Joshua Green on the cultural sensation The Apprentice, the minority vote, and why Trump gave them both up to be President.
Donald Trump had been thinking about running for president for more than 20 years before he encountered political strategist Steve Bannon. During most of that period, they were not ideologically aligned. Trump did have long-standing impulses on certain issues that Bannon would have approved of - both believed, for instance, that the United States was constantly being victimised in foreign trade deals. But to the extent Trump expressed opinions on national affairs, they tended to reflect the views of a New York Democrat, which was, after all, the world that he inhabited. Then he met Bannon - and his views changed. Trump took up Bannon's populist nationalism, with its chesty blue-collar ethos and disdain for corrupt "globalist" elites.
But just as important to Trump's path to the White House was what he chose to give up.
On January 8, 2004, viewers of NBC's prime-time television line-up got the first glimpse of a new show soon to become a cultural sensation. As a crow's‑eye view of the Manhattan skyline floated across the screen, Trump's unmistakable voice, all steely self-confidence, laid out the premise of his new series: "New York. My city. Where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning."
The perspective jumps to the backseat of a limousine and a familiar figure: "My name is Donald Trump, and I'm the largest real-estate developer in New York. I own buildings all over the place, model agencies, the Miss Universe pageant, jet liners, golf courses, casinos."
As he climbs out of the limousine toward a "Trump"-emblazoned helicopter that awaits him, Trump delivers the payoff: "I've mastered the art of the deal, and I've turned the name Trump into the highest-quality brand. As the master, I want to pass along my knowledge to somebody else. I'm looking for ... the apprentice."
Right out of the gate, The Apprentice was a hit. During its first season, the show drew an average of more than 20 million viewers a week. It was the dawn of the reality‑TV era, and Trump's cartoonish persona lent itself perfectly to the new medium. Each week, Trump would preside from a luxe, walnut-lined boardroom high up in Trump Tower.
Sixteen contestants competed against one another by running business projects, after which they would all assemble in the boardroom and submit themselves to Trump's glowering judgment. Each week, at the end of the show, Trump would dispatch one of the contestants with his signature phrase: "You're fired!" NBC executives were thrilled by the surprise hit on their hands.
Until The Apprentice, the network had not managed to develop a successful reality‑TV franchise, and it was falling behind its major competitors. The show's fast success produced significant economic benefits for the network. It did so for Trump, too - but it also did something more. It indelibly established his national image. Mark Burnett, the show's creator, had originally sold the concept to NBC as one where Trump would host The Apprentice for only the first season, after which he would give way to a succession of iconic business moguls, such as Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, or Martha Stewart. That idea quickly fell by the wayside. "After the first episode," recalled Jeff Gaspin, who ran reality programming for NBC, "we said we want more Trump."
Trump's power to draw a mass audience during prime time was also vital to NBC because, by the mid-2000s, all of the major networks were beginning to lose audience share to cable television and other outlets. The fact that Trump could reliably hold huge swathes of viewers made it easy for NBC to line up major advertisers.
But there was an additional aspect of Trump's appeal that received almost no mainstream media attention at all - and yet it was a key part of why advertisers found his show so desirable, and why Trump, even though he was politically dormant during this period, managed to build a national profile that was dramatically different from any other major Republican figure, then or since: Trump was extremely popular with minority audiences.
Because The Apprentice drew a mass audience that pulled in an especially high proportion of African-American and Hispanic viewers, Fortune 500 companies seeking to reach these particular demographics could advertise on the show and get the best of both worlds. Furthermore, it quickly became apparent that the appeal of The Apprentice to minority audiences was rooted not just in the manufactured drama of a business competition, but in Trump himself and the world he projected on his show. "As an active marketer watching the show, the beautiful thing about The Apprentice was that it was a wonderfully integrated programme," said Monique Nelson, chief executive officer of UniWorld, an advertising agency focused on minority audiences. "There were always people of colour, women, people from all different backgrounds - so it connects. The one thing we know about marketing is that when you see a character that reminds you of yourself, you get invested."
What's more, Trump and the show's creators featured their minority contestants in a role that departed from how minority characters were historically portrayed on television and in movies: The Apprentice presented them as striving, ambitious entrepreneurs.
Although she was "fired" from the show in week nine, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, an African-American graduate student at Howard University who had held a low-level White House job for Vice-President Al Gore, was the breakout star of The Apprentice's debut season, styling herself into what remains the epitome of the reality‑TV villain. In the show's fourth season, which aired in the autumn of 2005, Randal D. Pinkett, an African-American business consultant and a Rhodes Scholar, won the overall title and became the Apprentice. People noticed.
"They did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multi-ethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational," said Nelson.
"[The show] appealed to companies looking to reach minority audiences, and it did it authentically, without trying too hard. That means everything in marketing. You always saw a nice swathe of America through that business lens."
This popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African-American and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences. "He was getting so much exposure from the prime-time show, and getting good ratings on NBC, that both his positive perception and his negative perception were well above average," said Henry Schafer, executive vice-president of the company Q Scores, an opinion research firm that serves advertisers by measuring the familiarity and appeal of celebrities and television shows and distilling them into a "Q score".
"[Trump] was the kind of vivid character that I would put in the same category as the Kardashians, Martha Stewart, and Howard Stern: celebrities you love to hate."
