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The Secret To Trump’s Ratings

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The Secret To Trump’s Ratings


This article originally appeared in The Washington Spectator.

Finding Donald Trump’s appeal through The Apprentice

If you’re a reader of this publication, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of talk-radio star Colin Cowherd. Cowherd’s daily sports commentary is consumed by 2.5 million listeners during the mid-day hours, when he competes with Rush Limbaugh––in more than one sense. Another professional blowhard, Cowherd was dumped from ESPN Radio in July for observing, during a discussion of the lack of minority general managers in baseball, that the suggestion that the game was too complex for unlettered Negroes to grasp was inadequate. “The game is too complex? Really? A third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has not been known in my lifetime as having world-class academic abilities.”

Cowherd ended up winning a $6 million-a-year contract from Fox Sports (with a radio, TV, and web presence) after an “apology” for “out of context” comments publicized “by a blog company currently under a multi-million- dollar lawsuit.” He also referred to his victimization by a “climate” of political correctness run amok.

The reason I bring this up: Cowherd, predictably, is a Donald Trump fan. In October, Cowherd endorsed him. Thereupon, on November 2 on The Herd with Colin Cowherd, arrived the following meeting of the minds:

Trump: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. You never know. You know, I’m running against people, some of whom are smart––not all of them. . .”

Cowherd interrupted: “How many of these guys would you hire? I’m serious.”

“Not all of them. A percentage of them. Not all.”

“When you’re on that stand—I see you sometimes. I see you. You don’t roll your eyes but I can tell. How many of these guys would you hire for a top position, a transactional position, in your empire?”

“Well, let’s just say this: a percentage of them. Not all of them. OK? I’m not impressed with all of them. And some of them I am impressed with, frankly. You have some good talent up there, some smart people. . . . Look, you have some people, they’re governors, they’re senators, you have some very smart people up there. So you’ll see what happens.”

Cowherd got down to individual candidates. “Do you think Jeb Bush wants to be president, or is being pressured to be?”

Trump began to respond. “I think he’s under a tremendous amount of pressure”––then turned the discussion back to Trump: “Maureen Dowd wrote a piece yesterday that was sort of devastating. She was sort of saying he thought [the nomination] was his, and then I came down. . . . I talk about a low energy individual—”

“Yes!” interjected Cowherd.

“––and if you’re dealing with China, these people send in fierce, fierce people. And you know—we don’t need low energy. OK.”

He continued: “I don’t think, frankly, Rubio is going to make it.

I think he’s a lightweight. . . we need very strong people. Because our country is being taken away—like candy from a baby. It’s like candy from a baby. We need strong people. We need the Tom Brady of negotiators.” (A chyron appeared on the screen of the webcast. “Trump: We need the Tom Brady of dealers.”)

“By the way, Tom is someone I know, such a great guy. . . . We can’t continue to make horrible, horrible trade deals, stupid deals with Iran, where we’re giving them $150 billion. It could have been so easy to change: you double up on the sanctions for a little while, they would have come to the table in three days, they would have given you what you want. . . .”

Watching the live-stream, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of the uncanny. I’d observed this ritual enacted over and over during the previous fortnight. Trump deferred to by bowing and scraping supplicants as an omnicompetent judge of anyone and anything. The “smart” rubber stamp he plants on the forehead of people he’s granted his (always provisional) approval. The reduction of all human intercourse––social, commercial, political––to a running scorecard of who insulted whom, and how. The civilized world presented as a latticework of celebrities, all of whom Trump knows and every one “such a great guy.” (And, invariably, “smart.”) The self-evident fact that everything Trump is the yuuuugest thing in the universe. And, above all else, the alpha and omega of human accomplishment reduced to making something called “deals.” Even though, upon examination, the word “deal” for Donald Trump turns out to be a synonym for getting something for nothing, by sheer brazen force of personality, or as a favor from someone famous. These truths are familiar to me because I’ve been embarked upon a project: I’ve been watching, every day for two weeks, episodes of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.

Donald Trump’s reality show was part of the saturation wave of product from producer Mark Burnett, following his runaway hit Survivor. This time the survivors were young would-be tycoons: 16 of them, winnowed down from what Trump claims (in what is surely one of his signature mendacious boasts) 215,000 applications.The Apprentice opened, on January 8, 2004, with Trump’s signature blather:

“New York. My city. Where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning. A concrete metropolis of unparalleled strength and purpose that drives the business world. Manhattan is a tough place. This island is the real jungle.” (Take that, Survivors.)

