Dwight Eisenhower "became president by winning the war in the European theater," writes James Poniewozik in his new book Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America. "Donald Trump became president by winning the 9 p.m. time slot on NBC."
But Trump isn't just on TV, according to Poniewozik. He is TV. Over the course of his life, Trump "achieved symbiosis with the medium," he argues. "Its impulses were his impulses; its appetites were his appetites; its mentality was his mentality."
Poniewozik does not, of course, mean all TV. Trump is not Gilmore Girls. Trump is not the Great British Bake Off or Friday Night Lights or Frasier or Glee, or any kind of TV show grounded in a presumption of empathy for other people. Poniewozik makes the convincing case that the more Darwinian genres of TV — reality, sports, cable news — have legible, internally coherent moral teachings and ideologies, and that these both shaped Trump and helped create the cultural conditions for his rise. Those messages include:
"That life is a constant, zero-sum competition, and if you are not beating someone then someone is beating you. (The lesson of sports and game shows.) That the best response to any controversy or crisis is to heighten the conflict. (The lesson of TV news.) That people perform best when set to fight against one another for survival. (The lesson of The Apprentice.) That there is no history or objective truth beyond your immediate situational interests, and that reality resets with every tweet or click of the remote."
Poniewozik is a witty, acrobatic guide through recent decades of TV, tracing the cultural forces that led to Trumpism, touching on everything from Dire Straits' Money for Nothing ("like a concert opening act for Trumpism"), to the glitz of the Reagan years, to Archie Bunker ("Trump's sitcom John the Baptist") and the rise of the TV antihero ("in literary terms a protagonist without conventional noble attributes; in layman's terms an a--hole you find interesting."). These antiheroes, bigots, pugilists, and narcissists lit the way, Poniewozik argues: To get to Trump, we first needed Tony Soprano, pro wrestling, reality TV, and maybe even Batman.
Poniewozik is especially perceptive about the incentives of cable news, and how CNN in particular built a business model on people not wanting to look away from disasters. "Trump was a plane that crashed every day, a Poop Cruise in perpetuity...He was a one-man solution to the problem of what to do when there was no breaking news."
Reading Poniewozik is like watching a motorcyclist zip around traffic. (Traffic being the wider history of populism, values voters, demography, etc.). He is abundantly smart, and you get the sense that he's just tossing out connections and theories the way you might scatter bread crumbs to pigeons. "Someone else can sort that out," he writes of every other political and cultural consideration in Trump's rise.
But the book's largest omission is a serious consideration of Trump's supporters. You can easily see how Trump's belligerent, spiteful performances would get him attention. But what happens in that small, crucial distance between attention and support?
Between a TV show and person (or book and person) an alchemy takes place, one that has to do with who the person is and what they care about. People have complicated inner lives, they weigh their priorities, they care about abortion or guns or immigration, and these factors affect how they understand and internalize the messages they receive. It would probably be hard to write a book that accounts for both sides of the equation, but here is where a dusting of modesty would help.
Poniewozik's book does contain a quick acknowledgement that "[p]olitical coalitions are complicated things" and that people vote for lots of reasons. But when he imagines himself into the minds of Trump voters, the result feels artificial.
Here, for instance, he describes the religious right during the Chick-fil-A controversy: "The president of Chick-fil-A denounced gay marriage; suddenly a chicken sandwich with waffle fries became a religious-right deep-fried Eucharist." His larger point, about "cultural choices as ideological markers" is clearly true — it's the simplification, and contempt, that grates.
Over the course of the book, describing Trump's intended effect, Poniewozik compares Trump to the Pope, to a "voluptuary prince being carried on a palanquin," to a "golden god," to the "sun who gave every flower life," and even, in an extended mapping of the Catholic liturgy onto the structure of The Apprentice, to God himself. (Though to be fair, he also compares Trump to a pimp, a basilisk, and both Gollum and the flaming eye of Sauron.) This is all meant to be droll, but the idea of MAGA hat wearers as thralls to the golden god onscreen both underestimates and excuses them.
It is worth returning to the distinction Poniewozik makes between TV like The Apprentice and TV like Cheers: TV that treats other people as objects and obstacles, and TV that treats people as though they have interiority. This is also a distinction we can make in how we treat and think about other people, something related to what the philosopher Martin Buber calls the I-you interaction, in contrast to the I-it interaction.
To be clear, Audience of One is both brilliant and daring, particularly when it comes to Trump's image making. It is a tactile pleasure to read. Poniewozik's sentences zip! His jokes land! His interpretations shimmy!
But I couldn't get past that gap, the one between image and audience, the place where the thinking, digesting, and responding happens. In Poniewozik's reading, Trump's supporters must be stupid, dazzled creatures, absorbing the darkest messages of television and regurgitating them uncritically on the ballot. But people are not mere receptacles of culture. And treating Trump voters as yous rather than its — in other words, as though they have interiority, beliefs, and the ability to weigh options — does not exonerate them. If anything, it acknowledges that they are fully responsible for the choice they made.