Back in 2004, a television show helped remake Donald Trump’s career. It was called The Apprentice, and it was a huge hit.

Before the The Apprentice, Trump was essentially a local New York City celebrity. Indeed, in the first episode of the first season, after a triumphalist Manhattan-meets-Wall Street-esque montage dripping with post-9/11 patriotism, he introduces himself thusly: “My name’s Donald Trump and I’m the largest real estate developer in New York.” After the first season, however, Trump had become something larger. He was no longer just a brash East Coast real estate developer but the brazen national celebrity he is today.

Nowadays, of course, Trump has parlayed his Apprentice celebrity into the role of leading GOP presidential candidate. Obviously, being the star of your own reality show and being the commander in chief are two vastly different things. In one, you have absolute power. In the other, well, you’re the president. But if the former helped bring about the latter, the latter provides us with an occasion to revisit the former. What if we were to go back and scrutinize the first season of The Apprentice for clues as to how he—and we—got here?

Whether you felt like the show was beneath you, don’t remember it, or were too young to watch it in the first place (it’s so 2004 that Nick Lachey, still married to Jessica Simpson, shows up in a Von Dutch T-shirt at one point), it’s your lucky day: I spent the better part of three days re-watching the first season of The Apprentice to see what Donald Trump the 2004 reality TV star might tell us about Donald Trump the 2016 GOP presidential frontrunner.

What I learned surprised me.

I went into this experiment expecting to find signs of Trump’s future, oft-remarked-upon obnoxiousness and worse. 2016 me knows, for instance, that 2004 Trump is going to go on to attack Rosie O’Donnell, go birther on Obama, insult Mexicans, make misogynistic remarks about everyone from Megyn Kelly to Hillary Clinton, and call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants, to name just some of the more infamous examples of his coarseness and demagoguery. I anticipated seeing portents of this malevolence in the first season of The Apprentice, but I didn’t. What I came away with instead was a more mixed impression, even a kind of grudging respect for how Trump performs his Trumpness. Here are a few things I noticed.


2004 Trump has a righteous moral code. He has a set of values he pushes on the contestants and uses the boardroom as a bully pulpit. Often, it feels like he isn’t so much trying to figure out who to fire as he is relishing the chance to sermonize about things such as loyalty, decorum, pluck, and the value of education.

Tammy, for instance, is fired in episode 7 for an offhand remark Trump interprets as disloyal. Omarosa, after torpedoing Kwame in the final challenge, becomes, for Trump, an object lesson in the importance of surrounding yourself with dependable people. Trump continually calls attention to the contestants’ decorum (or lack thereof), schoolmarmishly scolding them for things like interrupting and insulting each other.


Perhaps the most striking example of his obsession with decorum is when he chastises the all-female team in episode 4 for what he feels is an over-reliance on sex appeal to win challenges. There’s something quaint, even sort of feminist, about Trump’s sexual propriety (though my girlfriend, who suffered through the show with me, might disagree, given that she threw around words like “patronizing” and “paternal” to characterize Trump’s admonishment of the women). The show also glorifies gumption. Trump likes it when the contestants fight for themselves, and fires those who don’t (e.g., Jessie in episode 6). In Trump’s world, there is nothing worse than weakness. Trump may call out Heidi for being abrasive, but she lasts longer in the competition than you might expect because he likes her moxie.

Finally, for a guy whose “support is very reliant on voters without college degrees,” Trump comes across as fiercely pro-education. Though the first person to be fired, David Gould, has an MBA and an MD, Trump seems besotted with the other candidates’ academic credentials, particularly Kwame’s Harvard MBA. “Education is not a bad thing,” Trump tells Troy, a candidate with only a high school diploma, somewhat mockingly just before firing him.


Now, I can see how some might find this sort of moralizing judgmental or hypocritical (especially given Trump’s own personal peccadilloes), but I got sucked into the righteousness of it all.

He never gets defensive. Trump doesn’t really argue with the contestants. Instead, he practices a kind of argumentative judo by saying things like “Well, I hope you’re right” that allow him to sidestep tense conversations. He may be great at stirring up other people’s emotions, but he always keeps his own in check. Nothing ever seems to throw him off. I am hardly the first person to notice this aspect of Trump’s persona, but I found his equanimity compelling all the same. If he were able to exhibit the same poise as president, where he would have less control, he’d be positively Obama-esque!

He respects the opinions of others. I was surprised by how much Trump, for an alleged megalomaniac, seems to listen to and take into account others’ views when making decisions. The candidates, the special guests, and his fellow judges (Trump employees Carolyn Kepcher and George Ross, principally) all get a fair hearing. He relies on their observations, asks them questions, and takes their opinions seriously. There are a surprising number of shots of Trump just listening. And even after he’s fired someone, he invariably checks in again with Kepcher and Ross to ask them if they think he’s made the right decision. (Spoiler: They always do.)


In episode 14, the final four candidates (Amy, Nick, Kwame, and Bill) are interviewed by four of Trump’s top executives, who then share their impressions of the candidates with Trump. Trump does what they suggest he do: fire Amy and Nick. To my surprise, Trump didn’t ever come across as dictatorial. In fact, I found myself being bothered by the opposite; if anything, I felt like Trump was too deferential to the candidates, guests, and other judges. He comes off as the kind of person who seeks people’s input and then, after making a decision, acts like he arrived at it all by himself. Is that smarmy? Yes. Autocratic? No. Presidential? Maybe, actually.

