The morning the Trumpucation began, America already was in the manic phase of the Trumpcycle.
I had barely sipped coffee. Sacha Baron Cohen was on Today in character as an English soccer player, fantasizing about Donald Trump getting HIV. Then the ads started. Anti-Trump ad, pro-Trump ad, Trump smiling, Make America Great Again hat on. Trump, Trump, Trump.
I turned on the DVD player. For a moment, there was silence. Then.
"Work hard, move faster, hard, faster." Trump was half-rapping, like the Chicago Bears in '85, over The Apprentice DVD menu. There was no turning back, like in therapy when you really have to feel things to find your truth.
I hit play.
• • •
I had locked myself up to binge The Apprentice.
Someone had challenged me to watch every episode of the series and study the leading Republican presidential candidate. His management style, his charisma, his intangibles. No politics, all cultural appeal.
We already know so much about Trump. His failings, successes, marriages, incendiary things he has said. We know too much about his bathroom parts. What else could The Apprentice possibly say about Trump?
There are seven seasons of The Apprentice and seven of The Celebrity Apprentice. Watching them all would make it impossible for me to contact the outside world, ever again.
Mercifully, I found only the first season DVDs. Why weren't there others? I inquired four times to two different press people and got no answer. It's ominous, as if NBC knows something we don't. The network announced in September that Arnold Schwarzenegger would replace Trump on The Apprentice. In 2011, Trump told Meredith Viera he would not declare candidacy while his show was on due to the FCC's equal time rules.
Trump: "I mean, The Apprentice is doing great — The Celebrity Apprentice."
Vieira: "What does that have to do… ."
Trump: "It has a lot to do."
• • •
The year is 2003 in America. Jessica Simpson is married to Nick Lachey. People wear Von Dutch. It's before fourth-wave feminism. Before the housing crisis, the Great Recession. Before Facebook.
It's post-Sept. 11. But on a new NBC show called The Apprentice, there is no talk of the greatest American tragedy. This show is about upward mobility, what you can do if you apply yourself.
There is one man at the center. He, too, has climbed out of a trench.
"Thirteen years ago, I was seriously in trouble," Donald Trump says on the first episode. "I was billions of dollars in debt, but I fought back and won. I used my brain. I used my negotiating skills, and I worked it all out. I've mastered the art of the deal, and I've turned the name Trump into the highest quality brand."
He is joined by on-the-nose American archetypes. There's someone with a Harvard MBA. A copier salesman. A hayseed from Boise. The casting is diverse in the most obligatory way. They are conniving, naive and foolish. They all want to be the next Trump.
The contestants get $250 to start a lemonade stand. Lemonade! America! The women get business by flirting. "A dollar for the lemonade, four dollars for the girl," one old dude says, and I want to die.
The men run around with posters.
The women win, of course. As a prize, they go to ... Trump's apartment.
"If you're really successful, you'll all live just like this," he says, showing them around the gilded palace. "Maybe not like this. Or maybe even better. But if you're really successful, this is what it is, and it's fun. I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings. They walk in, they look around, and they really can't believe what they're seeing."
A female contestant calls Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the greatest villain of all time, "sweetie pie." OH NO SHE DIDN'T. This is starting to kind of get good. Trump plays on power dynamics.
"I learned at a young age that you have to deal with the boss," he says. "It's very simple. Deal with the boss wherever possible."
They meet with ad king Donny Deutsch, whose T-shirt exposes his swole guns. As Deutsch says how fun his company is, an employee cruises by on a Razor scooter. In my bones, I can feel producers yell "3 … 2 … 1 … CUE SCOOTER."
The candidates advertise a Marquis Jet Card. The campaign from the women is way phallic. They dress up for the pitch in flight attendant uniforms/sex costumes. The guys play it safe. The women win, of course.
They negotiate prices, everything from a leg wax to gold. The women negotiate by dancing for the guy in the gold shop, and begging. The women win, of course.
"You know, as a man, I'm so disappointed with you guys," Trump tells the men. "I don't know what's happening."
An unlikable person named Sam goes home. But he is fine about it because he got to shake Trump's hand.
