The Donald and the Democrats; to Win over 'The Apprentice' Audience, the Dems Are out to Invent Something New in American Political History-A Friendly, Patriotic, Positive Populism

Newsweek, March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Donald and the Democrats; to Win over 'The Apprentice' Audience, the Dems Are out to Invent Something New in American Political History-A Friendly, Patriotic, Positive Populism


Byline: Jonathan Alter

Twenty years ago Donald Trump unveiled a plan to end the cold war. In 2000, he flirted with running for president, though his distaste for shaking hands (he fears germs) posed a problem in politics. Now "The Donald" is emerging as a Rorschach test for what people think about wealth and power in an election year. Is the glass half full or half empty for the economy? The cheesy plutocrat and his yuppie acolytes might have an answer. I don't mean to read too much into a TV show, but "The Apprentice" could offer some guidance in charting the slippery politics of 2004.

At first glance, the show's popularity suggests that business is cool again, which is good news for President Bush. The first M.B.A. president has infused his government with the values of the boardroom. Corporate interests not only fund his campaign, they help write his legislation and regulations. Based on their un-P.C. attitude and reverence for the laws of the commercial jungle, most of the contestants (Omarosa, a Clinton-Gore veteran, might be an exception) look as if they would be as comfortable sleeping over at the White House as they are at Trump Tower.

The Democrats these days are not exactly the party of Mar-a-Lago. It's not just that they want to repeal the tax cuts for people who make more than $200,000 a year. The challenge for Democrats is that the young Trumpsters and the viewers who follow them fervently hope to make at least 200 grand someday; they would like to have their own tax breaks. If they heard John Edwards talk in his compelling stump speech about "the two Americas," they would aspire to be in the "one for the privileged" and not the "one for everyone else" that Edwards is courting.

Because those contestants represent classic American aspirations (we wouldn't be watching them otherwise), they pose a problem for Democrats planning to run a corporate-bashing campaign. Traditional William Jennings Bryan-style populism--built on resentments--is a turnoff, even for bitter apprentices who are fired and ride off in that taxi of doom. The viewers/voters aren't much different. None will likely ever be hit by inheritance taxes, but the vast majority dislike them anyway. More than 50 percent of Americans are now invested in the stock market. When the numbers were much smaller, anti-Wall Street campaigns still failed. …

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