Audience Of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America
By James Poniewozik
Liveright Publishing; hardcover, 352 pages; $27.95; available Tuesday, September 10
Long before Donald Trump became associated with Twitter as a presidential candidate and now in the White House, there was one medium that he knew how to master: television.
In the new book, Audience Of One, James Poniewozik, the chief television critic of the New York Times, reframes the question of “what made Trump” by not just looking at business or politics or populism, but at modern television itself.
Poniewozik breaks down the medium of television in fresh, piercing ways, and finds the parallels between television’s fracturing over the past forty years and Trump’s ascendancy from gossip item to host of his own reality show, “The Apprentice.”
“After Trump was elected, shellshocked journalists began churning out ‘How we got Trump’ explanations,” writes Poniewozik. “Almost always, they gave incidental attention to his life in media – his tabloid notoriety, the way The Apprentice made him a national star – but they usually treated it as ancillary to his business pursuits and his political exploits.
“That is exactly the wrong way to see it. TV wasn’t an adjunct to Trump’s career. It was his career. Media celebrity wasn’t a byproduct of his success. It was the basis of his success.
“TV had been central to presidential politics for more than half a century. But this was different: with Trump’s election, mastery of TV was now not just a political tool but a presidential qualification in itself. Even Reagan had to become governor of California first. Donald Trump leapfrogged that step. Dwight Eisenhower campaigned on TV, but he became president by winning the war in the European theater. Donald Trump became president by winning the 9 p.m. time slot on NBC.
President Trump has always proclaimed to be a self-made man, but Poniewozik thinks “self-manufactured” is more like it. Television provided the means for him to do it, from wrestling to daytime talk shows, from the mass-appeal of the three-network era to the cacophony of cable narrowcasting.
“Poniewozik writes, “There will probably be people who say that treating a president of the United States as a TV character is disrespectful or trivializing, that it politicizes television criticism or reduces deadly serious politics to a show. To them I can only say: that ship has sailed, my friend. It sailed when Donald Trump took a ride down the Trump Tower lobby escalator on June 16, 2015, if not long before. It will continue sailing long after he has left office.
“The best and worst leaders build themselves out of stories. They use their culture’s language – legend, metaphor, archetype – to express what literal language can’t. Donald Trump is the postmodern evolution of that process. He’s a character that wrote itself, a brand mascot that jumped off the cereal box and entered the world, a simulacrum that replaced the thing it represented.
“The character Donald Trump is as real and significant as any other creation of American fiction, as much as Jay Gatsby or Lonesome Rhodes or the performance-art personae of comedian Andy Kaufman. Like any other long-running public performance, the Trump character evolved – became more stylized, exaggerated, sharp-edged – but its constant was its understanding of the instinctual appetites and fears of its audience. It became sentient. Finally, America elected it president.
“That Donald Trump is the most influential character in the history of TV. He deserves a careful review.”
That is just what Poniewozik does in Audience Of One, and he succeeds in showing that Trump, possibly more than anyone, understood television’s power and how he could create a persona that, in reality, was more than met the eye.