Depending on your political persuasion, or, as some are now arguing, depending on the “engagement” metrics that condition your social media “echo chamber”, you will have met the election of Donald Trump to the US’s highest office with either shock or elation.
Pre and post-election commentary on the reasons for Trump’s win and the cultural meaning of Trump’s rise to Presidential power are now legion. One such piece of commentary recently published in The Conversation argued that Trump’s presiding role in his famous reality TV show The Apprentice (which began in 2004) primed him to turn the Presidential race into his own media spectacle.
There has been less attention paid to how Trump might be understood as a product of television, or what effect his televisual celebrity has had on viewers and potential voters.
The Apprentice is a gameshow that judges the performances of wannabe corporate leaders: contestants are sent out in teams (called “corporations”) to undertake tasks such as selling something on the street, creating an advertising sales pitch and/or leasing a block of rundown apartments.
Trump’s performance in The Apprentice followed highly publicised bankruptcies in the 1990s and the early 2000s. These were the result of spectacular debts on his Atlantic City and New York hotels and casinos.
What is remarkable about his role as The Apprentice’s “master” – the corporate boss and judge who decides who wins and who loses – is the way in which he expressly turned his corporate faults and social sins into rewardable (monetised) virtues.
Equally remarkable is that Trump’s broadcasting of his losses, as if they are “wins”, has not mattered to his supporters, or to those who voted for him.
By understanding the melodrama of his televisual role, we can see how he presented to aspiring contestants and viewers the idea that, far from being a villain or part of the elite, he too is a victim. Having previously lost millions, he has clawed his way back to the top through hard work, stamina and business acumen.
Melodrama is a genre that draws on sensation and exaggerated emotion to tell a story of an underdog able to overcome adversity.
Recycling melodramatic narratives and their attendant rags-to-riches dreams and ideology, The Apprentice has played a pivotal role in Trump’s presenting himself as both an authority figure and aspirational model. This is in spite of the fact that his father was a millionaire, offering him opportunities far out of the reach of the majority of the contestants and audience.
Melodramatic transformations have also accompanied Trump’s life “journey”, to use a popular reality TV narrative. Born in 1946, on the cusp of the post-World War Two baby boom, Trump grew up during a period of widespread prosperity.
This was also a period that marked the peak and then decline of the classic era of Hollywood film, which included the dominant narrative form known as the domestic melodrama or “woman’s picture”.
Typically concerned with a female character and her romantic desires or aspirational dreams, these “weepies” often ended with their female protagonists suffering loss or disappointment: as feminist film scholars have argued, in this kind of melodrama, female ambition is often met by thwarted desire.
Such melodramatic protagonists now populate television shows – and are often men. They range from characters in long-form drama such as Mad Men, in which the adman Don Draper pulls himself up from poverty to become a corporate boss yet expresses melancholy about his past, through to reality TV series like The Apprentice.
Television melodrama has been shaped, and/or speaks to, widespread beliefs that achieving one’s dreams is achievable for all.
The Apprentice blended the reality TV format with the melodramatic idea that it is possible to win by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps. The Apprentice delivers sensation, the spectacle of suffering and thwarted desire along the way.
However, in doing so, its contestants essentially capitulate to the very corporate, globalised systems and capitalist ideologies that condition today’s disadvantage, marginality and poverty.
Because it provides a vehicle for expressing longing for situations from which characters or contestants feel themselves to be excluded, melodrama has often been seen as perpetuating the status quo.
Interestingly, melodrama can contain elements of subversion. For example, the theme song for The Apprentice – For the Love of Money, by the O'Jays – is superficially a pro-capitalism anthem. In reality, the song’s writers, one of whom has converted to Islam, included a biblical reference to the evil of money at the end of the song. This demonstrates that close reading of melodrama can undercut its message and reveal its contradictions.
In a final irony, the 2016 season of The Celebrity Apprentice will be hosted by former Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, who left office in 2011.
Despite these disparate elements, this style of reality TV was Trump’s entryway in to the national consciousness, and facilitated his success. In his melodramatic “struggle” narrative, things his political enemies attack as failures, like his bankruptcies, become a way for his audience to identify with him.
Whatever your personal view of his performance on The Apprentice, thinking about Television Trump can help us to understand President Trump.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted out of office in 2011. He was unable to contest the 2011 election due to California’s two-term gubernatorial limit.