Audience of One

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America by James Poniewozik.

Poniewozik Audience of One

James Poniewozik was one of the first writers whose columns I actively followed on the Web, back in the 1990s when he wrote for Salon. Since then, I had lost view of his work as he graduated to more prestigious positions at Time magazine and The New York Times. I was happy to return to his punchy prose and incisive observations in this book on the symbiosis between Donald J. Trump and the American media landscape.

Poniewozik treats Trump’s long history as a media figure as central, not incidental, to his electoral identity and success. Trump was coeval with television itself, and neither of them have been unchanging. The author protests that he is not writing a biography of the human being Trump so much as a history of the character generated and inhabited by Trump as a television personality. The larger thesis and structure of the book he eventually sums up thus: Trump “watched TV, and then he courted TV, and then he starred on TV, and then he became TV. He achieved a psychic bond with the creature, and it lowered its head, let him climb on its back, and carried him to the White House” (236). The narrative of this progress through “businessman” celebrity, reality TV hosting, cable news pugilism, and Twitter demagoguery is filled with astonishing anecdotes that tie the whole thing into a single hyperreal composition.

This book is not about policy, and it is about politics only in the broad cultural sense. Alas, no one today can afford not to give a damn about Donald Trump, and that is the measure of his crowning achievement to date. “To live in America post-2016 was to live inside the rattled mind of a septuagenarian insomniac cable-news junkie” (270). Stories of regulatory capture and accelerating ecocide, concentration camps for refugees, egocentric foreign policy, and evisceration of Constitutional norms (beyond the long-abused Bill of Rights) are strangely outside the scope of the present treatment, which–like its subject–sees them mostly as means to an end. That end is an agonistic hypostasis: the “gorilla channel” where every actual problem is just fodder for the virtual conflict that ravenously consumes mass attention.

I recommend Audience of One as a fast, nearly compulsive, read, holding up an unflattering mirror to our reality-TV political culture.