“If you’re not careful it can chew you up and spit you out.” (Pan over homeless man sleeping on a bench: must have not been much at negotiating deals.) “But if you work hard, you can really hit it big. And I mean really big!” (Look! There’s Donald Trump’s mansion!)

“My name is Donald Trump, and I’m the biggest real estate developer in New York. . . . But it wasn’t always so easy. Thirteen years ago I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back, and I won—big league. I’ve mastered the art of the deal, and I’ve turned the name ‘Trump’ into the highest quality brand. And as the master I want to pass my knowledge on to somebody else. I’m looking for––the apprentice.”

What’s the deal?

The conceit was that these 16—a dog’s breakfast of Harvard MBAs (an African American), a copy machine salesman, mid-level marketing execs, a good-old-boy with only a high school degree, the entrepreneur responsible for the “Cigar of the Month Club,” etc.––would be put through their paces under the supervision of two of Trump’s top executives, which would reveal from their midst the most promising executive talent in the bunch. The winner “becomes president of one of my companies at a yuge salary for one year.”

The process involved a series of absurdities. A typical task––typical in that it had nothing to do with the skills involved in running a corporation and typical in displaying Burnett’s unique ability to turn an entire television episode into one long commercial for the “brand” paying the highest price––involved a team of women and a team of men competing to funnel one night’s business into the Planet Hollywood on Times Square.

This reduced business skills to those of a carnival barker. And in a twist the producers may not have expected, the women’s team won the first four episodes by the simple expedience of showing a little leg. (For the next episode Trump was shown performing “what we call a corporate reshuffle,” mixing the gender of the teams.)

The “deals” demanded of them, meanwhile, were beyond insipid. In one episode, the winner was the team that procured a basket of goods around Manhattan, including a golf club (a Big Bertha driver); a leg wax for one of the team members; and a couple of pounds of squid, for the lowest price. In the Trumpian universe, all deals are equal: haggling over cephalopods in Chinatown, bringing the Iranian government to its knees, same diff.

It’s awful; to my taste, nearly unwatchable. I don’t dislike reality shows as such. (Survivor has an intensity and richness far beyond The Apprentice, for example.) I’ve covered three Republican conventions. Watching The Apprentice was by far the hardest reporting job I’ve ever endured. If you watched it, you’d probably agree. But political junkies aren’t the type of people who watched it. Let me tell you a story. Once, when I was in my early 20s, my parents dragged my entire family to a performance of Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was awful––and again, if you watched it, you’d probably agree. When the curtain fell, every last person in the audience leaped to their feet in a standing ovation, except me and my three siblings. We sophisticates, we looked at each other, incredulous, glued to our seats. Feeling smug, of course; we had taste.

Bring it back to The Apprentice: the people whose job it is to understand politics are much more likely to be like me and my siblings than like the audience that found Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat a transcendent theatrical experience. I heard one progressive commentator say he was only vaguely aware that Trump had once starred in a hit reality TV show. We know polls. We know political rhetoric. We know tactics, strategy, history. But we don’t know jack about the vehicle that propelled this man’s face into upwards of 10 million homes a week for 12 straight years. Some of us might even be proud of that. Yuuuuge problem.

When it first aired in 2003-04, The Apprentice was the seventh-highest-rated show of the year. The ratings steadily declined for 10 years––only 4.7 million viewers in the 2010 season compared to 20.7 million the first year. Then came a corporate reshuffle:The Celebrity Apprentice, with accomplished people groveling before Trump as if he were an orange-haired incarnation of the Godhead. The ratings got better, if not astronomical, between 40th and 60th place, but still and all with an average monthly viewership of 2.1 million––much higher than even The O’Reilly Factor, then the number-one cable news show.

The truth hiding in plain sight

Why is Trump still number one in the presidential ratings? I anatomized one set of explanations a few weeks back: the racism, the sadism, the demagoguery––all of that. Here’s a complementary reason hiding in plain sight: the hit TV show, where the most sophisticated techniques of Hollywood art were applied to imprinting an image on the minds of millions more citizens than ever paid attention to any politician, with the possible exception of the president. No wonder a thus far shockingly successful campaign followed.

