Why isn’t Regis Philbin president? The New Yorker published a profile, by Patrick Radden Keefe, of the game-show mogul Mark Burnett, which made a case that Burnett is responsible, or is to blame, for the presidency of Donald Trump. Without Burnett’s decision to build The Apprentice around Trump, as a cartoon and/or apotheosis of the strong-willed, successful businessman, Trump might (would?) have remained a fading has-been, with “chipped furniture” in his offices and “a crumbling empire,” as one of the show’s producers described him.
It was a depressing counterfactual to consider. Was one television casting decision the thing that got us here? The most bleak revelation and most familiar description in the piece was former editor Jonathan Braun’s account of how the show had to retrofit its version of reality to its star’s laziness and impulsiveness:
At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense…. Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”
But the premise that Burnett and The Apprentice made Trump the president seemed likewise reverse-engineered. It was believable as a series of factual propositions—the show did give Trump national exposure at a time when his business was going nowhere and no one had any reason to pay attention to him; the professionals making the show did help him turn his incoherence into a performance style he could keep up indefinitely—and when an Apprentice producer told Keefe “Donald would not be President had it not been for that show,” it felt like informed judgment.
Yet where does that leave all the earlier jokes about Donald Trump becoming president, dating back to the ’80s? What did The Apprentice have to do with President Ronald Reagan or Congressman Sonny Bono or governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, the whole widening gyre of celebrity spinning around democracy?
And how did this one show, out of the whole reality TV boom, leave a mark on the future that long outlasted its own popularity? Did the reality TV industry make Trump the president, or did Donald Trump make the reality TV industry make him the president?
The distinguishing thing about Mark Burnett in the profile was how secondary a character he was in his own narrative, even as he heroically rose from Hollywood nanny to TV multi-multimillionaire. He did not invent reality TV or even Survivor; he packaged them and positioned them to be big successes in a successful genre. The Trump that Burnett picked out was an existing commodity:
In 2002, Burnett rented Wollman Rink, in Central Park, for a live broadcast of the Season 4 finale of “Survivor.” The property was controlled by Donald Trump, who had obtained the lease to operate the rink in 1986, and had plastered his name on it. Before the segment started, Burnett addressed fifteen hundred spectators who had been corralled for the occasion, and noticed Trump sitting with Melania Knauss, then his girlfriend, in the front row. Burnett prides himself on his ability to “read the room”: to size up the personalities in his audience, suss out what they want, and then give it to them.
“I need to show respect to Mr. Trump,” Burnett recounted, in a 2013 speech in Vancouver. “I said, ‘Welcome, everybody, to Trump Wollman skating rink. The Trump Wollman skating rink is a fine facility, built by Mr. Donald Trump. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Because the Trump Wollman skating rink is the place we are tonight and we love being at the Trump Wollman skating rink, Mr. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” As Burnett told the story, he had scarcely got offstage before Trump was shaking his hand, proclaiming, “You’re a genius!”
Was this a story about pretending Trump was the center of things, or about recognizing Trump as the center of things? Trump may have been a failure and a punchline, but he had been a failure and a punchline over and over again before. There was always a comeback lurking; Trump’s gift is for turning attention into fame and fame into money, not for holding onto any of it. His career has been a series of bubbles, and Burnett was the wind that inflated one of them, or he rode on that wind.
This doesn’t mean Burnett didn’t make a difference. He may even have been necessary. But the Trump era seems, more and more, to be a study in some sort of Small Man Theory of History: Stephen Miller, Jared Kushner, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, the bigoted Homeland Security rank and file turned loose to run prison camps for children—and Burnett, too, a shallow man uninterested in meaning, a flatterer and opportunist. The vast, hollow power of one person’s celebrity has created a space in which these tiny, petty figures now enjoy the ability to deform the world.