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.”