On Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May will become the first foreign leader to hold talks with President Donald Trump in the White House, jumping to the front of the queue even ahead of Vladimir Putin, who I understand is supposed to be a friend of Trump’s. At the top of the agenda will be a new post-Brexit trade deal; May is hoping to return to the U.K. boosted with some favorable tariffs and a “job creation” plan.
What’s going to happen? The stakes are high; the politics complicated. May has some reason to be optimistic. Trump has, in the past, labeled himself “Mr. Brexit,” marking himself a supporter of every patriotic Englishman’s favorite act of populist self-harm. He’s stated that he’s keen to do a deal with May, and his aides have even made noises about reviving a Thatcher-Reagan style “special relationship.” On the other hand, it’s unclear how a closer transatlantic relationship would fit with Trump’s protectionist inclinations. Compounding these worries, an interview with Trump conducted for the London Times by May’s party enemy, Michael Gove, appeared to indicate that the new president has trouble remembering her name.
Will May manage to win from Trump the concessions she needs? Or will she be left hanging around the lobby for hours before Kellyanne Conway emerges to ask her if she’s seen the prime minister anywhere?
Foreign Policy turned to me for answers. I, in turn, decided to binge-watch The Apprentice.
I did this in order to compare the U.S. version of the show, which starred Trump until he left to spend more time with his racism, to its U.K. spinoff, which launched in 2005 and has been one of the most popular shows on British television ever since. My rationale: As cultural products, these two shows contain objective facts about the society that has produced them. By comparing these shows we should be able to work out, in theory, how the British psyche will respond in a negotiation situation to the Trump phenomenon.
Two days and about 20 hours of botched pricing policies, mind games, back-stabbings, and boardroom confrontations later, I’ve emerged bleary-eyed, slightly feverish, and with reason to believe that May could be in trouble. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The U.S. version wants the contest to seem like a dream; the U.K. version tries its best to make it resemble a nightmare.
The premise of both shows is identical: A bunch of aspiring business jerks arrive in the big city to compete for a top executive job by excelling (or otherwise) in a series of madcap tasks. But the two differ markedly in tone. The U.S. version is all aspirational flash. When you turn on an episode, you’re greeted with that funky “money, money, money” song juxtaposed with the credit sequence’s self-helpy slogan: “What if … you could have it all?” New York City sparkles behind the prospective apprentices, leering at the camera as they project power and success. These are supposed to be people living the dream — and, indeed, when they talk to the camera about being on the show, the contestants typically speak as if they are being allowed, if only briefly, to walk in the gardens of Paradise. What they are competing for, really, is the right to stay there.
The U.K. version, by contrast, opens with blazing orchestral music narrating a London photographed from the sky, looking every bit the dystopian hellscape that, let’s face it, it is. “This is the job interview from hell,” the narrator informs the audience, before the show’s Trump equivalent, Sir Alan (now Lord) Sugar, is introduced.
Sugar, who before the show launched was probably best known to the British public as having been the chairman of the Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur, made his money in the 1980s selling cut-price home computers. In stark contrast to Trump’s upbringing, Sugar was born into poverty in London’s East End, and he has a lot invested in his image as a self-made man. One of the most amusing aspects of the show is witnessing the depths of contempt he’s able to drag up for any contestant who seems a bit too posh. Sugar is presented by the show as a businessman of immense power and almost insane belligerence. The credit sequence shows him telling the contestants things like “I don’t like dossers. I don’t like arse lickers,” as clips play of them sweating and crying under the pressure. The audience is left wondering why anyone would possibly want to put themselves through this ordeal.
Thus far, it seems like May probably has the advantage here. Trump is living in a glitzy dream world, but May comes from a nation that is seemingly much grittier and hardheaded. Perhaps she’ll rock up in the Oval Office and wallop Trump around the head with a spanner like some cockney gangster?
The U.S. version is very “Trumpcentric”; the U.K. version is “businesscentric.”
The U.S. version stars a famously demented narcissist; the show, as a result, is all about him. Donald J. Trump, as presented by The Apprentice, is the one true embodiment of business success. The contestants are therefore supposed to try to emulate him as much as they can. Trump is spoken about in hushed, awed tones, and he always seems to lay on treats for the winning teams that are somehow Trump-related. They earn the chance to eat at a restaurant his dad liked; stay at one of his hotels; or meet one of his friends. In the opening episode of both of the first two seasons, the reward for the winning team is to get to look around Trump’s hideously garish Manhattan apartment. The contestants are then obliged to spend their time talking to the camera using the most florid terms they can possibly muster, to say how impressed they are by its gold doors and marble floors.
