Donald Trump is the show we can't turn off, the car crash we can't look away from, the news cycle we can't escape.
There are just too many reasons we came here to find a single explanation. But one reason for Trump's rise is certainly television. It is not entirely true to say that television made Trump president, but it is fair to say that television created the conditions that made Trump's presidency possible.
At least this is the thesis of James Poniewozik's new book Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America. Poniewozik is a television critic for the New York Times and himself Book is an attempt to explain how Trump made himself the protagonist of his own TV show and then drew us all into it. It's also about what television has done to our political culture and why Trump is the logical fulfillment of all media trends of the past two decades.
According to Poniewozik, Trump is basically a creature of television. His entire public role has been dominated by television and he has made clever use of the medium with shows like The Apprentice to advance his political career. He also knew exactly what the television media crave – spectacle, drama, and outrage – and used them during his presidential campaign.
"Donald Trump is not a person," writes Poniewozik, "he is a figure who wrote himself, a branded mascot who jumped off the cereal box and entered the world." And of course he's now entered the White House.
I spoke with Poniewozik last year about how television paved the way to Trump and how the medium has fundamentally changed the way we report and think about politics.
The following is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Many people see television as a tool for reporting politics rather than a medium that transforms them. However, they suggest that this is wrong and that television has imposed its own ideology on politics.
I decided to write this book because the guy from The Apprentice was elected President of the United States. I really felt that a lot of public debates weren't taking this seriously enough – it was kind of a joke. But it's crazy that that happened and we have to understand how it was even possible.
As a television critic, I wanted to know why this guy? Why wasn't it Tom Cotton or Ted Cruz or some other conservative trademark that rode that wave to the White House? Why is it someone who was made by television and essentially made himself out of television? Why was Trump uniquely able to translate those skills into this type of success?
Let's try to answer that. The premise of your book isn't that television made Trump president, but you argue that Trump's presidency is only possible because of television. Why this?
Well, there are a couple of elements to that. For one, Donald Trump's career has been primarily a media career. And I'm not just talking about The Apprentice, I'm going back to its tabloid exploits and talk show appearances in the '80s. If Trump were just a businessman, he would be a nonentity. He's just "Donald Trump" because of the television.
The other part, and I really want to get this straight, because people like to oversimplify things by saying that television makes people stupid or brainwashes gullible people. I think it's more complicated. Television is the nervous system of our culture. It is our main means of obtaining, disseminating and communicating information with one another. And it's been the arena through which politics took place for decades.
I am writing the book about media theorist Neil Postman because one of his great discoveries is that television, as a visual medium, promotes a different kind of discourse than text. It is a visual medium and therefore appeals to more emotions. This lends itself to a kind of argumentation and rhetorical battle in which Trump has been successful all his life. His entire media personality is based on conflict. He's the type who "wins" and who is a perfect fit with television, especially reality television culture.
How exactly did television prepare us for the Trump candidate, for the idea of Trump as president?
The evolution of the 24-hour cable news format is a big part of history. For example, Fox News' business model is to constantly excite and excite audiences to give people a reason to tune in even when there is no news.
But over time this model spreads the idea that the way politics is argued on television, the buttons it pushes, the way people immerse themselves in each other – this is not just a means to political ends but it becomes the action of politics itself. And a big part of Trump's appeal is that he absolutely embodies that form of politics or that approach to politics. It creates emotions and conflicts in the media format and people saw it and thought, "Oh yeah, that's politics."
What is so interesting about Trump is that, as you say, he has achieved a perfect symbiosis with television. He's not on TV – he's TV. How does this help us understand Trump, the political actor?
Trump thinks like television. His stock-in-trade is the non-sequitur argument and provocation. When he returned to Postman, he referred to the rhetorical nature of the television news as "now this". "Now this" is like the television host's transition from one topic to a completely independent topic. And Neil Postman was writing again in the 80s. He didn't even write about cable television. CNN had barely been founded.
But the new era of cable is "now that" for steroids. It's just that, that, that, that, that. And that's Trump's way of thinking and speaking. The whipping, going back and forth from one topic to another, the seemingly random battles on social media – it's all television gold.
He is just incredibly tuned to the dynamics of our reality TV culture and has completely linked it to politics.
I want to ask you about professional wrestling, which is what you write about in the book. What makes wrestling so good is treading the line between fake and real – it plays with that fuzziness. Non-wrestling fans miss this when talking about the "reality" of wrestling. The reality of the performance is secondary to the feelings it evokes in the audience. And this is a perfect way for me to understand the dynamic between Trump and his supporters.
I would like to hear your thoughts on this.
Yes, I write a lot about it in the book. There is a concept in wrestling called "Kayfabe" which is basically the pretext that the conflicts in the ring are actually real. The wrestlers who fight each other actually hate each other. The backstories really go on. And in the early days of pro wrestling, people bought that.
Over time, around the 1980s, when Donald Trump was hosting wrestlemanias in his casinos, that relationship between fans and history became more and more sophisticated. People might think it's a script, but it's still real. Maybe these things are staged, but maybe the emotions the wrestlers have are real. You can shop at any level you want.
I think this is how a lot of people see Trumpian politics. It's not so much about getting accepted or thinking he's totally honest, it's about this guy fighting for your side. And even if there's so much bullshit and artistry, it's because he's a smart trickster. And besides, the most important thing is how he makes his constituents feel.
Politics has mostly become affective anyway. It's about conveying emotions. It's about liberal tears. All of these feelings are about not getting any actual results, like a bill or whatever. For someone who makes politics through Talk Radio and Fox News, that's the end of politics.
"If Trump were just a businessman, he'd be a non-entity. He's just 'Donald Trump' because of television."
Do you see Trump's election as a kind of cultural moment that transcends the Rubikone? We've had actor presidents before and a lot of politicians are essentially performance artists, but Trump is really something … different.
What do we do now?
People often say, "Well, isn't that like Ronald Reagan? He was also an actor." However, it's important to make a distinction here other than to point out that Reagan was the Governor of California before he was elected president.
Reagan was a movie actor, and a movie actor's job is to cultivate empathy, to put yourself in the place of other people, and to imagine other people's insides. Trump is a reality television performer, and that means his job is to be an over-the-top version of himself in order to play the most polarizing and attention grabbing aspects of himself. This is what wins in the world of reality TV. It's kind of an anti-empathy performance.
And that's really a significant difference between someone like Trump and Reagan. We're much more in a reality TV world now, and our policies reflect that.
Is there going back or are we stuck with reality TV presidents?
I do not believe that. Trump's election was significant in that it proved you could become president even if your only qualification was media proficiency. But it's still only one way to become president, not the only way to become president.
There might be a reaction against that, and we might get a range of more boring or more conventional candidates. But there is no doubt that Trump won't be the last reality TV president. There will be others like him – that's just our reality now. Maybe the next one is a Fox News host or something, someone with a built-in connection to a party's political base who knows how to deliver what they want.
But we have to remember that Trump is not an alien monster that landed from another planet and changed the environment. He was uniquely positioned to take advantage of politics in this highly mediated environment. The fragmentation of the media, the polarization of political discussion, the rise of Fox News, the emergence of social media – all of this paved the way.
The atmosphere that Trump created will survive Trump, and we'll just stick with it.
This interview was originally published on November 7, 2019.
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