The key to Trump is reading him like a celebrity:
Trump became a star in the 1980s by acting out the dream of the revitalized American male: reassurance of American capitalist acumen, coupled with the sort of guile and glee that made making money seem, well, fun. That revelry was essential: Before 1940, businessmen like Henry Ford had become their own sort of celebrity, what cultural theorist Leo Lowenthal calls “idols of production,” celebrated for their ingenuity, their hard work, their embodiment of the American spirit. The problem, however, was that most of them were boring: All work and no play made them dull men indeed.
Which is part of why coverage began to shift, over the course of the first half of the 20th century, toward “idols of consumption”: men and women who don’t make things so much as live lives of privilege. When you read about them — in the gossip columns, in magazine profiles — the focus was on where they went for lunch, what they were wearing, the lusciousness of their homes, how they spent their seemingly endless leisure time. (Today we have the same focus, only most of it plays out on Instagram instead of being filtered through the mainstream press.)
Trump was at the center of the Venn diagrams of these two types of idols: a self-styled dealmaker who used the wealth from those deals to consume conspicuously. Yet Trump didn’t drink, smoke, or even have a morning coffee; he loved an expensive steak, but had little concern for fine dining. Trump cares far less about actually enjoying luxury, far more about others knowing he’s enjoying luxury. Which is why he doesn’t live in a private home, but Trump Tower: a place where his lifestyle is written in bold, unmistakable print for anyone who walks in off the street to see.
Flaunting his wealth may have been perceived, in some quarters, as gauche, but Trump figured his flamboyance could become the central engine of his business. The more his image became one of shameless decadence — of Playboy Trump — the more he could use that same image to make deals, sell properties, attract people to his casinos, which in turn allowed him to be more brazen, more decadent, and attract more people, across the globe, to the Trump brand. Decades later, one of his advisers crystallized Trump’s appeal to the working-class: “If you have no education, and you work with your hands, you like him. It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s how I would!’ The girls, the cars, the fancy suits. His ostentatiousness is appealing to them.”
Trump’s ‘80s brand rose to prominence alongside celebrations of consumption like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Wall Street, with its ruthless antihero Gordon Gecko proclaiming “greed is good.” The valuation of unmitigated greed of course had everything to do with American masculinity and the nation’s still-fragile understanding of itself amid the Cold War. But Trump was no movie character: He was a real person, and thus proof that this sort of masculine capitalist potency was still alive and thriving.
But in the early ‘90s — with the Cold War over, the Gulf War stalled, and Trump overextended and in bankruptcy — he became a symbol of the past, not the present. And so the self-styled avatar of American success became a punchline. In the late ‘90s, Trump loved to recall the story of looking at a homeless person on the street and realizing that man had more money than he did. For Trump, that moment was one of great sadness: because he’d lost his fortune, but also because he’d lost his relevance. Suddenly, he was a loser.
While Trump’s ‘90s melancholy had something to do with not having money to spend, it had far more to do with no one wanting to watch him spend it. The core of his celebrity image — and, by extension, his power — had been compromised, and he spent the bulk of the ‘90s trying to regain it. He endured the humiliation of bankruptcy. He released The Art of the Comeback. He divorced Marla Maples and started dating a rotating carousel of supermodels, which had something to do with his “love of beautiful women,” but was also a reliable way of getting his name in the tabloids and gossip columns.
And Trump still had his casinos — which, even more than his massive New York construction projects, made millions of gambling Americans associate his name with their own ideals of wealth and decadence, no matter how precarious. It didn’t matter if many actually wealthy people thought those casinos (and his newly acquired beauty pageants) were trashy, so long as millions of Americans thought otherwise.
By 1999, Trump’s rebound was in full swing. He teased a run for president on the Reform Party ticket, but pulled out before ever officially announcing his candidacy — because the cost would be too much, but also because he knew, as a third-party candidate, that he couldn’t win.
And Trump, as we now know, is obsessed with who gets to be winners and losers, and he’d only just pulled himself out of loserdom. So he exploited the idea of a presidential run just long enough for it to promote his new book, The America We Deserve — and a series of paid speaking engagements with Tony Robbins — and then pulled the plug.
His businesses may have been healthy again, but Trump, as a celebrity, was still out of fashion. Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck, Bill Gates in his nerdy glasses — those were the men who seemed to embody the American capitalist spirit. Not Trump, who didn’t know how to use the internet and largely ignored the dot-com boom because he thought it would pass.
There was a new type of celebrity, however, that had started to resonate with the American public: the reality star. In Trump, Mark Burnett — the producer behind Survivor — saw the potential for a different sort of reality program. It would be a competition like American Idol, but instead of charisma and natural talent, the driving skill would be business craftiness. Not acumen, or knowledge, but cunning: a particularly American understanding of how capitalism should work, and also an ideal ingredient for reality drama.
Trump was the perfect fit for Burnett’s vision. The Apprentice would be his path back to exposure and, by extension, relevancy: The rhetoric, framing, and shooting style of the show suggested he was the smartest, most skilled, most important businessman in America. Its popularity accomplished the thing for which Trump was most desperate: the broad, global re-visibility of his image, effectively surrounded by dollar signs.
The image-making apparatus around Trump has never been subtle, but The Apprentice took its bluntness to a new level. The theme song consisted of one word: “Money,” reiterated at different lengths and with difference punctuations. The logo featured Trump’s face as a Mount Rushmore monument amid the New York skyline. Most episodes involved some iteration of Trump talking or gesturing toward his wealth (in models, in property holdings) and judging the contestants on their ability to help him inflate it.
No matter that the show’s “boardroom” was a simulacrum, or that the “management jobs” in Trump Inc. intended for the winners were a sham: Reality television succeeds not when it depicts reality, but when it suggests that reality is actually a game with clear winners and losers. Trump wasn’t a contestant in this world, as he had already won all the spoils — a proposition the show never questions, and an image that has now been solidified through 14 seasons.
In truth, Trump was a reality star just waiting for the reality age: No other medium portrays his impulse toward conspicuous consumption and conspicuous demonstrations of power as effectively. With The Apprentice, Trump solidified the reality era–tinged understanding of the American dream: It’s not actual hard work that makes you successful, but the ability to evince the feeling and effect of power and wealth.