On Feb. 5, 2004, millions of Americans watched Donald Trump fire Kristi Frank on the fifth-ever episode of “The Apprentice.” On Feb. 5, 2019, millions more watched Trump deliver the State of the Union Address.
It’s a ratings improvement the president could only ever have dreamed of. On Episode Five of “The Apprentice,” (“Trading Places”) Trump and others tangled with notorious troublemaker Omarosa Manigault, who would later come to serve him in the White House before publishing an unflattering tell-all in 2018. She survived the episode, only to be fired four weeks later. (And then rehired by Trump’s presidential campaign and White House in 12 years.)
“In business and in real life, when things aren’t working well, you reshuffle,” Trump told the contestants before millions of viewers 15 years ago. The operative phrase there was “real life.” For better or worse, his “reshuffling” of government has been very real. Deliberately or not, such platitudes helped Trump plant the seeds for his successful presidential campaign early in the wildly popular show’s run.
As Season One: Episode Five reminds us, “The Apprentice” gave Trump a massive platform to cultivate the image of a pragmatic corporate reshuffler— and to emphasize it in prime time for 11 years between 2004 and 2015. That’s a lifetime on broadcast television.
In an article published the day “Trading Places” aired, Jeff Zucker lavished historic praise on Trump. Then president of NBC Entertainment, Zucker boasted, “The Apprentice is a red-hot breakout hit for NBC and it has delivered some of the best ratings of any new show in NBC history.”
“Donald Trump and Mark Burnett,” he continued, “are the most potent force in television today and I’m thrilled to say that The Apprentice will have an appointment on NBC for many years to come.” It did. But 15 years later, Zucker, now the exalted president of CNN Worldwide, isn’t much of a Trump fan.
None of us would have predicted that 15 years to the day after “Trading Places” aired, Donald Trump would be standing before Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, delivering a State of the Union address. Taken from 30,000 feet, his rapid political ascent still boggles the mind.
But revisiting “The Apprentice” at least explains how Trump built the reputation that boosted his appeal with disillusioned voters. Indeed, The Great Reshuffler was at it again on Tuesday. “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” he told Congress. “Together we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge all divisions. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
“We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction,” said Trump. “Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
All politicians make melodramatic gestures towards bipartisanship. But when that person enjoyed an audience of millions of friendly viewers week after week, year after year, it’s easy to understand why their appeals for corporate pragmatism land with more credibility. We loved it on NBC.
To be sure, Trump’s primary public identity is no longer that of a reality television host. But the precise juxtaposition of Feb. 5, 2004 with Feb. 5, 2019 reminds us that one led directly to the other, and for clear reasons. The question we should be asking ourselves is who will be standing before Congress in 2034. My money is on Bethenny Frankel.