Gilding the Donald

Ana Marie Cox

If you or I were to enter Don­ald Trump’s apart­ment — or, as Trump calls it, the most beau­ti­ful apart­ment in the whole world” — we would at best sti­fle a burst of help­less laugh­ter. It is tes­ti­mo­ny to the com­bined pow­er of tele­vi­sion and greed that the con­tes­tants on The Appren­tice” — NBC’s new intern­ship-as-real­i­ty tele­vi­sion show — enter the apart­ment in a state of awed sup­pli­ca­tion, coo­ing and gig­gling over the gild­ed door knobs and the too-obvi­ous-to-even-be con­sid­ered-metaphor­i­cal mirrors.

And then they start to suck up. It says a lot about both the show and Trump him­self — who is co-pro­duc­er and star — that the apart­ment tour was that week’s prize.

The Appren­tice” is now in its fourth week, and its rel­a­tive suc­cess in the crowd­ed field of ama­teur hour pro­duc­tions — from Amer­i­can Idol” to Fear Fac­tor” — hinges upon its inge­nious graft­ing togeth­er of Sur­vivor” with 80s teen­sploita­tion pic Risky Busi­ness.

The con­tes­tants — who have been care­ful­ly select­ed to rep­re­sent a wide vari­ety of stereo­types, from the scrap­py loud-mouth sales­man to the slick, bitchy con­sul­tant — are split into teams of men and women. The teams then go head-to-head in entre­pre­neur-themed tasks. The first week, they sold lemon­ade. The next, they designed an ad cam­paign. Anoth­er com­pe­ti­tion was a kind of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion scav­enger hunt, in which teams hunt­ed for the best prices on a shop­ping list that includ­ed gold bul­lion, a high-end Big Bertha” golf club and a leg wax­ing for a mem­ber of the team — includ­ing the men. (An alto­geth­er painful form of hilar­i­ty ensues.)

The los­ing team sends the three mem­bers deemed most respon­si­ble” for the fail­ure to the board­room” where Mr. Trump him­self decides along with his toad­y­ing pair of cor­po­rate advis­ers who will hear You’re fired.” 

What does it mean that a show that asks us to root for some­one to lose his or her job has found an audi­ence in the midst of a job­less eco­nom­ic recov­ery? Are we that cal­lous, or that unself­con­scious? Or maybe, like the con­tes­tants — and like our pres­i­dent — the audi­ence is focused on the prize, not the pun­ish­ment that’s met­ed out along the way.

The win­ner of The Appren­tice” will get the dream job of a life­time” with the Trump Orga­ni­za­tion and a salary of $250,000. It’s nev­er spelled out any more clear­ly than that, though while watch­ing the show, I often won­der about what this dream job” might be. The young con­tes­tants talk as if it were some com­bi­na­tion of a win­ning lot­tery tick­et and a papal dis­pen­sa­tion, alter­nat­ing between state­ments like, If I get that job I’ll be set for life” and I’ve got to let Mr. Trump see that I’m the one who real­ly deserves that job.” But what if the job is to arrange The Donald’s toupees in alpha­bet­i­cal order? Or pol­ish­ing the strip­per poles in his casinos?

Even if the job is offi­cial fluffy bed inspec­tor or chief choco­late-cov­ered-straw­ber­ry taster, it is prob­a­bly bet­ter — from the show’s pro­duc­ers’ point of view — to keep the specifics from the con­tes­tants. Because once a job’s duties are delin­eat­ed, you can ask rea­son­ably your­self, What would I do to get it?” But if it’s some imag­i­nary dream job of a life­time,” how do you put a lim­it on what you’ll sac­ri­fice? And make no mis­take: The sac­ri­fices made by the con­tes­tants on The Appren­tice” go much father than sim­ply unsight­ly leg hair.

There are the rel­a­tive­ly minor indig­ni­ties of the tasks them­selves, but then there’s what they do to win. The women’s team has resort­ed to flash­ing their bel­lies at fish­mon­gers to get a bet­ter price on squid on the lux­u­ry-item scav­enger hunt. A mem­ber of the men’s team open­ly begged Trump — and asked if it would help if he got on his knees — to keep his place on the show.

I sup­pose the draw­ing and quar­ter­ing of an indi­vid­u­als’ dig­ni­ty is at the heart of the appeal of all real­i­ty shows; what makes the shame­less­ness of the The Appren­tice” con­tes­tants so engross­ing is the pover­ty of the stakes they are com­pet­ing for. The com­peti­tors on oth­er shows win mon­ey; but some poor saps on The Appren­tice” are going to have to keep suf­fer­ing humil­i­a­tion at the hands of The Don­ald, long after the final cred­its end.
Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Won­kette, one of the most pop­u­lar polit­i­cal blogs on the web. She is also the for­mer edi­tor of the dear­ly depart­ed suck​.com and has writ­ten for The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, Moth­er Jones, Wired and Spin.
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