Opinion: The Ultimate Trump Relationship You Won’t See in ‘The Apprentice’ Movie

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Mogrel Media
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Mogrel Media

The new biopic The Apprentice received an eight minute ovation at Cannes and is generating considerable attention—as well as threats of legal action—for its attempt to depict how Donald Trump came to be, well, Donald Trump.

But the tutelage of a young Trump by the diabolical political fixer Roy Cohn that the film’s director, Ali Abassi, says is at the heart of this origin story only deepens the mystery of our present electoral reality.

Cohn’s win-at-any-cost strategy ultimately led him to disaster. He ended up disbarred and in continued denial of his sexuality even as he died of AIDS.

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On Trump’s part, his mentor’s approach to wheeling and dealing led to him file for business bankruptcy six times. The Washington Post estimates that he racked up some $1.8 billion in debt while living atop a 58-storey tower that he told everybody was 68.

He sought to foster an illusion of success with the ghostwritten book The Art of the Deal, but the truth became increasingly apparent. He was on his way to becoming a joke in 2002, when he encountered Mark Burnett, a reality TV producer who was planning a corporate version of his mega-hit, Survivor.

The result was the TV show The Apprentice. And it was Trump’s bond with Burnett, not with Cohn, that led to us being where we are now.

By editing hundreds of hours of raw footage for every episode, Burnett’s crew fabricated what is called reality TV. The show was a big hit and millions of viewers came to see Trump as someone who had come perilously close to failure, but battled his way back to the top.

“I was seriously in trouble,” Trump narrates at the start of the pilot episode. “I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back, and I won, big league.”

As reported by The New Yorker, Burnett’s team generally chose the contestants and decided the outcomes. Trump’s most significant contribution was improvising what became his famous line to the losing contestant at the end of each episode: “You’re fired!”

The Apprentice was then joined by Celebrity Apprentice. The viewership of both shows gradually dwindled over time, but the illusion of Trump as a fabulously successful businessman living amidst splendor persisted. And even if he was not really a legitimate billionaire, he continued to rake in millions from the TV shows where he pretended to be one.

By 2015, Trump had acquired a kingly enough sense of himself that he made his now famous escalator descent in Trump Tower to formally announce he was running for president.

News crews videoed an actual reality, without the Burnett editors who had been on hand to remove the bigoted and sexist remarks spouted by Trump during filming of The Apprentice. Nobody was there to sanitize Trump as he declared his candidacy and he at one point referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. Afterwards, NBC became the one to say “You’re fired!” and canceled the show.

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But the fiction concocted by Trump and Burnett had acquired a life of its own. What had been a TV audience became the core of a growing base that viewed even Trump’s most offensive remarks as proof that he could do and say whatever he wanted.

Among those who have challenged that notion in recent days is New York State Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over Trump’s hush-money trial. Merchan imposed a gag order barring Trump from verbally attacking people connected to the case, which the former president repeatedly violated. One exception, however, was the judge himself, who Trump has continued to denounce as a corrupt thug.

Merchan has made it clear that however reluctant he might be to jail a former president, he was willing to do it if Trump persisted to violate the order. Incarceration is apparently one thing that Trump fears.

Trump instead has seen a host of supporters attend the trial and decry it as a gross injustice. The proxies included Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who has revealed that he and his teenage son are “accountability partners” who check each other’s phones and computers for “anything objectionable.” The power of Trump’s base is such that Johnson stood outside the courthouse in Manhattan and bemoaned the prosecution of Trump for allegedly paying off a porn star.

“I wanted to be here myself and call out what is a travesty of justice,” Johnson said.

Others who appeared at the trial included a host of vice presidential hopefuls, including Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida.

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Unlike with Burnett’s crew, Trump will likely choose from among these contenders himself.

Meanwhile, it seems that whoever he chooses, and whatever the verdict in the hush money case, TV-born reality may see Trump return to the White House.

And if that happens we cannot just blame Burnett and Trump. The fault is also in ourselves.

Maybe there’s a movie in that.

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