I realize that expressing any sort of admiration for Trump is enough to invite side-eye in certain quarters, but these three things pleasantly surprised me. Still, there were several negative things I noticed about Trump in the first season of The Apprentice, many of which are still on display in 2016 presidential candidate Trump.


He’s a binary thinker. In Trump’s world, then and now, people are either winners or losers, friends or foes, successes or failures, headed either up to the suite or down to the street, to use an oft-repeated phrase from the first season that, unlike “You’re fired,” never caught on. Trump never misses an opportunity to impose a binary (among his first acts on the show is dividing the candidates into male and female teams) or submit to one (all debates are framed in stark black-and-white terms).

His self-aggrandizing is never-ending. Trump never misses an opportunity to salute himself, either. In fact, The Apprentice could have just as easily been called, with apologies to Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself because the show is essentially one long Donald Trump commercial. Most hilarious to me is that many of the challenges involve the candidates working for Trump for free (presaging 2016 Trump’s uncanny ability to get the news media to do the work of promotion for him gratis).

The challenge in episode 8, for instance, is selling Trump’s now-discontinued bottled water: Trump Ice. Episode 12 features the contestants trying to bring in gamblers to Trump’s Taj Mahal casino. In episode 13 they have to rent out a penthouse in Trump World Tower with a cheap-looking parquet floor for as much money as they can. In the final challenge, Bill manages a golf event at one of Trump’s courses and Kwame manages a Jessica Simpson concert at the Trump Taj Mahal. Most of the “prizes” for winning challenges are simply ads for Trump’s properties or lifestyle: visits to his gaudy residences; private jet, helicopter, and yacht rides; meeting Trump pal George Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium. At one point Trump convenes the contestants at the Wollman Rink—which Trump helped renovate and helps operate—seemingly just for the sake of completeness. And naturally, every episode features a shot of Trump Tower’s glittery golden facade.


In a way, The Apprentice isn’t about Trump finding an apprentice at all, but a vehicle for him to show off his ostentatious empire on network TV. After re-watching the first season, I was more sympathetic to those who speculate that Trump is running for president mainly for the self-branding opportunities it affords.


There are all sorts of other, more subtle ways Trump tries to telegraph how important he is, too. Save for the first episode, he always enters the boardroom last, like he’s coming from an important negotiation; afterward, he always dismisses everyone curtly like he has someplace better to get to. In the boardroom, not only does he have the biggest chair, but he’s the only person with a desk pad and supplies, though he never uses them. Outside the boardroom, he often literally positions himself above everyone else, addressing the contestants from on high. His entrances are accompanied by absurd fanfares on the soundtrack. And everywhere he goes, he’s dressed, made up, and lit more flatteringly than everyone else.

He relies too much on cliché. Each episode features a short segment wherein Trump offers up a business maxim related to that episode. These maxims are so trite, however, that they are essentially meaningless. Location is important. Everybody knows that. Always deal with the boss. Can you just press 0 to get to the boss? The art of the deal. Still not sure what you’re saying here, Trump. A deal’s a deal. If you say so. Stand up for yourself. Yeah, because Lord knows you’re not going to. Know what you’re up against. I swear I’ve heard this one before somewhere. Rich people notice details. They do?! Never beg. Even if you really, really want something? You gotta believe in what you’re selling. But what if you don’t? Think outside the box. Only people who think inside the box say this. Think big. We’re gonna need a smaller box. You gotta have passion for what you’re doing. OK, that one is true. Surround yourself with loyal people. I think I saw this one on Tumblr yesterday. In short, Trump has the remarkable ability to say things that mean almost nothing.

But binary thinking, self-aggrandizement, and cliché are hardly unpardonable crimes. From a certain point of view, they’re even endearing—just Donald being Donald. They may form the basis of 2016 Trump’s dog-whistle politics, but they aren’t particularly offensive in and of themselves. In other words: I didn’t see much of Trump’s 2016 odiousness in 2004 Trump. And I’m not the only one. Several Apprentice contestants told the Washington Post that “the country is seeing a side of Trump—with his incendiary comments about illegal immigrants from Mexico and his attack on Fox News’s Megyn Kelly—that they did not see on the set.” “There wasn’t this insult machine, this sexist machine,” said first-season runner-up Kwame Jackson. “That’s what so perplexing. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”


So the question is: Was Trump playing a character in 2004 on the first season of The Apprentice, concealing his more unsavory temperament and sympathies in a grab for ratings and national fame—or is this jingoistic, race-baiting 2016 Trump the character? Or is it that Trump has been playing a character for so long he’s lost track of who he is? Are his more out-there policy prescriptions—building a wall along the Mexican border, forcing Apple to manufacture in the U.S., and so forth—born of the overinflated ego that comes from being the celestial body around which a hit reality TV show turns?

In the end, I found myself nostalgic for 2004 Trump, wondering if he would be a better, less divisive, even more popular candidate than 2016 Trump. I know Trump likes to watch himself on TV. He might want to re-watch the first season of The Apprentice and reconnect with this weirdly more presidential version of himself. Forget America, Trump needs to make himself great again.

Matt Thomas is a teacher and writer living in Iowa City, IA.