Which Came First, Trump or TV?

Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America
By James Poniewozik

If TV execs were asked to classify James Poniewozik’s illuminating new book, “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America,” they might use the term “dramedy.” Poniewozik is a funny, acerbic and observant writer. He calls Melania “the most Trump-like of Trump’s wives, with a model’s glower that matches his own,” and remarks of Trump’s relationship with cable news, “He pushed the drug, and he got high on it.”

But Poniewozik, the chief television critic of this newspaper, uses his ample comedic gifts in the service of describing a slow-boil tragedy. If humor is the rocket of his ICBM, the last three years of our lives are the destructive payload. Along with the TV critic Emily Nussbaum’s spot-on observation of Trump’s connection to the humor of, in her words, the “dark and angry” borscht belt comics, and the cultural and political critic Frank Rich’s unsparing account of the role New York’s liberal establishment played in Trump’s rise, Poniewozik brings a new microscope with which to analyze the drug-resistant bacterium that is our president. And while there is certainly room to examine collusion and Russian interference and the outdated institution that Homer Simpson once referred to as the “Electrical College,” this book is really about the role played by all of us, the faithful citizens of TV Nation. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Audience of One” is that it makes Trump’s presidency seem almost inevitable. Of course he won. This is the United States we’re talking about. The same way Boris Johnson tapped into Britain’s inner erudite buffoon, so Trump tapped into our inner core, which all too often turns out to have comprised midnight cheeseburgers and hormonal TV childhoods.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of September. See the full list. ]

I once caught some friendly fire on Twitter for trying to discuss Trump’s behavior in a way that would suggest he had a personality worth exploring. Poniewozik evades this line of thought by asserting that Trump is TV, the mere simulacrum of a human being projected onto a flat-screen. He grew up with the dawn of television and a TV-watching mother. Over the years, Poniewozik writes, Trump “achieved symbiosis with the medium. Its impulses were his impulses; its appetites were his appetites; its mentality was his mentality.”

For a certain generation, “Audience of One” will resonate most as a deep dive into our television consciousness before the Jimmy McNultys and Hannah Horvaths took over prestige TV. It is an examination of how our wants were shaped by television, which swiftly moved away from the working-class dramas and comedies of the 1970s (think “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family”) and toward the 1980s materialism of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and the knit ties of Alex P. Keaton. Trump entered the Reaganized media sphere at the perfect time, and he never left. The audience wanted “a braggart who lived large and said that it was O.K. to want things,” Poniewozik writes of Trump’s many television appearances in the 1980s and beyond. To most New Yorkers, Trump was known as a world-class bankrupt and malignant schnorrer, but shows like “Sex and the City,” on which he made a guest appearance, turned him into “a dashing, bemused man in a business suit or black tie, spending money, dispensing advice, insults and baksheesh.”

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