AUGUST 8, 2019
“WE ALL NEED to understand at the end of the day what’s happening to our minds when we’re being told a story.” Those are the words of Bill Pruitt, original producer of The Apprentice, talking about Donald Trump’s public persona and the role the show played in creating it.
Pruitt is one of more than 100 people quoted at length in the oral history The Method to the Madness: Donald Trump’s Ascent as Told by Those Who Were Hired, Fired, Inspired — and Inaugurated, a book by journalists Allen Salkin and Aaron Short that claims we’re all telling the wrong story about Trump.
There are, of course, two standard takes on how Donald Trump, a man with zero experience in politics or public service, wound up in the White House. One paints him as a brilliant businessman and patriot who rose to power on a groundswell of support from ordinary American fed up with Washington corruption. The other makes him out to be a none-too-bright huckster and media whore who stumbled into the presidency through an unlikely combination of factors, including the incompetence of the Democrats and influence from Russia.
Salkin and Short want to subvert both those stories, especially the second one. Their book, which is described by the publisher as an “objective, nonpartisan oral history,” makes the case that Trump is not a fortunate bumbler but a deliberate and strategic, if somewhat unorthodox, political operator. “Trump was diligently preparing for decades to take advantage of opportunities such as those this particular election presented,” write the authors, who have compiled and arranged scores of interview snippets in support of this claim.
Their timeline begins with Trump in Manhattan during the height of his tabloid fame in the 1990s and continues on through his flirtation with Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 2000, his years on The Apprentice, and his never-realized campaign for governor of New York in 2014. The book ends with Trump’s infamous 2015 escalator ride to announce his presidential candidacy.
The interviewees in The Method to the Madness are a varied lot. There are the usual suspects from Trump’s circle — Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Sam Nunberg, et al — as well as media figures like Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson, and Tucker Carlson. The New York gossip reporters who helped make Trump famous are included, and so are fashion models, bartenders, contestants from The Apprentice, Pat Boone (yes, that Pat Boone), Gloria Allred, Reverend Al Sharpton, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, at least two former vice presidents from the Trump Organization, Jesse Ventura, Joe Lieberman, and Michael J. Fox, to name but a few.
In its piecemeal, sound-bite-by-sound-bite fashion, the book surveys each of Trump’s forays into politics, revealing that in every instance there were savvy, if not always savory, advisors (Stone is a constant presence), as well as intense discussion of Trump’s chances. Trump is quoted telling Larry King in a 1999 interview that, as far as his presidential ambitions are concerned, “If I couldn’t win, if I felt I couldn’t win, I wouldn’t run,” and Salkin and Short contend that Trump’s repeated toe-dipping is not a sign that he wasn’t serious about politics; on the contrary, it’s evidence of just how serious he was — carefully testing the waters but unwilling to enter until he had identified both a constituency and a winning strategy.
They quote Canadian publisher Conrad Black (a longtime friend of Trump’s and the recent recipient of a presidential pardon for a fraud conviction) on the aborted campaign in the 2000 Reform Party primary: “Trump saw you couldn’t win if you’re leading a third party, but he also saw how many loose votes there were, that if you could get the nomination of one of the main parties, and if you ran a campaign right, you could pick up a lot of disgruntled people.”
This is a typical notion from those in Trump’s circle who insist that he was continually gathering information and trying to get smarter about the political process. According to Roger Stone, Trump homed in early on the critical influence of conservative media. “Trump was listening as much as he was aggressively calling in,” says Stone. “It was a very important part of his strategy.”
Salkin and Short see The Apprentice as a key element of Trump’s effort to build a politically viable public image, though there’s not much evidence here that he signed on for the show with that goal in mind. There are, however, numerous witnesses who affirm that the commanding persona Trump presented on the “reality” show was, in fact, artfully constructed, and Bill Pruitt draws a straight line between the show and the Trump presidency, saying, “I helped create a myth that people bought that turned into the leadership of the free world — which I carry around with me as someone indirectly responsible for the story that was told. Never once thinking that it would lead to this.”
The book gives roughly 40 pages to The Apprentice, and there’s a lot of rehashing of old stories about Trump’s sexist and racist behavior during filming, talk about his hair, et cetera. Salkin and Short’s rationale for including this gossipy material is that it “offers a view of the real person behind the Trump persona.” They argue that the behind-the-scenes drama was an “uncanny prelude to Trump’s presidency,” which seems true enough, but it’s hard to find anything revelatory in these anecdotes. At this point, we’re all painfully familiar with the real Trump’s erratic behavior and management style.
The portions of the book devoted to politics are much more substantial and satisfying, and though there are no big surprises, Salkin and Short do make a compelling case for their claim that much of Trump’s “madness” — the birtherism, the tweeting — was, if not consciously strategic, at least driven by his powerful instinct for selling himself. They also allow the interviewees, especially the pro-Trump contingent, to convincingly recast some well-known events, including the infamous roasting Trump took from Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. It’s long been said that the humiliation of that moment spurred Trump to run for president, but Roger Stone offers the rarely made point that the incident was actually a significant political gift. “Being attacked by the leading Democrat only raises your stature,” says Stone — and it surely did that for Trump, especially with those “disgruntled” voters who were lapping up the birther conspiracy.
The Method to the Madness ultimately does a solid job of telling a new story about our 45th president. Salkin and Short have fashioned a persuasive narrative from a chorus of voices, and in many ways their account of Trump as unorthodox gamesman makes vastly more sense than Trump as lucky idiot. But it’s worth keeping Bill Pruitt’s caveat in mind. Every story is a creative act, and none ever tells the whole truth.