James Poniewozik chronicles the parallel histories of Donald Trump and the development of television in his informative and revealing book “Audience of One.” The author is an observant, caustic writer who studies Trump’s rise to the White House under a high-powered microscope.
Additionally, he looks at the role each of us has played in strengthening the hold television has over our lives and how our commitment to the medium has made Trump’s presidency virtually inevitable. Trump is the “simulacrum” of a person projected onto a screen. The President grew up with TV from its beginnings and “achieved, symbiosis with the medium; its impulses were his impulses; its appetites were his appetite; its mentality was his mentality.”
In this cultural history, Poniewozik examines how our wants were identified and popularized by what we saw on television. In the 1970s, people watched the blue-collar dramas and comedies such as “All in the Family.” In the 1980s our longing to brag about materialism was satisfied with “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” In the 1990s “Sex and the City,” on which Trump made many appearances, shaped our desire to be shrewd entrepreneurs. This show turned Trump into “a dashing, bemused man in a business suit or black tie, spending money, dispensing advice, insults and baksheesh.”
Poniewozik moves on to show how television advanced the popularity of the antihero in the 2000s. He especially points out Tony Soprano as the archetype of this era.
The advent of reality shows continued the antihero theme. The author quotes an editor on “The Apprentice” describing the show’s goal as: “…make Trump look good, make him look wealthy, legitimate.”
Trump’s years on “The Apprentice” prepared him for the debate stage. He “recognized intuitively what the televised debates were: an elimination-based reality show.” The boardroom set of “The Apprentice” would become “a direct blueprint for Trump’s administration, a dogpile of competitors, cronies and relatives throttling one another daily for survival.”
Poniewozik explicates how the three original networks homogenized television viewers and how, with the arrival of cable, common denominator broadcasting morphed into fragmented, niche channels. Cable monetized countless genres, so many that it fractured American popular culture and created personalized TV— “An audience of One.” Television has entertained the U.S., television has hypnotized the U.S. and with the election of Donald J. Trump, television has conquered the U.S., the author asserts: “Trump is TV.”
This book is clever, acerbic and edgy as it depicts the making of Trump’s image. Poniewozik purports that Trump’s administration is a 24-hour TV production; it is pop culture; a farcical reality show called the 45th Presidency.
“The Audience of One” is a bit tedious as it recounts television history, but its interpretation of the medium’s history is brilliant and moves quickly. I do have a quibble with Poniewozik’s assertion that Trump’s election was inevitable. His assumption overlooks voters’ ability to discern fact from fiction, as well as our capacity to weigh options. Despite the influence of entertainment and mass culture, individuals are still responsible for the choices they make, especially when it comes to electing someone to the highest office in the world.
Poniewozik’s debut book is intelligent and smart, a valuable help in understanding how Trump developed his base. His jokes are funny; his history of television is a significant contribution to the media studies bookshelf and his interpretation is provocative of reader response.
James Poniewozik has been the chief television critic of The New York Times since 2015. He was previously the television and media critic for Time magazine and a media columnist for Salon. “Audience of One” has extensive notes and a broad index.