If you've been suffering from Donald Trump overload lately, you're not alone. Maybe you caught him hosting Saturday Night Live, or heard about him trying to trademark the words "you're fired." Maybe you saw the same catch phrase on the cover of Newsweek, or in a Doonesbury cartoon, or walking down the street on somebody's t-shirt or trucker's hat. The Donald's first star turn flamed out around the time the eighties did, but since crony capitalism's back in style, brought to us by Bush, Cheney & Co., even a poster child for excessive greed and tasteless displays of wealth gets a second act.
So it makes sense that Trump's riding the wave of reality TV. He's an opportunist, and there's gold in them hills. Whether you're a Bachelorette or an Average Joe, a would-be Survivor or American Idol, there's a show out there for you. We're slowly entertaining ourselves to death, and reality TV is our current mind-numbing weapon of choice.
The Apprentice is the latest brainstorm from Mark Burnett, the creative force behind Survivor. It stars The Donald, and sixteen pumped-up young entrepreneurs who want to learn, like The Donald's new book instructs, How To Get Rich. By competing to be the last one not fired, one of them will win a job in the Trump Organization, and get to run one of The Donald's companies for a year. This should be a tip-off right away that the show's contestants aren't the brightest bulbs on the shelf. If you finish first in other reality shows, you actually win money. However, as some contestants proved through repeated acts of fawning adulation, there are Americans out there who worship Trump as an icon of business success. It's the public image he has skillfully peddled over the past two decades, and one that's often been at odds with the ups and downs of his shaky financial empire.
But no matter. This season, The Apprentice has consistently ranked among the top ten most watched network TV shows. And that brings us to the problem. Or problems, which go way beyond some common complaints about the show. Not that these complaints don't have merit. There's the issue of how the show's producers set back the cause of women's lib by fifty years in the earliest episodes, when the female contestants shamelessly used their sexual attributes to outperform the men in tasks like selling lemonade on the streets of New York and boosting alcohol sales at a restaurant. And persistent doubts about whether some of the contestants were actors, and how meaningful a job running one of The Donald's companies will turn out to be. According to reports, initially he planned to fob the winner off on an obscure division.
The show does disservice to the idea of corporate citizenship by celebrating The Donald as a model tycoon. At least Bill Gates gives away millions to improve Third World health care. With Trump, we're talking about a man whose most lasting contribution to humanity so far has been buying and redeveloping buildings in order to turn overpriced real estate in Manhattan into even more overpriced real estate. Oh, and bringing us Trump Ice, the bottled water that The Donald assures is the "purest, best tasting water you can imagine."
Let's face it, Trump has an exaggeration problem. He calls it "truthful hyperbole." That means he can say anything he likes to his show's twenty-odd million viewers, such as "I'm the biggest real estate developer in New York," when it's clear by most yardsticks, he isn't. Or that his Trump Taj Mahal casino is "The No. 1 hotel" in Atlantic City, when in reality, the casino and the rest of Trump's gambling empire is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Even when it comes to his show's ratings numbers, which have been a bright spot for NBC all season long, Trump can't help exaggerating. While hosting Saturday Night Live on April 2nd, Trump claimed The Apprentice was atop the TV heap. Although the program has been one of the top ten most watched shows on network television, it's also been regularly beaten by Fox's American Idol and Mark Burnett's other hit reality show, Survivor, which airs on CBS. The week Donald claimed to be #1, The Apprentice clocked in at fifth in the Nielson ratings.
It's hard to know where to begin to catalog Donald's many less-than-truthful hyperboles. Trump's latest book is called How To Get Rich, but Trump was born wealthy. In fact, many observers say the majority of his personal holdings consists of the residential and commercial real estate in Brooklyn and Queens he inherited from his father, Fred Trump, who died in 1999. Most of the rest of his empire is co-owned by investors and banks. His casino and hotel business, the only publicly traded part of Trump's holdings, carries $1.8 billion in debt. Last year, its interest payments alone were $228.5 million, versus income of $139.4 million. Overall, the company lost $87.3 million in 2003, and Donald had to forgo a $1.5 million bonus. But he still earned $1.5 million as chairman and CEO of Trump Hotels & Casino, and got to use the corporate jet.
