Since Donald Trump won the election for President of the United States in 2016, I have held The Voice and Survivor producer Mark Burnett at least partly responsible.
Back in 2003, Burnett basically took Trump, who had the reputation of being a punchline. A failed and bankrupt businessman and refurbished his reputation via casting him in the reality show, The Apprentice. I’m not the first person to make that observation, of course. But finally, somebody has taken a deep and fascinating dive into that notion. Patrick Radden Keefe has penned a long read for the New Yorker that is a must read.
Check out a few excerpts here. Although Burnett did not respond to a request for an interview, Keefe spoke with countless Apprentice staffers about what went on behind the scenes at the show. Many noted the pretense, right off the bat:
The Apprentice portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [editor Jonathan] Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
Indeed, Apprentice staff were kept busy editing scenes Trump appeared in so that he appeared competent, rather than a clueless doofus:
The Apprentice was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. During the making of The Apprentice, Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.”
As Trump campaigned for office, he put the tricks he learned from his reality TV experience to use:
Trump appeared in the gilded atrium of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, to announce that he was running for President. Only someone “really rich,” Trump declared, could “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” He also made racist remarks about Mexicans, prompting NBC, which had broadcast The Apprentice, to fire him. Burnett, however, did not sever his relationship with his star. He and Trump had been equal partners in The Apprentice, and the show had made each of them hundreds of millions of dollars. They were also close friends: Burnett liked to tell people that when Trump married Knauss, in 2005, Burnett’s son Cameron was the ring bearer.
Tony Schwartz, the author of The Art of The Deal, which presented a fantasy version of Trump told Keefe that he feels “some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture.” But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater. The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.”
On Thursday (Dec 27) Keefe was interviewed by Chris Hayes’ on his MSNBC nightly talker All In. “I talked to a whole bunch of people who worked on the show and this was a theme that came through,” Keefe shared with Hayes. “That the apprentice was almost camp,” Keefe added. “People around the show knew that Trump wasn’t this big success. But that somehow the American people just didn’t get the joke.”
“I don’t really buy it,” he said. After watching 2 dozen or so episodes of The Apprentice, Keefe concluded, “I don’t think there’s anything campy. The whole thing–he’s presented as this master of the universe. The whole idea of The Apprentice was that the winner gets to become the apprentice to Donald Trump. That’s positioned as the ‘dream job of a lifetime'”
But one thing people who worked on The Apprentice all seem to agree upon: They believe that but for Mark Burnett, Trump would not have become president. “The interesting thing is that a lot of them toss and turn at night thinking about this.” Keefe said, “This is from people who were producers on the show, that were editors on the show..involved with various other capacities. Burnett seems to be the only person who doesn’t do any of the soul searching.”
One thing–while staffers confirm that Trump was often crude and misogynist on set, none could vouch for Trump ever using the N word–a rumor that has been going around since the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October 2016.
Here’s the thing–while Burnett has stayed quiet, he has by no means completely distanced himself from Trump. After marrying his third wife, actress and devout catholic Roma Downey, the producer turned to religion. He has produced Christian friendly fare like The Bible mini-series. He hosted a prayer breakfast event for Trump and the religious right in 2017. Even on The Voice, contestants sing religious songs while freely professing their faith. In short, there is a ton of overlap between Trump’s conservative religious base and the viewers who watch Burnett’s shows. Burnett is walking the line, staying friendly with Trump, but keeping the relationship on the downlow. And he doesn’t seem to feel any conflict whatsoever about that which he has wrought…