Room with a Viewer

Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America BY James Poniewozik. New York: Liveright. 304 pages. $28.

Soon after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, a New York Times editor told reporter Amy Chozick that the paper wasn’t going to bother assigning any of its political gumshoes to the DJT beat: “Let the TV writers do it.” You wouldn’t really blame James Poniewozik if he got special pleasure out of repeating that anecdote from Chozick’s campaign memoir Chasing Hillary in his own Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America (Liveright, $28).

Poniewozik was then and is now the Times’ chief television critic, and guess who’s laughing last. His new book—which is also his first, surprisingly enough—is the smartest, most original, most unexpectedly definitive account of the rise of Trump and Trumpism we’ve had so far. It’s also the best book yet written about the bride-of-Frankenstein mating of American politics and American pop culture, a wedding practically nobody saw coming until Trump provided the shotgun.

Those two veteran barflies at the same big casino had spent most of the twentieth century pretending they were barely on speaking terms, rarely if ever acknowledging the fatal attraction percolating away underneath. Suiting politicians and pop fans alike, the consensus view was that our political life had no connection to the entertainment we loved: none, zip, nada. Pop critics cracked enough to theorize that the 1977 box-office success of Star Wars more or less predicted Ronald Reagan’s election three years later were just begging to be derided as loons by serious politicos while infuriating George Lucas fans at the unwelcome intrusion on their fantasy.

Then real-world politics and the society of the spectacle woke up as drunken bedmates one morning in early November 2016. Once dawn begrimed their motel room’s window, they began anxiously groping for the Vegas wedding rings they’d inadvertently procured when they were blotto. Unfortunately, we already know what their baby looks like—and sounds like, too.

As Audience of One makes plain, conquering the society of the spectacle was Trump’s specialty from his earliest days as a Potemkin-village New York tycoon. Thanks to what Poniewozik calls his “lizard-brain . . . intuition that the cartoon of a thing was more powerful to people than the thing itself,” Trump vowed from the start, in his own words, that he was “going to put show business into real estate.” Always bent on creating “a business whose primary product was the idea of Trump,” he was “essentially . . . building a reality-TV set for decades before reality TV existed,” with Trump Tower as the obvious Exhibit A.

Donald Trump with contestants for All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, season 13. Adam Olszewski/NBC

To a greater or lesser extent, all politicians manufacture sham images of themselves for public consumption, with those who fetishize their authenticity often being the worst offenders. In Trump’s case, however, successful shamming was no mere ploy; it was the whole point of being Donald Trump—or rather, “Donald Trump.” As a result, professional political journalists simply had the wrong tool kit to comprehend him, no matter how hard they’ve tried to play catch-up since.

Despite being at least vaguely aware of Trump’s tabloid notoriety and reality-TV stardom, Washington’s media cognoscenti treated both as “incidental” to his business career and political aspirations, which got things gloriously ass-backwards. Since they were convinced he was absurd in any case, no wonder the reporters covering his June 2015 Trump Tower announcement that he was running for president treated the gig, to quote one of Poniewozik’s most biting analogies, as “a lark, like the spectators packing picnic lunches to the First Battle of Bull Run.”

Among other Trumpian lacunae in their educations, it’s unlikely that most political writers had ever bothered to actually watch The Apprentice. Poniewozik most certainly did, and that’s how he’s able to go past the usual lazy comparisons of Trump’s White House to a reality-TV show to break down, in detail, how uncannily The Apprentice anticipated the m.o. of the current regime at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, the capricious decisions by Trump himself that once forced the showrunners to re-edit episodes to retroactively justify his whims. Nowadays, they oblige White House staffers to construct unlikely beehives of alternative facts to house the latest bee in his bonnet.

By a fluke, even the Republican Party’s crowded field of 2016 primary candidates put Trump on familiar turf in a way that Jeb Bush, say, was not. The sixteen rival contenders he had to chew through to gain the nomination were the approximate size of an Apprentice season’s cast, and Trump “recognized intuitively what the televised debates were: an elimination-based reality show.” His vulgar cunning turned them into just that—you’re fired, Lindsey Graham; goodbye, “Little Marco” Rubio—and the same crude insight dominates his notions of governance.

