells his minions. “If you’re really successful, you’ll all live like this.”
4. And One More Perk of Being Donald Trump Is His Girlfriend
The house tour also serves as America’s introduction to its possible next first lady. Melania, Trump’s girlfriend at the time, emerges to give the ladies of “The Apprentice” a curt hello. Asked how she tidies up such a lavish apartment, she snaps back: “Well, you have people clean it.” And when someone calls her lucky to live in such opulence, her response is in keeping with her future husband’s brash demeanor. “Thank you,” she says. “And he’s not lucky?”
5. Wait — Melania’s Other Love Is Jessica Simpson?
In a preview of the 2016 campaign, Melania stays on the sidelines for most of the first season of “The Apprentice.” But she returns for the last challenge, where finalist Kwame Jackson is overseeing a charity concert starring Jessica Simpson at Trump’s Atlantic City property. After Simpson temporarily vanishes (in a hilarious turn of events), Trump and Melania finally make their way up to the pop star’s suite. Simpson is waiting for them with her husband at the time, Nick Lachey. “Melania loves your show,” Trump says, referencing the MTV reality series “The Newlyweds.” “It’s so cute,” Melania adds. “It’s really cute!”
6. Trump Was Always Good at Improvising, But Bad at Reading From a Teleprompter
The dramatic climax of every “Apprentice” episode is the infamous boardroom scene, where Trump fires someone from the losing team (with the help of his advisers George and Carolyn). But Trump ad-libs so much during these sequences, producers had to get Trump to re-dub scripted lines later for context. These spliced explanations unfold in a robotic Trump voice, devoid of any flavor or feeling. And we hear that staccato delivery again in the live finale, when Trump seems to be reading from a Teleprompter. “This has been an incredible experience for the contestants as well as George and Carolyn and myself,” Trump intones. “Thanks for watching and good night.”
7. The Boardroom Has a Vibe Similar to the Oval Office
Every king needs a throne, and in Trump’s case that is the oversized leather seat inside his boardroom. It’s a dramatic setting clearly designed to accentuate his power. The mahogany oak table, the superior lighting, the American flag in the background and the informed advisers (who double as Secret Service agents offering him protection) conjure an image of Trump as pseudo-president. Maybe the reason so many voters are comfortable backing him is because he’s appeared in their living rooms for so long, playing a fictional commander.
8. And the winner of “The Apprentice” is … Sexism
After the women’s team wins several challenges, Trump declares: “I’m starting to think I may never hire a man again.” This turns out to be a false promise. The clear favorite of the first season is Amy Henry, a resourceful software executive who manages to rack up 11 consecutive victories. Then she faces a terrible hurdle: a job interview, where she’s grilled by four Trump managers. It’s shocking to see the way these interviewers (three of whom are men) react to Henry. Charlie Reiss, who runs “special projects” for Trump, interrupts her to ask how she’d run a construction site where an imaginary worker would tell her: “Lady, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Later, he criticizes her to Trump: “Amy reminded me of a Stepford Wife,” he says. Tom Downing, a manager of one of Trump’s hotels, dismisses her but not for professional reasons: “She irritated the hell out of me.” And Norma Foerderer, Trump’s executive assistant, piles on too: “I think she’d get on my nerves after a while,” while faulting her “big smile and the perfect teeth.” Trump carefully weighs these concerns — issues that have very little bearing on Amy’s professional acumen. Ultimately, he fires her right before the finale. “Everybody assumed I was going to be picking a really beautiful woman like Amy,” he says. “But hey, I’m stuck with two guys.”
9. “The Apprentice” Is All About Selling Trump
Like a recent press conference that doubled as an infomercial, complete with references to Trump’s line of steaks and vineyard, the Donald packs non-stop product placement into the show. NBC should have sent him a bill. Each episode kicks off with a loving shot of Trump Tower, where the contestants live. (“There’s no place like Trump Tower,” brags the man for whom the skyscraper is named.) The challenges often involve aspects of Trump’s business — like when he forces his protégés to sell Trump Ice, the first time anybody heard of his bottled-water line. (“It tastes like normal water to me,” says a soon-to-be-dismissed player.) And the rewards are often Trump-themed too, such as a trip to “the best golf course in New York State,” 18 holes brought to you by you-know-who. The final contest is set at two competing Trump properties, and when Rancic is crowned the winner, he has his pick of two other lavish Trump construction projects. That results in even more free advertising. “I’ve had a fascination for a long time with branding,” says Trump.