Nick the copier salesman thinks there was a witch hunt for Sam. But, no time to mourn! The teams have to manage a night at Planet Hollywood.
The men build incentives for servers to sell more food. The women do shots with the male customers. The women win, of course.
I start to get really fed up. I really want someone to say …
"You are smart, dynamic and attractive women," Trump says. "You beat the guys fair and square, but you're coming a little close to crossing the line, relying on your sexuality to win. Well, it's unnecessary."
Oh. I'm with Trump. I'm with Trump? I'M WITH TRUMP.
I start to see a morass of clues in the Trumpisms, like the Da Vinci Code.
"Stand up for yourself," Trump says. "You just have to fight for yourself because basically nobody else is going to fight for you."
Restaurant owner Kristi, who didn't fight for herself, goes home. I feel I have discovered etchings on the back of an ancient Bible. I eat a forkful of cold spaghetti, a piece of rotisserie chicken, a stale Oreo and return to the couch.
It's all ego and celebrities, with a paper-thin veil of pretending to care for others.
The candidates convince Regis Philbin and the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to donate time for a charity auction. Contestant Tammy insults Carson Daly by suggesting he would fetch more if he could somehow bring Tiger Woods. I mean, she's not wrong.
Tammy the Actual Worst stays, mild-mannered Jessie goes home. The winners are rewarded with a picnic in the grass at Trump's Bedford estate.
Bleary, I type: This will be in a time capsule for when the next species wants to learn of America.
Episodes Seven and Eight
I awake from a deep and sudden sleep. The contestants are selling Trump Ice, water with The Donald's face on the bottle. It is sweeter than all other water! I am strangely thirsty.
The contestants fly over the Statue of Liberty! AMERICA.
"I got to see that pretty lady in full view," says Troy from Boise, whose accent could pickle a green bean.
Episodes Trumpy, Trumperson and Trumpface
"You gotta believe in what you're selling. If you don't believe in it, if you don't really believe it yourself, it'll never sell and you're going to be miserable."
"I have my own hair."
"Don't you hate to lose?"
It's down to two. Bill Rancic has much hair and seems pretty reasonable. Kwame Jackson has the Harvard degree, but probably is too laid back. They host separate events, a golf tournament at Trump's course, and a J. Simp concert at the Trump Taj Mahal.
Kwame, who is black, says something so profound, I rewind four times.
"My mom was the first person in my family to go to college and finish, the first person. My grandpa signed his name like a runaway slave with an X. Here I am. I went to Harvard Business School. My grandpa signed his name with an X. If that's not the American dream, I don't know what is, in terms of access to opportunity."
Witch hunts. Lemonade. Romance. Sex. Sexism. Golf. Gambling. Lady Liberty. Job interviews. Real estate. Pop stars. Promises. Opportunity.
What does this show say about Trump? Not much we didn't know.
What does this show say about us?
Of course, America would consider a reality star for president. He set it up for 28 million viewers more than a decade ago, Nostradamus in new construction. Here is America, and here is the man leading it, and here are all of us, watching breathlessly.
Bill wins. The walls of the board room fly open to reveal a LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE. It's like Black Mirror, or The Truman Show, or The Twilight Zone.
Bill's prize is a Chrysler Crossfire (a new car!!!). And a job in Chicago working for Trump.
• • •
One of my colleagues interviewed comedian Kathy Griffin, who knows Trump. I had her float a theory. Trump is doing well, in part, because Americans have obsessed over reality TV for two decades.
"That is what he is," Griffin said. "He is a reality show star. … All the years I've known him, he was this wacky Realtor character. … I have seen him play the roles you've seen him play on TV, and the one thing I know personally is for him to be full of s---. I know you can't print that, but I can't get over it."
That night, I dreamed about Trump, and it felt so real.
I chased him through the Trump Taj Mahal. He wore white flip-flops, and had religious crosses tattooed on his feet. I took photos of him on an iPhone. The more pictures, the better, he said. He smiled for them and kept moving, frantically, a smudged blur against a backdrop of casino clinking and flash. I felt compelled to follow.
Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report. Contact Stephanie Hayes at (727) 893-8716 or [email protected] Follow @stephhayes.