My latest at The Guardian is about Trump’s trumped up role on The Apprentice: the alpha dog boss pretending to be the successful executive he has never been in real life. That’s sadly the show we’re watching unfold in his so-called presidential transition right now.
The Apprentice, that long, free commercial for a president-elect, hinges on one moment of drama.
Amid all the meaningless tasks and even less meaningful job offers, there is one key scene: when Donald Trump himself enters the fake boardroom to fake fire some hapless contestant. Or possibly their friend. It doesn’t much matter.
All that matters is that Trump is a god among men: an all-powerful and fearsome boss with the capacity to humiliate the weak and needy.
Never mind that his businesses have failed repeatedly and that his campaign was so poorly managed that he worked through multiple campaign managers on his way to losing the popular vote.
Never mind that Trump University was such a fraudulent enterprise that he paid $25m to settle the lawsuits between election day and his inauguration.
What matters most is the character Trump has played, first through the tabloid gossip pages and then The Apprentice, all the way through his reality show of a presidential campaign: the character of the alpha boss. Because that’s the role he continues to play during his so-called presidential transition. He’s the all-powerful boss who can humiliate the hapless job hunters.
Other presidents-elect prefer confidentiality and class when it comes to high-profile nominations.
There are good reasons for this. First, they have no need to preen themselves before the cameras since they are already, you know, the next president of the United States. Second, any experienced executive knows that you can’t predict how job interviews or job offers will play out. Your first choice for a job might want another, and nobody wants to be second choice for a job, even a powerful cabinet position inside the executive branch.
With Trump, of course, neither reason applies. Come to think of it, neither does the power of reason. He constantly seeks proof of his awesome powers as president, even if it means standing next to Kanye West.
Unlike real episodes of the reality show, Cabinet Apprentices did not have to prove their acumen by hawking T-shirts. They just had to sell the main product – Trump himself – in front of the cameras in the lobby of Trump Tower.
Mitt Romney auditioned for secretary of state by eating his reputation over a demonic dinner with Trump and Reince Priebus, before heaping praise on the real star of the show. “What I’ve seen through these discussions I’ve had with President-elect Trump, as well as what we’ve seen in his speech the night of his victory, as well as the people he’s selected as part of his transition, all of those things combined give me increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future,” Romney told the media.
Instead he picked a nominee who somehow manages to give Donald Trump a run for his money when it comes to possible conflicts of interest.
Rex Tillerson owns $218m in Exxon stock and another $70m in his corporate pension plan. He is also a fierce opponent of US sanctions against Russia, which have blocked Exxon business in places like Siberia. As secretary of state, Tillerson has a personal stake – and a very large one at that – in seeing those sanctions lifted.
What better payback for Putin’s successful hacking of the US election than a little sanctions lifting?
Perhaps that explains why there was no payback for Trump’s most loyal campaign lieutenants. Romney was always an unlikely man to get locked inside the Trump cabinet. Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, performed sterling work defending Trump on TV against every last embarrassing stumble, including what Romney accurately called the president-elect’s “vile degradations” of women.
And yet Giuliani didn’t make it into the fake boardroom with Tillerson and Romney. Much like Chris Christie, his only role was to elevate Trump by humiliating himself.
This is the game Trump has been playing for a long time. As he told the Wall Street Journal, the powerful take their orders from him because they are desperate. “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump said.
Trump just bought and sold a bag full of career politicians in this president-elect episode of The Apprentice. Then he bought a bigger CEO who could make him look like the tycoon he never was.
Ronald Reagan once said that he didn’t know how anyone could serve as a public official without being an actor. In an era of fake news and Russian hacking, we may well wonder how anyone could get elected without being a reality TV actor.