At his peak in 2010, Trump's positive Q score with black audiences was 27, while his positive score among English-speaking Hispanic audiences reached 18. Among non-black audiences, however, his positive Q score was just 8. White audiences, along with everybody else, tuned in to watch Trump - but either they didn't particularly like him or they simply loved to hate him. Either way, said Schafer, "He definitely had a stronger positive perception among blacks and Hispanics."
As unlikely as it sounds from the vantage point of today, Trump and The Apprentice, up through the end of the decade, were considered by advertisers and audiences alike to be a triumph of American multiculturalism.
As a celebrity and a pop-culture icon, Trump was riding higher than ever. And yet, privately he was obsessing over politics. Nobody knew it yet, but soon enough they would - because Trump was about to do something that any ordinary Republican with an eye on the White House would consider reckless to the point of insanity: he was about to torch his relationship with minority voters.
Viewed through the lens of politics, Trump had achieved by 2010 what Republican politicians had struggled, without success, to accomplish for the better part of 50 years. He had made himself genuinely popular with a broad segment of blacks and Hispanics.
This audience did not think of him as a politician, of course. Not yet. But as a starting point in a bid for high office, Trump was already out on the far horizon of where the Republican Party one day hoped to be.
Truth be told, the party was moving in entirely the wrong direction.
Ever since 1964, when Barry Goldwater championed "states' rights" - understood to signify his opposition to the civil rights movement - minority voters had turned their backs on the Republican Party. Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" - stoking white racism for electoral gain - had only cemented this state of affairs. In the 11 presidential elections that followed Goldwater's thumping loss, no Republican had won more than 15 per cent of the black vote. And in the most recent election, in 2008, exit polls showed that John McCain had pulled a meagre 4 per cent of them. Republicans fared slightly better among the fast-growing population of Hispanic voters, with George W. Bush hitting a high point of 44 per cent in 2004. But here, too, the party was backsliding: McCain had carried just 31 per cent of Hispanics. Republican strategists looking toward the future were already growing nervous because the changing demography of the US made perfectly clear that minorities would steadily increase as a share of the eligible electorate. Republicans needed to win more of them.
Trump was the furthest thing from a racial innocent. In 1989, after five black and Hispanic male teenagers from Harlem were accused of raping a white female jogger in Central Park, he had felt it necessary to spend $85,000 running full-page ads in the New York daily newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. "Muggers and murderers," he wrote, "should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes." (Even after DNA evidence exonerated the Central Park Five, Trump refused to apologise and held fast to his insistence that they were guilty.) And yet, however improbable, he had managed to win the good favour of millions of minority voters.
What was it, then, that impelled Trump to suddenly launch his birther attack on Barack Obama? And not just air his suspicion that Obama was born in Kenya, but conduct a full-scale media blitzkrieg that took him from Fox News to ABC's The View to drive home this fantastical racist slur?
Trump himself would never say. The charge had been circulating for some time in the darker corners of the internet, on right-wing conspiracy sites and email chains. Only under great duress, when it was clearly hampering his presidential campaign, did he grudgingly withdraw the charge during a bizarre press conference, surrounded by ex‑generals, that was staged in the lobby of his Washington D.C. hotel two months before the election. As someone possessed of perhaps the best raw political instincts of any Republican in his generation, Trump had intuited, correctly, that a racist attack targeting a black president was the surest way to ingratiate himself with grassroots Republican voters. And so Trump, without even batting an eye, proceeded to destroy the goodwill he had built up with minority voters as a way of appealing to a new audience.
The effect was almost immediate, and the first place it showed up was in Trump's television ratings. In the spring of 2011, as his birther crusade took off in earnest, NBC was airing a new season of The Celebrity Apprentice.
According to research conducted by National Media Inc, a firm that places political ads on television, the audience that tuned in to The Celebrity Apprentice was among the most liberal in all of prime-time television, owing in no small part to the large number of minority viewers Trump attracted. As he broadcast his birther charge against Obama, Nielsen ratings for The Celebrity Apprentice took a sharp turn for the worse. "Given the downward trend of Trump's ratings among his current, liberal audience," joked one Republican media buyer, "maybe he's running as a Republican to add a little bipartisan diversity to his viewership."
The effect of Trump's attacks was even more pronounced on his personal image. His favourability rating with minority viewers began to collapse. Trump's positive Q score among African-Americans, which had reached a high of 27 in 2010, fell to 21 the next year, then to 10, and to 9, before bottoming out at 6 in 2014. That same year, his negative Q score, which had floated in the 30s, skyrocketed to 55. Hispanics - not yet a Trump target - also soured on the Apprentice host. While his positive Q rating among English-speaking Hispanics roughly held steady in the teens, his negative rating soared up into the mid-40s.
"I think most people thought they really knew Donald Trump," said Schafer, of the Q Scores Company. "With his show, it was an emotional pact with the audience."
When minority audiences perceived Trump to have broken that pact, their judgment was severe.
The Q Scores Company doesn't measure the popularity of elected politicians; it rates only people whom it considers to be celebrities and entertainers. But among non-political celebrities, Trump's favourability dropped to the bottom of the barrel.
"We don't do folks like David Duke [former Ku Klux Klan leader] - not unless he had a show somewhere," said Schafer. "But toward the end, Donald Trump's negative rating with black audiences was the second worst of any celebrity we measured. Do you know who was the only guy they hated worse? It was 'The Situation' from Jersey Shore."
Edited extract from Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green (Scribe, $30).