This is not unprecedented. In 1954, Ronald Reagan took up duties as host of G.E. Theater. He had by then been consigned to the lowest ranks of movie stars, so down on his luck that his agent was forced to book him in an awful Las Vegas musical review, which promptly tanked. On TV, however, he soared. Until its cancellation in 1961, G.E. Theater consistently beat the Ed Sullivan Show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the Sunday ratings, and was the third-highest-rated show in the nation in the 1956–57 season. Following that, Reagan signed on to a similar role in the syndicated series Death Valley Days. Both were “anthology” shows, in which a completely different cast of actors each week played in a completely different mini motion picture. The through line, however, was the host––as Reagan described it to an interviewer, the “continuing personality on which to hang the production and advertising of the show.”

Reagan played a role: the genial guide to a world where even the most extraordinary conundrums wrapped up within the half-hour in a tidy happy ending. He became the gee-whiz pitchman for General Electric, the happy, friendly corporate empire providing God’s chosen nation the beneficence of “progress––our most important product,” frequently from his family home, beginning when it was under construction. Advertised as a “total electric house,” domiciling “television’s first all-electric family.”

“Tonight, we’re going visiting at the Ronald Reagans again, in their new home, to see how their many wonderful electrical servants are helping them, just as they’ll help you live better electrically.”

Cue Nancy: “My electrical appliances do everything!”

Cue four-year-old Patti: “What’s elesses apolotz?”

“They’re all the things around the house that makes Mommy’s work easier. . . . That’s why every housewife wants them, the latest models with the latest improvements.”

In The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance, media scholar Timothy Raphael has called those extended commercials for General Electric the first TV reality show. The character Reagan played was a real-life Ward Cleaver. So in 1966, Californians who wished for a governor to return them to those palmy 1950s days knew exactly to whom to turn.

In The Apprentice, what was the character played by Donald Trump? You know the answer to that.

As season one progressed, a problem emerged that the producers might not have anticipated: the contestants liked one another. Trump would do his damnedest to turn the boardroom confrontations that concluded each episode into a Hobbesian war of all against all. But the contestants, who lived together in a suite, kept on being nice. Trump always seemed at sea in such moments. It was the thing about the episodes that struck me the most.

In the “boardroom” segment of episode six of the first season, for example, Omarosa Manigault––the breakout star and reality TV’s preeminent “bitch,” who would appear in 75 episodes of the show––turns on fellow contestant Jessie Conners.

“I haven’t always thought she was very professional or had much finesse,” Omarosa says.

Trump asks Jessie what she thinks of Omarosa.

Jessie says, well, she likes her.

Wrong answer.

“I didn’t like what Omarosa did,” Trump says. “It was repulsive.”

But worse than Omarosa’s rudeness “is how Jessie took it.”

Jessie is about to be fired. She knows it.

Comes one of the show’s signature scenes: the groveling before the perfect and all-knowing terrestrial god.

“Who do you want to represent your company?” Jessie pleads––the woman he just described as repulsive, or the woman who treats everyone with decency.

Certainly not the latter, the Donald responds.

“I think it’s a sign of weakness. . . and I have to say: you’re fired.”

The political analyst is revisited by another uncanny feeling: that fog of the alienated intellectual sophisticate baffled by how many millions of his fellow Americans grasp reality so very differently than he does. This man who seems to us so transparently an empty fraud is the candidate the plurality of Republicans have taken to their bosom. They love him because he seems so all-knowingly strong. Even more important, they love him because he––like them––hates the weak.

Nothing fraudulent about that.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2015 print edition of The Washington Spectator.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign town hall forum in Newton, Iowa, November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan



  1. Insinnergy November 30, 2015

    Well said.
    The Republican ethos exposed:
    Hate the weak. Abhor the poor.
    Compete, be successful, make money…. or be a source of disgust and die.

    1. My Name December 1, 2015

      The apprentice was a show about running a corporation. What you just said is irrelevant.

      1. latebloomingrandma December 1, 2015

        Hardly. It was empty entertainment.

        1. My Name December 1, 2015

          Duh its a fuccen tv show of course its entertainment. The point is they are supposed to be winners and sharks.

          1. latebloomingrandma December 1, 2015

            And this sorry excuse of a show is supposed to prepare him to be POTUS? That’s quite a stretch.

          2. My Name December 1, 2015

            Who the hell said that lady? My reply was referring to the contestants on the apprentice. You see that post above mines? that is the post i was replying to, has nothing to do with Trump or POTUS.

          3. Cloudherder December 3, 2015

            You are a rude idiot, no wonder you support Trump.

