Yes, President Trump likes to watch television, lots of it. He obsesses over his portrayals and seems more inclined to gather insights from morning hosts than from morning briefings. Groomed on “The Apprentice” and “Fox & Friends,” he governs with one eye on the screen, the other on the camera and both on the ratings. No surprise that Trump-the-reality-TV-president has become one of the more common metaphors of our time.
But James Poniewozik, the chief TV critic of the New York Times argues that Trump doesn’t just watch television and appear on television — Trump is television. And he doesn’t mean it entirely as a metaphor. “For decades, Trump had essentially been a cable-news channel in human form: loud, short of attention span, and addicted to conflict,” Poniewozik writes. But by the time Trump won the White House, “he and cable had achieved the singularity, a meshing of man and machine into a symbiotic consciousness, the perturbation of each amplifying the other.”
“Audience of One,” Poniewozik’s darkly entertaining examination of this symbiosis, is actually two books in one. First is the tale of Trump and the tube, how the celebrity real estate developer became a button on America’s remote, first as a celebrity businessman, now as a president embodying the style and imperatives of reality television. The other story is about how television’s transformation from mass-market sameness to niche-market silos has remade America’s heroes, appetites and politics, turning cultural products into culture wars.
Like in any good show, these story lines converge in the person — scratch that, in the persona — of its lead star. “Donald Trump is the most influential character in the history of TV,” Poniewozik asserts. “He deserves a careful review.”
To understand that influence, Poniewozik first looks back upon the television media of the mid-20th century, dominated by three networks and by what one NBC exec called the “Least Objectionable Program,” or “LOP” — that is, shows just agreeable enough that they gave viewers no reason to change the channel. (Think “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “Hogan’s Heroes,” airing in the midst of the carnage in Vietnam.) Rather than romanticize the era, Poniewozik emphasizes that it encouraged and reflected homogeneity in public attitudes.
Even a young Trump understood it. Poniewozik dug up a 1981 TV interview in which Trump said he’d probably never run for president because the television environment favored the bland. “Somebody with strong views, and 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,” Trump explained.
When Trump won the presidency in 2016, it wasn’t despite his strong views and unpopularity but because of them — he had become the most objectionable program. Why did American television viewers go from the LOP to the MOP? Because the medium fragmented, Poniewozik argues. The rise of cable television “would transform a mass experience into a customized one,” with networks and advertisers targeting more specific slices of viewers. Cable news outlets such as Fox News carved out their own niches and in doing so helped align people into “virtual tribes defined by taste, education, race, religion, philosophy, and shared feelings of siege.” The appeal of antihero shows such as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” would encourage viewers to cheer for abrasive, ruthless and charismatic tough guys, challenging television’s “tyranny of likability.” And the nihilistic ethos of reality TV — “conflict, stereotype, the fuzzy boundary between truth and fiction” — would become the defining entertainment of the 2000s, enabling Trump to meld politics, spectacle and his particular brand of shameless wealth projection.
Trump’s true business record was irrelevant to his performance as a real estate mogul on NBC’s “The Apprentice.” He had long understood that there was “much more upside in playing a businessman than in being a businessman,” Poniewozik writes, and he was especially adept at matching the Trump brand to the mental images people hold when they think of “success” and “luxury.” But his character would also morph into his own kind of antihero — blunt, impolite, exploitative — and the boardroom scenes on “The Apprentice,” where contestants knifed each other while groveling for Trump’s approval, would preview the human dynamics of his administration.
Trump’s birtherism lie, Poniewozik writes, fit the impulses animating Fox News during the Obama years. (“Conspiracy theory: good. Xenophobia: good. Laying into Obama: very, very good.”) Similarly, those relishing Trump’s campaign rallies were simply experiencing, “on stage, what they’d seen on reality shows and Fox News: anger as entertainment.” The critics who fretted over Trump’s paltry qualifications just didn’t grasp his antihero pitch: It doesn’t matter what I do as long as I’m doing it for you, and as long our enemies are worse than I am. Trump’s deceptions didn’t matter, either; with reality television, Poniewozik reminds, “the awareness that you were being manipulated was part of the entertainment.”
It is a recurring risk among authors of Trump books to find in this president the validation of every theory they’ve developed about the world, and Poniewozik is no less susceptible than the rest. “Trump’s political rise, I came to see, was the result of changes that I had been writing about as a TV critic for twenty years,” he explains in his introduction. He makes a compelling case, but I wish he’d given more air time to other essential characters in our national drama: Trump’s supporters. How significant a role does TV — as opposed to every other personal and cultural influence in their lives — play in their political attitudes? Poniewozik assumes a strong connection, yet he does not prove it. Certainly, the parallels he draws between Trump’s political performance and modern television programming are so tantalizing that, the more you read “Audience of One,” the harder it is to view this president any other way. But if part of the pleasure of watching reality TV is recognizing the manipulation, it is also part of the experience of reading this book.
With Trump in office, “there was one show in America and it had one star and he was it,” Poniewozik writes. The president’s obsession with the size of his inauguration crowd makes sense when you consider that “Trump’s ego needed to win the total audience, not just the key demo.” He resists firing hapless press secretary Sean Spicer because, as the president himself put it, “that guy gets great ratings.” And while it’s easy to think Trump wastes time on pointless battles — from Mika Brzezinski’s face to Hurricane Dorian’s projected path — it’s not a waste if such clashes are the purpose of his presidency. “You could say that he was doing the only job he was truly elected to do: monitoring, stoking, and embodying the cultural anger machine,” Poniewozik writes. On reality TV, pointless battles are the point.
Editors working on the early seasons of “The Apprentice” recall that Trump made arbitrary choices on the show, based on his personal likes and dislikes and not on the contestants’ merits. “The producers would then have to go to the tape and edit the episode to rationalize his decision,” Poniewozik writes. Once he went from the fake boardroom to the real Oval Office, Trump lost that ability, the author suggests. “Without [executive producer] Mark Burnett and his team of Apprentice editors on the case, there was no one to edit out his flubs, no one to keep unflattering images from leaking.” As a result, Trump’s presidency “would be more like a live raw feed, chaotic, non sequitur, unedited.”
I’m not sure. One of the most insidious developments of the Trump era is how the president enlists subordinates and federal agencies as his new editors, attempting to retroactively tinker with reality just enough to justify his errors and impulses. And if no one is available, a Sharpie will do.
Of Poniewozik’s many definitions and summations of reality television, one in particular will stay with me. Reality TV, he writes, involves “the relentless challenging of norms: the feeling that you were watching a thing you were not supposed to be able to see on TV — and yet here it was.” I can think of no better distillation of the experience of watching the show that is the Trump presidency. Yet it’s hard to change the channel.