Trump’s ‘Apprentice’ Factory Is Pumping Out Politicians Worldwide

  • Some two dozen versions of the show have appeared worldwide
  • Many former hosts went on to become political leaders

Donald Trump

Photographer: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

When Donald Trump became a reality-television star more than a decade ago with his signature snarl “You’re fired!” few of those at the upper reaches of American life took the broadcast seriously. It seemed like one more step toward the braiding of money, fame and vulgarity, not the start of a presidential career.

They were wrong, of course. “The Apprentice” not only laid the groundwork for Trump as an admired public figure but launched a global brand that’s made him millions and morphed into a virtual kingmaker in lands far and wide. Apprentice spinoffs in more than two dozen countries have spawned a surprising group of Trump-like television stars turned politicians.

Joao Doria

Photographer: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg

In Brazil, a former host of the local show was recently elected mayor of Sao Paulo. In the U.K., one became the government’s enterprise czar. In Finland, one is a member of parliament, and in Georgia, one was prime minister.

“Two years on reality TV earned me some points,” said Joao Doria, a wealthy Brazilian businessman and owner of a public-relations company in Sao Paulo, who hosted the local version from 2010 to 2011 and is now mayor. “The show helped me cultivate the image of an administrator.”

Harry Harkimo fronted the Finnish version called “Diili” -- Finnish for deal -- in 2009 and 2010 before being elected to parliament in 2015. Like many hosts of the spinoffs, he embraced Trump’s style, ordering contestants off by pointing his finger and barking “Sa saat potkut!” -- Finnish for “You’re kicked out!” Harkimo, who owns the ice hockey team Jokerit, praised Trump in an article he wrote in December.

Harry Harkimo

Photographer: Anja Heinemann/Bongarts/Getty Images

‘Awesome Guy’

“Regardless of all Trump’s stupid ideas, we should all think about where his popularity comes from,” Harkimo wrote. “I like a lot of the character of Trump. Actually, he’s an awesome guy. He dares to say what he thinks.”

The show has become one of the most successful reality-television formats of the past decade, involving more than a thousand contestants from around the world competing for a job with the host of the show. Each season usually begins with as many as 18 candidates divided into teams to complete various tasks and business challenges under tight deadlines, with the host eliminating one or more contestants every week based on their successes and failures.

Some have upped the ante to increase the drama. Alan Sugar, who has hosted the U.K. version since 2005 and is a member of the House of Lords, offers a 250,000 pound ($312,000) investment in the winner’s business idea. It fits neatly with his role as the U.K. government’s enterprise czar, where he’s been tasked with encouraging the formation of new businesses.

Revolving Door

The revolving door between the show and government coincides with a surge in voters around the world who blame establishment politicians for a range of ills, from depressed wages to the loss of jobs. “The Apprentice” has become a platform for businessmen to cultivate credentials as free-wheeling savvy outsiders who get stuff done.

“Obviously when political systems aren’t working -- and in so many ways, people feel they aren’t -- people are looking for an aura of authenticity,” said Todd Gitlin, chair of the Ph.D. program at Columbia Journalism School in New York. “The reality TV star forges a weirdly intimate link with a public that comes to see him as their deputy or representative.”

Though many of the hosts followed in Trump’s political footsteps, many are not fans of his at all. “His manner isn’t something I appreciate,” said Sao Paulo Mayor Doria. Sugar is also a long-time critic. In April, he compared Trump to Hitler in a tweet. Sugar declined to comment.

Licensing Fees

Despite such bickering with Trump -- or maybe because of it -- the show remains popular around the world, and the U.S. president continues to profit. Trump Productions LLC, which executive produces the series on NBC with Mark Burnett, earned $5.9 million in 2015 and the first part of 2016, according to a financial disclosure filed in May. The Trump Organization declined to comment on fees from licensed spinoffs.

Trump remains an executive producer on the latest series of “Celebrity Apprentice” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That hasn’t stopped him from talking down the show. He urged the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington to “pray” for Schwarzenegger to get better ratings. Schwarzenegger shot back on Twitter, suggesting they switch jobs so “people can finally sleep comfortably again.”

Lado Gurgenidze

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The phenomenon of The Apprentice-as-kingmaker stretches back at least a decade when banker Lado Gurgenidze was appointed prime minister of Georgia in 2007 to steady the former Soviet republic following clashes between police and opposition protesters. His political role came a year after he hosted a gentler spinoff, called “Kandidati,” during which contestants competed for a job at the Bank of Georgia, which Gurgenidze founded. Those who didn’t make it were sent off with a calm “Nakhvamdis,” Georgian for “goodbye.”

“The president’s motivation in appointing me at the time was I was a technocrat, not a politician,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the TV show. But without a doubt I was recognizable on the streets as a result of the TV show way before my political stint.”

— With assistance by Raine Tiessalo

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