A lot of President Donald Trump’s behavior over the past four years — a lot of his behavior since he lost to President-elect Joe Biden — came as no surprise to those of us who interviewed him multiple times and observed him while he was a reality-TV star.
He lied repeatedly, he insulted and bullied people, he created a myth around himself.
Well, “Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett created the myth that Trump was a successful businessman, and Trump ran with it — all the way to Jan. 6, when he incited domestic terrorists to storm the U.S. Capitol, resulting in five deaths.
I’m not ready to blame the last four years on Burnett, but I do wonder how he can sleep at night. If I was him, I couldn’t.
And I’m hoping this will be a cautionary tale to TV viewers in Utah and elsewhere. What you see on TV — even when it’s labeled “reality” — often is anything but.
The last time Trump appeared before members of the Television Critics Association — in January 2015, almost exactly two years before he was inaugurated — he lied repeatedly about his TV ratings, and then blamed others when he was called out on his lies. We laughed, because he was such a ridiculous figure. None of us thought there was the slightest chance that he would ever be elected to any office.
When the histories are written, one thing about Trump will be indisputable. If he’d never starred in “The Apprentice,” Trump would not have been elected president. Before Burnett cast him, before then-NBC chief/now CNN president Jeff Zucker bought the show, Trump was known mostly for his multiple bankruptcies and multiple wives.
Trump himself acknowledged (in a 2016 Esquire interview) that “The Apprentice” changed his public image by making “people think I’m a nice guy. Whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.”
It’s not just that casting Trump created the false impression that he was a successful businessman. An “Apprentice” staffer told The New Yorker the show was edited to hide that “Trump was frequently unprepared” to decide who he would “fire,” sometimes axing a strong performer “on a whim” and forcing editors to “reverse engineer” the episode to make the fired contestant look bad.
And we were led to believe he was a strong, decisive leader.
NBC “fired” Trump after he kicked off his campaign by making racist remarks about Mexicans. But Burnett never cut ties with Trump. He referred to Trump as his “soulmate.” He lavished praise on him.
(Coincidentally, I was there when Burnett first met Trump in May 2002. The future president was in the audience at the Season 4 finale of “Survivor” in Central Park, and Burnett gave him a shoutout. I do not recall anyone trying to interview Trump after the live finale — reporters were trying to get to the contestants, including runner-up Neleh Dennis, a Utahn.)
Yes, Burnett released a statement after the infamous “Access Hollywood” grab-her-by-the-you-know-what tape was released that he had “never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy” and that he and his wife, Roma Downey, rejected “the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign.”
But Burnett helped produce Trump’s inaugural. He attended Trump fundraisers. He rejected calls for him to release outtakes from “The Apprentice” on which Trump reportedly used the N-word.
I don’t know if those tapes exist. Trump tweeted a secondhand denial from Burnett, but the producer never commented. Burnett’s representatives said he was legally constrained from doing so; that he could be sued.
But Burnett, now the chairman of MGM Television, is worth an estimated $500,000,000. If I had half a billion dollars, I’d like to think I would have risked losing a lawsuit and a lot of money — potentially tens of millions of dollars — so the public would know the truth.
I’m not really blaming Burnett for the past; I’m not sure that, if they exist, the phantom N-word outtakes would’ve changed the outcome in 2016. The “Access Hollywood” video didn’t prevent almost 63 million American from voting for Trump four years ago. Every abomination of the past four years didn’t prevent 74.2 million Americans from voting to re-elect him — although the outrages may explain why 84.2 million Americans voted for someone else. (Including 81.3 million who voted for Biden.)
But given that Trump could still run again in 2024 — pending his trial in the Senate — Burnett should risk the financial hit and release the N-word tapes, if they exist.
And I am blaming Burnett’s “The Apprentice” for creating a fictional Donald Trump who fooled people into voting for him. And I’m also blaming viewers/voters who voted for a fictional character and didn’t pay attention to the fact that Trump was not just an unsuccessful businessman, but a documented liar, racist and misogynist.
Will another reality-show personality run for office? That seems inevitable. Maybe even a Utahn — perhaps one of our winners or runners-up on “Biggest Loser,” “Survivor” or “American Idol,” or “Queer Eye” guy Tan France. And they might be qualified candidates. But everyone who’s become reality-show famous must be judged by who they actually are, not by the person we think we know from TV.
I’ll admit that the appeal of “The Apprentice” wore off rather quickly for me. But I never thought it would prove to be dangerous.
The events of Jan. 6 proved me wrong.