While competing on NBC's The Apprentice, American Idol season two runner up Clay Aiken had a front row seat observing then-host and future Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump in action.
In 2014, Aiken threw his hat into the political arena, running for a Congressional seat in North Carolina -- a run covered in his own docu-series, The Runner Up, on the Esquire Network. With his former "employer" now running for the highest office, Aiken naturally has his own views on the election, and this Monday he will appear on The View in a segment where the North Carolina Democrat crosses political lines covering a Trump a rally in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
Aiken served as a man-on-the-street reporter for the ABC show before, covering the riots in Charlotte and the transgender bathroom battle in North Carolina. However, this will be the first time Aiken will cover a Presidential election, interviewing regular people for a segment that will air on the Oct. 17 episode of the show. He will also be live in the studio to chat with Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Candace Cameron Bure, Paula Faris, Raven-Symoné and Sara Haines about what he learned, as he stood in the same arena where he and Idol winner Kelly Clarkson once performed together on their 2004 co-headlining tour.
"I played the same arena he was in when I toured with Kelly. They were playing video before he came out, and they had announcements and people cheering and chanting. I remember how fun it is to have that many people cheering for you, and have an arena full of noise shouting for you," Aiken tells Billboard. "That's all this is for him. He just loves having throngs of people. He actually said that night, 'We broke all records for attendance at this arena,' and while he was saying it, right above his head was a second tier full of empty seats."
Aiken says his segment will be a "thoughtful piece," and he anticipates a lively discussion with the panel, exploring the reasons why Trump is resonating with voters.
"I mean, we have to at least try to understand why they feel the way they do, and stop assuming they're all just racist demons," he continued. "And they, by the way, need to start trying to understand why people who are liberal or who are Democrat feel the way they do, and stop trying to assume automatically that because we like Obama we're communists."
Read on for more of Aiken's thoughts.
So, you filmed a segment for The View. Tell us about the feedback you are getting from Trump supporters.
The goal was to try and understand why people like Trump without pushing back -- without debating, without arguing, but genuinely trying to get them to explain what it is about him that they gravitate towards, and why they are so adamantly in support of him, why so many of them knew they loved him and wanted to vote for him on day one, without having heard him campaign in any way. And I didn't argue with them or even question any of their views. I didn't push back; it was simply a chance to get people's opinions.
Having gone through the political process yourself, you were well suited to wade into those waters.
I think it's so much easier to go and ask people questions, and not have to question their opinion. Just to try and be respectful of what they want to say and feel and believe. I was worried that I would not get people to talk to me, because a lot of people have the impression that a lot of these folks are horrible, mad, mean, angry, racist, xenophobes, and they hate the media and they yell at the press, and they don't trust anybody and they're just angry.
And I thought "Well hell, I'm a gay man who I think many people recognize as a liberal, and I'm going with a producer who's a Muslim -- we are not going to be so welcomed here." But the supporters were nothing but gracious and friendly and open to talk. I very rarely encountered someone who was angry, very rarely encountered someone whose motivation for voting for him had anything to do with race, or even immigration. A few people want the wall built and want immigration to be curbed -- so to speak -- but I never got the sense that they were doing it for racist reasons. A lot of them are just very afraid for their jobs.
What did you say to them?
I asked them to tell me why they supported Donald Trump, and to describe him in one word. And at risk of giving away too much for what we're talking about on Monday, I won't say what it was, but there was one word that came up I'd say about 60 percent of the time.
And hearing that, and hearing the stories from people about why they like him, why they're supporting him, why they don't care that he said what he said to Billy Bush, why that doesn't affect them, why that doesn't have any impact on why they're voting for him and won't change their position... I have a newfound understanding of where a lot of these people who support Trump are coming from. And while I certainly don't agree with them, and certainly will not vote for him, and am hopeful that he will not become President, I don't think that it's appropriate to demonize the people who like him.
Did any of them talk about the label of "deplorables?"
They wear it as a badge of honor. They have posters, they have stickers now that say, "I'm one of the deplorables." It was a mistake, it was an error, for Hillary Clinton to have said that -- I think she admitted that she shouldn't have said that -- but they wear it as a badge of honor. They recognize that. They're proud of this and they talk about it with pride.
