Power Games on the Celebrity Apprentice

I tuned into Celebrity Apprentice TV show originated for Donald Trump.  I like doing so occasionally because it provides a clear view of the power games played out in the boardroom that can be abstracted to many other institutional-type settings.  It is always instructive for my teaching purposes in my school, The Blue Gate School of Spiritual Education.

This particular show (April 22, 2012) was highly revealing.  The format is two teams who are given a project to complete pitted against each other as competition.  The winning team each week is given a somewhat sizable amount of money. The sum goes to the favorite charity of the project managers for that team that specific week (the project manager rotates each week).

What was striking this week was Mr. Trump’s interrogation of the members of the losing team at the end of the show to determine whom he fires. (Ultimately, as people are fired each week, the teams become smaller and smaller until one out of all of them “survives” and is crowned “The Celebrity Apprentice” with whatever perks are afforded that person  by winning this “prestigious” award).  This survival-of-the-fittest, natural-selection game, the power-as-control game (as my colleague Dr. Elizabeth Barrett has called it), epitomizes what is called the dark currents of will (a term originated by the great twentieth-century spiritual master Valentin Tomberg):  to take, keep, hold onto, and advance at the expense of others, and the desire to be great (vanity).

Throughout the course of the weeks of the show’s airing this season, there is one person — Aubrey O’Day — who clearly is not a team player.  She either seeks to co-opt the others’ activities, is not interested in playing along with them, seeks to take credit for almost everything that is produced, and as project manager undervalues and under-uses everyone else so that no one but she can claim credit for anything that is positive. At the same time she throws others under the bus when something negative arises for which a critical light may fall on her.  In spite of this obviously self-serving behavior, where the dark currents of will are on conspicuous display, she always manages to avoid getting a “You’re fired” from Trump.

I was puzzled by how this clever escape artist can consistently fly under the radar and get away with her obvious disrespect of all the other players.  Then, on this show it became clear.  In this instance her team won with her as project manager, clearly disregarding the presence of the other two team members altogether, while nurturing a not terribly creative project by herself (with the aid of workmen).  When Trump interviewed the other team to see who would be fired, they spoke up to say they all cooperated with each other and strove to work with each other by “consensus.”  That was the match in the fireworks factory.  Upon hearing that word Trump repeated it, “by consensus?,” and proceeded to disparage that term and the implications of how ridiculous it is to consider working together — as a community to communally pitch in — when it required the head (project manager) to take charge and do whatever was necessary to win, taking into account or not whatever the others wanted.  He repeated “consensus” three times with a scrunched-up face, pursed lips, and wrinkled nose of disgust.  He ultimately fired Penn Jillette, the magician of Penn and Teller, for coming up with a phrase not liked by the company evaluators for the project - a Donald Trump perfume or aftershave titled “you earned it.”  They loved Aubrey’s “team” slogan attributed to Trump, something like “let your instincts guide you,” which turned the tide in their favor.  Aubrey took credit for utilizing it, much to the dismay of “team” member Arsenio Hall, who claimed credit for thinking of using it.

It was at this point that I had an “aha” moment.  Of course!  Aubrey picked up on Trump’s penchant for taking charge, doing whatever he wants, being headstrong -  the general who takes over and goes headlong.  In fact he made a military analogy while demeaning the notion of “consensus” (he failed to note that unlike in other armies in the world, U.S. generals do not lead troops in battle).  So, Aubrey and the Donald are two peas in a pod.  They share a mutual quality of usurpation and her gift for ducking responsibility in addition, while shirking team spirit and team sharing.  All the others dislike her for this, while not being sure, or at least not being able to articulate why.  But Trump really appreciates her and sees a reflection of himself in her, as long as she continues to act as a “loose cannon” (as Penn characterized Trump after he left the building and was driven away in a limo).  Disregard and disrespect get rewarded here, as is often the case in American society, a cauldron of hyper-individuality.

Therefore, the winner will be . . . Aubrey O’Day!  Stay tuned.

Parenthetically, it made me think about Republicans and Democrats.  The current dominant voices in the Republican party are not consensus builders and care next to nothing about team building, cooperation, or collaboration.  They are survival-of-the-fittest exponents to the nth degree.  Democrats, on the other hand, look to be team builders, consensus cousins, and cooperatively interested.  Obama is certainly of that ilk, e.g. “Obamacare”; while Trump is a General Patton clone who tries to live by his instincts and cares nary a whit for team spirit.  Witness his attempts to be a Republican presidential candidate who sought to unseat Obama from office by questioning his American heritage and, by implication, his patriotism.  Again, this “loose cannon” was seeking to sow discord in society, just as Aubrey does on the show.