Audience of One’s ambitions go well beyond simply rooting Trump’s political career in his predilection for (and skill at) reconfiguring not only himself but everyone and everything around him into media constructs, beginning with his own description to Playboy of Mar-a-Lago and his other gaudy acquisitions as “props for the show”—a show named Trump that, except in his imagination, didn’t exist, at least not until his compatriots began to glom on to it as one. At its most far-reaching, the book retells Trump’s life story as, in effect, nothing less than the history of television. Its introductory conceit is that he and TV were born the same year—which isn’t literally true, although 1946 was when the long-extinct DuMont inaugurated network programming—and from then on we’re off to the races.

The way Poniewozik tells it, which at the very least is almost alarmingly clever, the two most formative experiences of Trump’s childhood were both vicariously experienced via TV. One was the then unprecedented broadcast of Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation, which his father scorned but which held his mother mesmerized. At the opposite end of the social scale was pro wrestling, which kept young Donald riveted—and would also, decades later, “figure into his casino and showbiz careers and his campaign theatrics.” Royal pageantry on one side, blustering heroes-and-villains pugnacity on the other, with the unsuspected link between them being their artifice. What Fred Trump said about Britain’s royal family could just as easily apply to the WWE bouts his son enthusiastically promoted in adulthood: “They’re all a bunch of con artists.”

Poniewozik is at his best in charting the metamorphoses in TV’s demographic, cultural, and political role in American life since midcentury that eventually combined into the perfect storm that bears Trump’s name. In the big three broadcast networks’ heyday, the ideal TV show was what one NBC exec defined as the “Least Objectionable Program,” or LOP—that is, the one least likely to make viewers change the channel. Even the evening news was largely in the business of reassurance, particularly at times of crisis; nothing that Walter Cronkite could explain in avuncular tones could be all that scary.

For reasons that may be generational—he began writing about TV the same year The Sopranos premiered—Poniewozik overstates the blandness of traditional broadcast-network fare. (Everything from Bewitched to The Twilight Zone got into some mighty weird territory.) But he scores when he digs up Trump’s first-ever appearance on national TV, in a 1980 Today Show interview with Tom Brokaw, and discovers a Trump who’s quite willing to play the LOP game. Trying to “reassure rather than aggravate, to soothe rather than inflame,” he’s docilely playing “the least objectionable version of himself.”

What changed everything, of course, was cable, still barely nascent in 1980. At one level, that meant cable news, which—even before Fox joined the party—catered to “a smaller but more intense audience of news junkies” by recognizing the need “to agitate their viewers, not settle them.” Goodbye, Cronkite’s and Brokaw’s dulcet tones; hello, controversy, polarization, and relentless disputativeness. In its own way, reality-TV programming promoted the same unforgivingly Hobbesian worldview, and Trump, having mastered one realm, was a natural to master the other. Fox & Friends launched a “Mondays with Trump” segment in 2011, when The Apprentice had morphed into Celebrity Apprentice, and that’s where he began spouting off about politics in earnest. Fairly remarkably, even Roger Ailes’s network had steered clear of endorsing birtherism until Trump started demanding Barack Obama’s birth certificate and—however preposterously—made that particular conspiracy theory at least semi-legit news.

Not much less consequentially, cable’s rise also marked the fragmentation—and, indeed, class and educational stratification—of mass-audience entertainment, which “happened in balletic sync with the political tribalization pushed by Fox News and its peers.” It’s to Poniewozik’s credit that he underlines how the upscale, boutique shows that liberals and “TV critics like me” enjoy—Mad Men, The Good Wife, and so on—are so alienatingly at odds with red-state reality-TV faves like Duck Dynasty that the two audiences can scarcely be said to still be watching the same medium. At the same time, though, cable programming’s unfettered antiheroes—the criminal, amoral middle-aged white guys at the center of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, among others—gave Trump’s grotesqueries a cultural context and even validity that LOP television had not. That’s how perfect storms work, after all: seemingly unrelated weather patterns that mesh into warring aspects of a single cataclysm.

Poniewozik’s conclusion? “Trump got elected. But TV became president.” Most obviously, Fox & Friends is now “a morning children’s show for the president of the United States,” and for Trump, the toddler’s fantasy that “your favorite show is as aware of you as you are of it” has become real. Unsurprisingly, his recommendation that we need to wean ourselves off Trump TV and remember the medium’s—and our culture’s—other, more inclusionary narratives is among the weakest passages in this uncommonly rich and stimulating book. But at least Poniewozik is definitely no enemy of the people.

A longtime writer on pop culture and politics, Tom Carson is the author of the novels Gilligan’s Wake (Picador, 2003) and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).