Trump did used to be a registered Democrat.
If you take a look at his registration history, he always tends to change his registration to be the opposite party of the sitting president -- as if he's always thought about running for president, and he knew he needed to switch his party to be in opposition. He switched right after Clinton became president. He left the Democratic party, went to the Republicans for a second, then he went to the Reform party because they were going to have him run. When Bush went into office and the war started, he switched to being a Democrat again, until Obama became president -- then he switched to being a Republican again.
I would argue that there are certain things about Trump that may actually push Democratic policies further than any Democrat ever could. Donald Trump is for getting money out of politics. That's not something Republicans have typically gone for. Donald Trump says is he anti-free trade, and that is not a Republican position. But there's research that shows that Republican voters have shifted to anti-free trade at a more rapid clip in the last year than ever in history, and it's probably because Donald Trump has told them that -- he is their spokesperson, he's become their champion. They believe that he's conservative, but he has a lot of these liberal positions that they never would have listened to if Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton had said them.
He's all about infrastructure, or he says he's all about infrastructure. He says he wants to build these great roads and these great bridges and these great airports and trains. That is an incredibly democratic position. When Hillary Clinton becomes president -- and I believe she will - -if she goes out and tries to get a stimulus package passed that builds better roads and bridges, Republicans and those voters will be so against it. But when Donald Trump is saying it -- because he's got that R behind his name -- they'll listen to it.
Last summer when we talked, you saw this coming. You said not to "discount" him.
The reason The Apprentice was successful was because Mark Burnett knew how to produce a show, but also because Trump knows how to give the people what they want. He definitely wants the people cheering for him, and I figured he would probably do everything he could to pander and say the things people wanted, and just try to rile people up. I'll tell you what, I sat in this arena Monday night, and realized this entire campaign is a vanity project.
Did you see the video from The Apprentice where he fired [WWE personality Maria Kanellis] for "locker room talk"?
I try to be fair that -- I sound like I'm defending him in some way and I really don't want to -- but he was trying to entertain, and the truth is I don't think he has full-reign on deciding who gets fired himself. A lot of it has to do with what NBC wants, and what the ratings are saying and who's got a high Q score and who's doing better for the show. Sometimes he just has to find a reason to fire somebody because the network says that they want so-and-so to go, and he's got to figure out why to be able to fire them.
So maybe that was one of those situations where he had to fire somebody, and he had to figure out how to do it, and that was the [way]. Does that necessarily excuse it? No.
Moving past the election, it is easy to see him launching his own network.
Well, [Michael] Bloomberg had his own media empire while he ran for Mayor, so you can do both.
This whole election is like a reality show right now.
And reality shows, as you know, are not always exactly reality. There are false-scripted moments to give you drama. If you did a reality show of my life, as it normally is, it'd be boring as hell. So they put people in situations, they manufacture this drama; Trump knows how to do that. I know how to give a sound bite, when I give an interview I know how to say something that will probably get pulled out. Trump knows how to do it 10 times better than I do. Most people try to avoid it, but he knows, "If I say something controversial, I'll stay in the news." It's what he said now, "The shackles are off." Well hell, that's ridiculous. The shackles have been off you since day one.
So what's next for you? Any more politics? What do you have on tap?
I don't really know. I kind of took the year off after I ran to sort of explore, and dip my toe into different waters, and see what it was I wanted to do. I knew that going back to singing was probably not going to be as easy as it was before, simply because I got that D behind my name now, and I lost people because they can't support me now, because I'm a Democrat.
I found that I have a great interest in doing these types of thoughtful pieces. I don't think at this point that people see me in that role, so it's not like all of a sudden I'm going to be a political reporter or anything -- nor do I think I want to be a political reporter -- but I don't think I'm going to be a reporter or a journalist in the typical way. But I'm enjoying this, so I'm going to continue doing it here and there. I don't necessarily have an end goal in mind.
The View airs 11 a.m. EST on ABC.