In the U.K. version, the contestants aren’t really encouraged to display any undue degree of libidinal investment in Alan Sugar, the person. Rather, they are supposed to want to impress Alan Sugar, the businessman, with their business skills. Sugar’s role is primarily to judge who is and who isn’t a good business person; he acts as a sort of representative for objective market forces. Sugar’s belligerent nature, and indeed the “harsh” tone that the show more generally projects, channels the brutal, unforgiving nature of the capitalist economy, in which only the toughest — and the hardest-working — are fit to survive. Capitalism in the U.K. version of The Apprentice is an unpleasant reality that all of us must struggle to accommodate ourselves to however best we can. Capitalism in the U.S. version is a sort of magic, magic that can make you successful if you act like Trump.
In theory, this sounds like another check mark in the May column. Trump, again, doesn’t seem properly adjusted to reality, and to come out better from the negotiations, the prime minister need only massage his brittle ego. On the other hand, the British psyche seems to suffer from a deep ambivalence in relation to capitalism, conceiving of it as a hostile, external force that must be appeased because it cannot be transformed. For this reason, could May be inclined to capitulate to Trump’s demands?
Alan Sugar is the pope; Donald Trump is God.
This point is reflected in the difference between the boardroom sequences in the two shows. The U.S. version of The Apprentice has relatively short boardroom sequences at the end of every episode. The losing team enters, Trump’s aides scrutinize them with a bunch of leading questions as he sits glowering in his big leather throne, and then he picks on whoever looks like the weakest and tells them, in his gruff monotone, that they’re fired. In the U.K. version, the boardroom sequences last about half an hour, with Sugar (who sits in a slightly larger, but still mostly normal-looking, chair) poring over every little detail as to what might have gone wrong and getting personally offended by any display of incompetence.
Obviously, there are some material reasons for this. The U.K. version, airing on the ad-free BBC, has about 20 minutes more run-time per episode than the U.S. one. Another is that Sugar, quite plainly, likes to talk a whole lot more than Trump. He always seems to be having a great time ranting and raving from the center of proceedings while his aides spend most of their time peering silently, disapprovingly from either side.
But equally, the differences between the boardroom sequences on each show indicate a crucial difference between the personas that Sugar and Trump are supposed to be projecting. Sugar, as I’ve said, is present as the representative of the objective market forces of capitalism. He is therefore driven to establish some sort of consensus about the facts, which requires a lot of dialogue with the contestants. Trump, on the other hand, is capitalism. He is business itself; so what matters in this world is his whim.
In short: If Sugar is capitalism’s pope, then Trump is capitalism’s God the Son — “business” itself born in the form of a man.
What does this mean for the negotiations? Well, once again we have a picture of Trump as someone who has been given a reality in which his narcissistic delusions are able to run rampant. This inclines him against real discussion. The key for May could then be to find some way of making him talk. But again, the ambivalence expressed in the British psyche’s attitude toward capitalism suggests that she may not be capable of doing anything but try to appease him.
The U.S. version is Calvinist; the U.K. version is Lutheran.
There is a further distinction between the forms of religiosity exhibited by the U.S. and U.K. versions of The Apprentice. In the U.S. version, all the contestants give the impression of being entitled to the reward, almost by virtue of just having turned up. They constantly praise one another as being incredibly smart, superlatively talented — and even when he fires them, Trump says things like “I’m sure you’ll be a big success.” They suffer frequent rows, but the rows aren’t driven so much by mistakes on the tasks as by the sort of plain, undisguised dislike that a child might have for another little boy or girl who has a toy they want.
In short, the contestants on the U.S. version of The Apprentice conceive of themselves as a Calvinist elect, who are certain they’ve been predestined to receive capitalism’s rewards and basically need to do very little to prove that fact. By contrast, the candidates on the U.K. Apprentice conceive of capitalism in terms that are unforgivingly Lutheran. They constantly go on about how hardworking they are, about how much “graft” they are willing to put in on each task, as if through demonstrations of mere effort and discipline they can prove themselves worthy of the market’s grace.
Again, this indicates that Trump isn’t going to think that discussion really matters — he’s going to want to settle the negotiations very quickly. But May is likely to keep going and going until she’s got what she needs. This one could potentially be another win for May.
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Will Trump be a weak negotiator when faced with the British capacity for grinding, punishing negotiations? Perhaps. Trump is a pampered little princeling who has been allowed, at least since The Apprentice launched in 2004, to inhabit a world in which people treat him like God. In theory, at least, he could be quite easy to win concessions from.
Here’s why I think that won’t happen, and that what seems likely is May will come out worse from the negotiations. The U.K. version of The Apprentice indicates that the British are inclined to think of “business” as a sort of quasi-religious force, one they must placate in order to survive and possibly receive something like spiritual salvation (e.g., in the form of a good job). Whereas Trump, of course, is inclined to think of “business” as something manifested in his divine person. So logically, with Trump projecting divine businesshood, May’s instinct will be to placate him from the off, and as a result he will walk away from the talks with whatever he happens to want. Get ready for a news conference in which Theresa May announces to a stunned world that no matter what those nasty people say, President Donald Trump is indeed our special Mr. Brexit — and that Downing Street stands at the ready to provide him with whatever he needs.’
Image credit: Getty Images/NBC/Foreign Policy illustration