In the 1960s, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan introduced the phrase “the medium is the message” to indicate that forms of media not only transmit information but also frame how it is received by audiences. Television’s progress and the addition of cable, streaming, and social media have shaped the present cultural moment in which the TV-watching public has been fragmented into niche audiences.
In Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America (304 pgs., Liveright, 2019, $27.95), author James Poniewozik makes the argument that the election of U.S. president Donald J. Trump is intimately tied with the development of television as a medium.
Poniewozik, who serves as the chief TV critic for The New York Times, joined the “failing” (Trump’s term) newspaper in 2015, just before Trump’s 2016 political campaign. From cultural criticism of the latest TV series to business reports on the shifting models of distribution, his coverage has highlighted the charged relationship between TV and politics.
Following Roger Ailes’s death in 2016, he tracked how Ailes and the news channel he created, Fox News, influenced the contemporary moment in politics, citing Trump as “a being made of pure television.”
Poniewozik opens his book by revisiting a 1981 interview special by Rona Barrett, the American gossip columnist. In Rona Barrett Looks at Today’s Super Rich, she spoke with fashion designers, the media elite, and entrepreneurs, including Donald Trump. In a segment that resurfaced on YouTube many years later, Barrett is shown asking the then-34-year-old real estate magnate whether he would like to be president. And Trump, at the time, replied that he would not want to because “somebody with the kind of views that are maybe a little bit unpopular … wouldn’t necessarily have a chance of getting elected against somebody with no great brain but a big smile.” Politicians in that age of television spent great effort to appear highly polished and inoffensive, which the young Trump discerned.
The question for Poniewozik, which animates his entire book, is what has changed since then that would allow that shift in presidential style. And for Poniewozik, the answer can be found in the history of television. “Because Trump so thoroughly fused himself with the pop culture of the last forty years, because he was both an omnipresence on TV and a compulsive devourer of TV,” writes Poniewozik, “his story is its story, and vice versa.”
From the outset, Poniewozik’s guiding argument is decidedly one-sided, as his book’s focus, he makes clear, is entirely about the symbiotic relationship between Trump and television.
At times, he makes the comparison between Trump and Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president, who similarly utilized the popularity of the medium, but no detailed mention is made of the Italian prime minister and TV tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, who Trump supposedly emulated.
Poniewozik approaches his task with good humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of TV. Reading Audience of One is charming due to the author’s one-liners and wisecracks, such as this rough gem: “To live in America post-2016 was to live inside the rattled mind of a septuagenarian insomniac cable-news junkie.”
The book is divided into three sections, charting Trump through various phases as a media-savvy businessman, a reality TV antihero, and the president of the United States, alongside developments in TV. He makes clear that the subject of his book is not the real Donald Trump, but the figure that has evolved through the medium, “the multimedia character that he honed and performed over decades, in the New York newspapers, on Oprah, in Trump: The Art of the Deal, in sitcoms and movies, on The Apprentice, in Fox News studios, on the Internet, in the WWE wrestling ring, in campaign rallies, and in the White House.”
When Poniewozik approaches the present day, however, his book becomes surprisingly disappointing. He follows the obvious transformation in Trump’s Twitter presence, when the account went from blandly promotional to the frenzied storm it is today. “The attacks, the random capitalization, the CAPS LOCK: it was like Celebrity Trump had suddenly split down the middle and Politician Trump crawled out of the discarded husk,” Poniewozik jokes.
In the contemporary moment, Poniewozik finds the hyper-fragmentation of television interests one of the predominant forces in American society. He explains, “One by product of cable TV, as the channel list grew bigger and shows catered to smaller audiences, was that conservatives and liberals were not only seeing different news but also watching different entertainment.”
Liberals, like himself, he comments, tend to like politically and culturally incisive programming, like Mad Men or The Colbert Report, whereas, conservatives, most likely in favor of Trump in Poniewozik’s imagination, favor dystopic dramas of zombie apocalypses in which small groups living in the American South struggle to survive the aftermath of scientific disaster, as in the AMC series The Walking Dead. Otherwise, the right-wing populist masses, according to Poniewozik’s research, are fond of reality TV programming featuring “people who worked with their hands” and “individualists with big, swinging carbon footprints.”
For Poniewozik, the political segmentation in America could be explained as “a psychographic divide, represented by media and entertainment subcultures — one that aligned people into virtual tribes defined by taste, education, race, religion, philosophy, and shared feelings of siege.”
By the end, Poniewozik’s conceit of framing Trump’s rise strictly in the terms of television and popular culture is shown for how limiting it is. Instead of mentioning the reduction of social services, which has been ongoing since the ’70s, or the ineffectual plans during the Obama years toward the reinvigoration of a social safety net, the author’s foundational premise of chronicling the changing American media landscape to understand Trump in the here and now seems entirely faulty. While pairing an interesting topic with a timely perspective, the author overdetermines the rise of Donald Trump, without regard to more broadly cultural or economic forces.
By Luis Polanco
Audio Version (a DV Works service)