          4. My Name December 3, 2015

            Commenting when they haven’t even read the article and obviously don’t even know what i’m talking about or who or what my post is in reference to is what I consider rude, Sir/Madam.

      2. bobnstuff December 1, 2015

        The apprentice has nothing to do with running a corporation, If you used the “training” Trump gives you would be out of business so fast your head would spin.

        1. My Name December 1, 2015

          And you have nothing to do with intelligence if you cant see what my reply was about you dumb hick!

          1. bobnstuff December 1, 2015

            I have owned two corporations, been a sole proprititor and been in a limited partnership. I have been Cheif of Operations and just about every other managment title there is at one time or another. I have taught business class at a college level. What have you done. One thing I can tell you is bullying is not the way to get along in business.

          2. My Name December 1, 2015

            And yet with all those accomplishments you are still seriously lacking in reading comprehension skills. Oh and you spelled chief wrong, it is chief not cheif, remember grade school? i before e except after c.

          3. johninPCFL December 1, 2015

            Wow, that’s wierd (I mean weird I guess, even though it’s spelled “wrong”, right?)

          4. My Name December 1, 2015

            Here’s the classic spelling rule that all native English speakers learn in the first years of school. If you’re unsure whether to spell a word with an ie or an ei, use ie unless the two letters are preceded by c.

            Therefore, we have hierarchy and ceiling.

            As with all rules in English, however, there are exceptions. Three that immediately come to mind are weird, weight, and their

            There you go buddy, try to learn on your own next time since i wont be around.

          5. Insinnergy December 1, 2015


          6. My Name December 1, 2015

            Here’s the classic spelling rule that all native English speakers learn in the first years of school. If you’re unsure whether to spell a word with an ie or an ei, use ie unless the two letters are preceded by c.

            Therefore, we have hierarchy and ceiling.

            As with all rules in English, however, there are exceptions. Three that immediately come to mind are weird, weight, and their.

            There you go buddy, try to learn on your own next time since i wont be around.

            Take your time reading it this time. Hopefully it will sink in.

          7. johninPCFL December 2, 2015

            Wow, snark. Yes elementary students were taught that ridiculous rhyme in the 1960s, but with the influx of immigrants having to pass their TOEFL it was dropped from use. Several dozen routinely used “exceptions” made the rule obsolete: their, eight, protein, efficient, glacier, Einstein, height, science, ancient, heir, sleigh, species, seize, conscience, prescient, omniscient, receive, deceive, and conceive to name a few.
            Oh, and then there’s weird, which describes your obsession with obsolescence.

          8. My Name December 2, 2015

            I have no obsession, look in the mirror for that.

          9. bobnstuff December 1, 2015

            I love spell check, The kicker is I was an English major in college and came close to being a high school English teacher. If you think common core is bad you should have seen the system they used to teach me reading. I can’t spell to save my soul and non of my class mates are any better. I miss my secretary.

          10. jmprint December 1, 2015

            Don’t feel bad, students now a days do not and cannot spell or even write a bio of themselves that is grammatically correct.

          11. bobnstuff December 1, 2015

            It’s funny, I can do math in my head that others have problem doing with a calculator and remember things from 50 years ago but as much as I write and read I just can’t spell. It really upsets me at times. In college I always had someone to type my papers and fix the spelling. In business I had a great secretary who made me look good. Now that I’m retired I’m having to face my worst failing, spelling. My children are all exceptional spellers, three out of the five have published. Now I’m working hard making sure my grandson doesn’t have this problem.

          12. jmprint December 1, 2015

            And since your are good at correcting people, try to capitalize the “i” when referring to yourself. Trump didn’t start his companies with his sweat, and knowledge. His daddy left him money, and his mommy ran the companies, when he first started, so there is nothing there to impress anyone other then he is a rotten spoil brat.

          13. My Name December 1, 2015

            His dad died in 1999 when Trump was 55!!! LOL the media has fooled you well.

          14. Insinnergy December 1, 2015

            Honestly… try going back to school. More people would understand you.

          15. My Name December 1, 2015

            Unfortunately for you, no matter if you went back to school or not you will still remain undecipherable.

      3. bcarreiro December 1, 2015

        Apprenticeship…Don should try that.

      4. Insinnergy December 1, 2015

        Sorry I don’t have time for a reading comprehension course. Re-try Elementary school.

