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The man who re-invented Donald Trump

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This Patrick Radden Keefe piece from January is a deep dive into how reality TV mogul Mark Burnett turned D-list washed-up 1980s celebrity and running page six joke Donald Trump into a character 46% of the voters in this nation were willing and indeed eager to make president of the United States.

The thing is full of by turns horrifying and revealing anecdotes. A few samples:

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!”

“I looked on ‘Survivor’ as much as a marketing vehicle as a television show,” Burnett once explained. He was creating an immersive, cinematic entertainment—and he was known for lush production values, and for paying handsomely to retain top producers and editors—but he was anything but precious about his art. Long before he met Trump, Burnett had developed a Panglossian confidence in the power of branding. “I believe we’re going to see something like the Microsoft Grand Canyon National Park,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “The government won’t take care of all that—companies will.”

All the candidates paid lip service to the notion that Trump was a peerless businessman, but not all of them believed it. A standout contestant in Season 1 was Kwame Jackson, a young African-American man with an M.B.A. from Harvard, who had worked at Goldman Sachs. Jackson told me that he did the show not out of any desire for Trump’s tutelage but because he regarded the prospect of a nationally televised business competition as “a great platform” for career advancement. “At Goldman, I was in private-wealth management, so Trump was not, by any stretch, the most financially successful person I’d ever met or managed,” Jackson told me. He was quietly amused when other contestants swooned over Trump’s deal-making prowess or his elevated tastes—when they exclaimed, on tours of tacky Trump properties, “Oh, my God, this is so rich—this is, like, really rich!” Fran Lebowitz once remarked that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” and Jackson was struck, when the show aired, by the extent to which Americans fell for the ruse. “Main Street America saw all those glittery things, the helicopter and the gold-plated sinks, and saw the most successful person in the universe,” he recalled. “The people I knew in the world of high finance understood that it was all a joke.”


This is an oddly common refrain among people who were involved in “The Apprentice”: that the show was camp, and that the image of Trump as an avatar of prosperity was delivered with a wink. Somehow, this interpretation eluded the audience. Jonathon Braun marvelled, “People started taking it seriously!”

And how.

The economics, culture and psychology of reality television are ripe for further study, given the role they’ve played in generating our current disaster. The phenomenon is very cross-cultural by the way. Keefe notes that aspiring demagogues are starring in Apprentice-style spinoffs around the world now, courtesy of Mark Burnett’s licensing arrangements.

A side note: One thing Keefe makes clear is that Burnett doesn’t have the legal right to release any outtakes from The Apprentice, so the quest for the fabled n-word tape is probably fruitless.

In any case I’ve never understood why people believed such a thing would make Donald Trump less popular, or acceptable to the people who voted for him. If anything it would probably help him.

Burnett himself is a fascinating and symptomatic figure, and this profile should be read in full.

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