In 2005, when NBC debuted The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, the domesticated breed of its reality competition hit starring Donald Trump, an early concept had Stewart’s show start with her “firing” Trump, indicating she would be officially taking over the franchise. The idea was later jettisoned; Trump’s Apprentice ran concurrently with Stewart’s, and creator Mark Burnett later expressed relief at having abandoned the idea when Stewart’s show failed to ignite and was canceled after one season. But the fact that such an idea was ever seriously considered illustrates why Trump is his show’s biggest asset as well as its biggest liability.
The only logical reason the NBC honchos would have had to replace Trump—as opposed to simply adding the cheap-to-develop spin-off—is that he is exactly as enjoyable to work with as one would imagine, and they hoped to replace him without canceling the show. It’s understandable. Trump is a smug, brutish megalomaniac, for better and for worse. It’s what makes him hard to work with and for, and often hard to watch. But his detestable qualities are key components of the Trump brand, and are inextricable from the cultural idea of his success. Imbuing The Apprentice with that brand, and the ruthless, sharp-elbowed images it conjures, is what made the show a breakout hit when it premièred in 2004. But as The Apprentice enters its 13th season, its sixth celebrity edition, the Trump brand is arguably the biggest liability it’s ever been.
Last fall, Trump conducted a hostile takeover of the 24-hour news cycle, insinuating himself into the presidential race in such oblivious and mortifying ways, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t his goal to keep satire writers warm and well-fed. It wasn’t only the fact that Trump embraced the theory that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen, even though by the time he assumed the “birther” mantle in 2011, all but the wingnuttier-than-thou had abandoned the movement. What made Trump’s birther spectacle so damaging is how he executed it. Had he simply continued insinuating the invalidity of Obama’s presidency in interviews, Trump could have contained the damage. Instead, he hijacked the entire movement and elected himself captain of and spokesperson for a racist, lunatic fringe of which both Democrats and Republicans alike had grown tired. The worst stunt came in October, when Trump challenged Obama to release his college transcripts and passport applications, promising a $5 million donation to a charity of Obama’s choice.
What’s great about Trump’s brand is that it so closely reflects who he is, he fortifies it just by being himself. His lengthy, uncomfortably personal feud with Rosie O’Donnell is a perfect example of poor behavior that, due to sheer inappropriateness, fits into Trump’s odious, Type-A brand. But the birther stuff has caused legitimate damage. In addition to disintegrating any presidential aspirations he might have had, a mini-movement formed after the election to get Macy’s to discontinue Trump’s clothing and fragrance lines. An online petition to Macy’s CEO is nearing 700,000 signatures. In a more recent example of Trump fatigue, in a January tweet, Trump congratulated Deadspin for breaking the Manti Te’o fake-girlfriend scandal. Deadspin tweeted back: “Go fuck yourself.” The response was retweeted nearly 10,000 times.
I would wager that there was some internal conversation at NBC about Trump’s outside activities and whether the stench of his birther involvement might hang on the show. But if there was such conversation, it apparently didn’t cause any great concern, because here is The Celebrity Apprentice, premièring in March as it usually does, not even two months since Obama was sworn in for his second term. The best thing The Apprentice had going for it was how well it embodied Trump’s brand. But if that brand is now tainted by Trump’s asinine behavior, can the show survive with him at its center?
My guess is that the show won’t suffer. That’s not because Trump’s political behavior has been completely forgotten or that there aren’t many who will refuse to support the show out of principle. But at this point, though Trump is the bedrock The Apprentice is built on, he has gradually become a non-entity on the show, which evolved into a completely different creature from what originally aired in 2004.
Reality competitions thrive when the audience perceives them to be fair and meritocratic. Granted, they also thrive on shocking twists and unexpected eliminations, but if the balance isn’t tilted toward fair play (or at least democracy), reality competitions lose their stakes and their appeal. The Apprentice is singular in that it never strove to be meritocratic or democratic. From the beginning, it was arbitrary. It never mattered how the contestants did during a particular challenge because Trump might decide to fire someone for speaking out of turn, making an offhand remark he didn’t care for, praising the other team’s work, or perhaps not praising it enough. It was that randomness that made the show so much fun at first, its genuine unpredictability. But that eventually degraded the show’s competition narrative, as there was no one to root for and no way to invest as Trump’s terminations became more capricious. Trump courted self-parody in the show’s fourth season when he fired four contestants in a single episode halfway through the season.
Compare this to the sober deliberations of other professionally themed competitions like Top Chef or even America’s Next Top Model, and it’s clear why The Apprentice’s ratings sagged so low, and why its survival can be attributed to its shift to a celebrity format rather than casting the MBA-types that appeared early on. As a legitimate reality competition, The Apprentice has little value anymore. But as a celebrity fish-out-of-water show, its format is flawless. The purpose of The Celebrity Apprentice is not to award the most deserving winner, but to yield as many C-list meltdowns and surreal rivalries as possible. And when the show is at its best, it delivers those cheap thrills more efficiently than anything else on the dial.
In the show’s new format, which dispenses with the idea that there is any integrity to the competition itself, Trump isn’t nearly the central figure he was in earlier seasons. In the two-hour Celebrity episodes, it’s easy to forget about Trump as he pops out at the beginning of episodes to take care of housekeeping and lay out the week’s challenge, then vanishes until the boardroom segment at the end. And when Trump does return to fire the contestant of the week, his role is not that of a judge, but as an instigator and interlocutor. He doesn’t say anything substantive about how the contestants perform as much as he asks questions designed to get them to attack each other, and even in this role, he’s often bested by his icy daughter Ivanka. With such little weight placed on Trump’s opinion or who he decides to fire on a given week, his actual influence on the show is far less than it was in the show’s early years, even as it remains difficult to imagine The Apprentice without him.
What this means for viewers who want to watch the fireworks as this year’s all-star edition gets underway is that even those who have reached their absolute limit of Trump may find the show more tolerable than they realize. That was certainly my experience watching the season première, as my distaste for The Donald didn’t subside any, but recognizing how little actual influence he has in the show made watching it far less unpleasant than I expected. But there’s still the lingering principle: the feeling that by watching The Celebrity Apprentice, I’m supporting the asshole who thought it was a good idea to say “show me your papers” to the leader of the free world, with the promise of a large charity donation that he ultimately never made, and likely never planned to. It’s a hard feeling to shake, and I doubt I’ll watch the rest of this season. But the highly principled reality-television aficionado is a rare breed, so it won’t be surprising if The Celebrity Apprentice feels no impact from its star reaching his full idiot potential. In any other context, Trump’s behavior represents the worst humanity has to offer. But on his show, as he spurs arguments between Gary Busey and Meat Loaf, Trump is a lowly juggler toiling in the background of an incredibly bizarre circus.