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Trump: The Reality TV Years

Donald Trump, seen here in 2004, has appeared on <em>The Apprentice </em>(and then <em>The Celebrity Apprentice</em>) from 2004 until 2015.
Donald Trump, seen here in 2004, has appeared on The Apprentice (and then The Celebrity Apprentice) from 2004 until 2015.

I can't say I ever expected to be writing about Donald Trump, Republican frontrunner, back when I was writing about Donald Trump, reality-show guy.

It's one of the weirdest things about having someone who's so well-known in one arena move into another: in most news organizations, the people who have followed Trump the most closely for the longest time cover television or maybe business, but not politics. And in the case of covering television, which is what I did, they weren't covering him exactly, they were covering "him" — the him who sat at a boardroom table and fired people for underperforming at a lemonade stand or a charity auction, or the him who refereed fights between Star Jones and NeNe Leakes from The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. How much of that "him" is actually him?

Well, that depends on where you come down on the entire eternal argument about reality shows and how closely they resemble anyone's true self.

As I told Ari Shapiro during a conversation today on All Things Considered, I can't speak to that with Trump, both because I've never met him and because I'm a cultural critic and not a political commentator, so I couldn't give you an opinion on Trump as a candidate even if I wanted to.

I can tell you that on television, in his role as business guru, his priority was punishing incompetence, but also weakness and disloyalty. In fact, in the first season of The Apprentice, he fired a woman for speaking up to agree with him that her team had been "duped" in a task when the rest of her team was insisting they hadn't been, because she'd shown disloyalty. She'd been right, according to him, but it was wrong to say so — to speak up and be right — when it meant not standing by her team.

My experience with getting to know other people who have been on reality shows is that what you get on TV is a sometimes a limited view of them, but it's still them, sort of like only knowing someone in the context of work and learning they're very different at home. You don't necessarily learn the person's true heart, but you learn what they've chosen to put forward, and you can ask yourself why. One difference, of course, is that if you're a young attorney or pharmaceutical sales rep who's never been on television before and likely will never be again, your control over the narrative — over the vision of you that merges — is really bounded by your choices in behavior. If you're Donald Trump and you're an executive producer of your show (as he was), and if you're the franchise, as it were, your control is probably far more substantial.

Here's what's interesting to think about, for me: How different is the act of trying to establish who someone really is from a reality show from trying to establish who he or she is from a campaign? If anything, the mechanisms in politics are more sophisticated. The stakes are higher. The calculations are more exact. The budgets are huge. So perhaps the question isn't really how much you can learn about Donald Trump from The Apprentice, but how much you can learn about anyone from watching him or her run for office.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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