When Meredith Vieira recently interviewed Donald Trump for NBC's Today show, she asked him whether he was concerned that people would have trouble taking him seriously as a presidential candidate. After all, she reasoned, here is a man who stars in his own television reality series. Who could possibly engender less gravitas than a TV reality show star?
Trump, of course, pointed to the success of the show as further evidence of his ability to be successful at anything and everything. But putting aside the irony of the question being asked by a network news anchor who is also a game show host (Vieira currently hosts Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?), we can learn a lot about President Donald Trump by watching Trump's shows, The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice.
Trump can make a decision. The Donald's main function on the shows is to whittle down the field of contestants until only the winner remains. But what's important to observe is how he goes about making his decision each week. Watching Trump choose whom to fire is a study in decision-making. Trump is measured and patient. Trump consults with experts. Trump seeks opinions from everyone involved: teammates, the opposition, his own trusted advisers, and customers. He withholds judgment until he has all the facts, but once he has the information he needs, he renders his decision swiftly and confidently. Trump's trademark phrase -- "You're fired!" -- is now iconic in the American lexicon. When it's too close to call, Trump isn't afraid to go with his gut.
Above all, Trump is fair. As he sits in his boardroom, flanked by his executives and facing the contestants, Trump is a judge. Watching him deliberate, it's evident that he values fairness. It's clear from his words and his actions that he understands the impact his judgment has on the lives of others and his own responsibility to render a decision equitably.
Trump commands respect. The Apprentice shows center around Donald Trump. He is the commander-in-chief of his enterprises, and he carries himself with authority. There's never any doubt about who is in charge. Everyone, no matter how old or young, famous or not, wealthy peer or average Joe, calls him "Mr. Trump." When Trump announces his decision, there is never a debate. Everyone fired in the boardroom accepts the decision as final, thanks Trump for the opportunity, and leaves immediately.
Trump can handle visiting dignitaries. Once the shows became successful, the opportunity for product placement became too hard for the network to resist. The challenges placed before the contestants have become tied to particular products -- one week, they produce a commercial for a household cleaning product, and another week, they hawk camping equipment for a name-brand retailer. Each time, as visiting executives from the company placing the products appear on the show, Trump welcomes them, visibly shows them respect, and later consults with them about their experience dealing with the teams of contestants. Despite his reputation for having a giant ego, Trump conducts himself like a gracious host every time.
Trump is a family man. The most recent seasons of The Apprentice have featured two of Trump's children from his first marriage, Donald Junior and Ivanka. The two younger Trumps have become mainstays of the show, taking the spots in the boardroom formerly occupied by Trump executives and prior Apprentice winners. The business is a family business; both Don and Ivanka graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's famed Wharton School and later assumed the position of Executive Vice-President in their father's company. But what's important here is the way his kids conduct themselves. They're respectful -- not only to their father, but to everyone they come in contact with. They're obviously smart and savvy, quietly confident, well-spoken, and direct, often asking blistering questions of the contestants, striking right at the heart of the matter. Neither seems to have inherited The Donald's legendary ego. Sure, Trump is on his third marriage by now, but he has obviously remained active in his kids' lives, and his capabilities as a father are clear. He can be very proud of his kids.
The entire premise of Celebrity Apprentice is that celebrities compete to raise money for their favorite charities. The amount of money they're able to raise each week varies, but it's usually in the tens of thousands, sometimes reaching over one hundred thousand dollars. According to an NBC press release, last season alone, the show raised over $1,250,000 for charity. Celebrity Apprentice helps to humanize Trump. No, you'll probably never see him shedding Boehner-style tears, but throughout the proceedings, Trump does have his moments of compassion and empathy for others.
Now, it would be easy to write off Trump's television persona as mere performance art. After all, he could be scripted. At a minimum, the show's producers surely set the stage for Trump to come off smelling like roses week after week. But what politician doesn't have such handlers working hard to make him look good? And anyone who watched the Today interview would have to come away with a clear sense that Trump is his own man. Most likely, the Donald Trump we see on The Apprentice is as close to the real Donald as anyone gets to see. With Trump, what you see is what you get; there are no holds barred and no punches pulled. Sure, the ego is on full display sometimes, but the man has also clearly matured with age.
Sorry, Meredith. Starring in a reality TV show probably won't work against Donald Trump. If people have been watching closely, it might actually help him to get elected.
James Travis is a Seattle-based writer.