        1. My Name December 1, 2015

          Well if you feel you need to retry elementary school in lieu of a reading comprehension refresher then i wont stop you. Godspeed on your educational journey.

          1. Insinnergy December 1, 2015

            Hey if you don’t re-attend High School, how will you be able to understand what I say… or what the article says?
            It’s pretty clear you need the help.

      5. Insinnergy December 1, 2015

        That is a ridiculous definition of “The Apprentice”. It was a Trump sideshow that had little bearing on anything related to business.

        Watch any Republican talking about Social Security, the “Takers”, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, SNAP… you’ll fairly quickly see the disgust and the demonisation.

        1. My Name December 1, 2015

          Who said anything of the like. IT IS A FUCCEN TV SHOW NOT A HARVARD MBA!!! DUH!!! My post was to your dumb idiotic comment

          “The Republican ethos exposed: Hate the weak. Abhor the poor.
          Compete, be successful, make money…. or be a source of disgust and die.”

          DUH you dumb fucc, “Compete be succesful make money!!1 That is what the show is about you dumb dumb poor dumb man.

  2. Otto Greif November 30, 2015

    Average IQ in the DR is 82.

    1. jmprint December 1, 2015

      Well it way surpasses your 62.

      1. Cloudherder December 3, 2015

        Oh now you’re just flattering Otto.

  3. Otto Greif November 30, 2015

    “the most sophisticated techniques of Hollywood art were applied to imprinting an image on the minds of millions” That’s what happened with Obama.

    1. greenlantern1 December 1, 2015


    2. Insinnergy December 1, 2015

      Silly troll is running out of good ideas.

  4. Otto Greif November 30, 2015

    “Intellectual sophisticates”, hilarious.

  5. Dominick Vila December 1, 2015

    The reason for Trump’s and Carson’s popularity is a lot simpler than that. Many Republicans feel deceived by those they have elected, who after taking office have the audacity of abandoning their principles are losing sight of what their constituents want. With that in mind, most Republicans decided to look for people who share their “values”, their concerns, and their vision of what America should be like. Since they don’t trust politicians, they are looking for and supporting candidates who have never held public office, something that in their minds represents an asset and the potential advancement of their goals. Celebrity status helps, but it is not the main reason for the support The Donald enjoys.

    1. itsfun December 1, 2015

      They are looking for people that will actually do what they promise to do. They believe “the Donald” will do just that. They are tired of working for and donating money to candidates that turn into moderate Democrats when elected.

      1. LoriW87 December 1, 2015

        I agree that’s what they’re looking for, but when you remember that Trump has publicly supported progressive causes in the not-so-distant past (pro-choice, healthcare, etc.), and when you see that Donald is a chronic liar, how can any sane person believe him? Any rational person should admit they have no idea what this guy would do if he was elected. Of course, Trump supporters are not rational.

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  7. greenlantern1 December 1, 2015

    Trump’s TAJ MAHAL was just fined $10,000,000 because itwas used, by terrorists, for money laundering!
    Which side is he on?

    1. jmprint December 1, 2015

      He is on the “right side”, the republican terrorist side. And those that condone his behavior are all part of the regime.

  8. Keith Garevich December 1, 2015

    Republican party…The new ISIS!! Vote Democrat

  9. Robert Eckert December 1, 2015

    “If you’re not careful it can chew you up and spit you out.” (Pan over homeless man sleeping on a bench: must have not been much at negotiating deals.)

    I bet he’s really low energy, just a total disaster.

  10. Chuckl8 December 1, 2015

    A few weeks ago, while waiting for a flight at Atlanta’s airport, I noticed that everyone seated across from me at the boarding area, including a nice cross-section of young and old men and women, were staring, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the TV screen facing them above my head.

    Since I couldn’t see the screen, I assumed that it was showing last-minute flight schedule changes, or maybe the Pope kissing the ring of a resurrected Elvis. Whatever it was on-screen, it was “yuuuge”, and, of course, when I looked up, it was Trump, being interviewed, soundlessly.

    Aside from their totally mesmerized facial expressions, the people looked normal. This article is a great explanation for their response to even a soundless image of The Donald, a response which was both very creepy to watch, and just a bit scary to contemplate, since on more than one occasion in this nation, similar groups of wide-eyed mouth-breathing victims of mass-hypnosis have put the GOP’s version of shiny objects into the White House.

    1. jmprint December 1, 2015

      So true, but pathetic.


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