The more you look at the facts behind Trump Hotels, the more it starts to resemble a house of cards a la Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco International. The company has never turned a profit since it first went public in the mid-1990's. Its former auditor was Arthur Andersen, disgraced by its own role in recent corporate scandals. In 2002, Trump Hotels became the first company to be charged by the SEC under new regulations prohibiting abuse of "pro forma" accounting, for including an unusual one-time payment to artificially boost its quarterly results during the third quarter of 1999. Shares of the company, which trade under Trump's initials, DJT, have plunged from a high of $34 in 1996 to approximately $3 today.
Trump ducks any responsibility for the many problems with his casino business. He told the New York Times last month that "this has nothing to do with me, this has to do with a company in which I'm a major shareholder." Indeed, Trump owns 56% of Trump Hotels, but may not be majority shareholder in the company much longer. In order to receive a $400 million loan from a unit of Credit Suisse First Boston, he is being forced to restructure the company's $1.8 billion debt. If he can't reach agreement with his bondholders, which under current proposals would leave him with a 20% stake, the company might file for bankruptcy.
Unlike Trump Hotels, most of Trumps holdings remain private. So there is no accurate way to judge his exact net worth. But while he's been claiming to be a billionaire for nearly twenty years, and told ABC's Cokie Roberts in 2000 that "I made billions of dollars," it's highly improbable he's ever come close. When recently asked by the New York Times to name properties in New York which he owned outright, he listed 40 Wall Street and "many things," but declined further specifics. Again, most of his highest profile projects like high rises and golf courses are co-owned by outside investors who back him in exchange for his property management services and the Trump brand name.
Beyond the real estate he inherited, he's long championed his own development projects as examples of self-made success. Yet in developing his first major "signature" project, Trump Tower, Trump abused tax breaks granted him by New York City that were originally intended to encourage the construction of low-income housing, and instead used them to build $3 million worth of luxury condos. Have you noticed a pattern yet? Maybe Trump is the perfect host of a reality TV show after all, a ringmaster of the fake pretending to be real. It's like the funhouse of the Trump World Tower in Manhattan, which has ninety floors, according to the elevators, but only if you skip eighteen numbers on the way up.
At a time when 2.2 million jobs have been lost in this country over the past three years, The Apprentice makes a mockery of real work by glorifying a phony like Donald Trump. And in a more practical sense, the show also paints a false portrait of how the business world operates. USA Today convened a panel of real-life CEO's and corporate consultants to discuss how true to life were the tasks and problems given to the show's contestants. They mostly agreed the show was way off base.
But the show's absolutely most grievous crime has been...are you ready? Its choice of a theme song. "For The Love Of Money," by the O'Jays, originally released in 1973, is a searing indictment of the culture of greed. Lines like "Money is the root of all evil," "Some people do bad things with it...you got to do good things with it," and "People holding money, don't let money change you," are just a few of the song's socially conscious messages that made it clear which side of the coin the O'Jays were on. All of these lines, predictably, have been digitally edited out by the producers of The Apprentice, leaving instead a few toothless vocal samples singing the praises of "Dollar bills, c'mon now."
Now, I don't blame whoever sold them the rights to this song. Artists have got to eat, especially pioneering soul and funk artists whose gospel-influenced message music is too powerful to be played on today's politically whitewashed, Clear Channel-controlled, national radio airwaves. I blame The Donald, Mark Burnett, the suits at NBC, and their puppet masters at General Electric, for thrusting yet another helping of slickly produced corporate propaganda in our faces.
If we watch enough footage of would-be Apprentices being canned by The Donald in his make-believe Boardroom, we might forget about the corporate scandals still going on in real boardrooms around the country. We might forget that corporate malfeasance is causing hard working employees and investors to lose their jobs, savings, and 401(k) plans. We might forget that George W. Bush is up for re-election this year, and big businesses are salivating at the prospect of four more years of the freedom to outsource and offshore as many jobs as they can. Or the freedom to gobble up competitors in mega-mergers and achieve cost savings through massive layoffs. Or to award their executives multi-million dollar golden pay packages even while denying average workers raises and telling them they're lucky to still have a job. We might forget, in short, that what's good for Donald Trump is not good for America.