The Medium Is the Mistake

Donald Trump; drawing by John Cuneo
Donald Trump; drawing by John Cuneo

James Poniewozik is the chief television critic of The New York Times, and his new book, Audience of One, tells a double story: the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of television. Poniewozik wants to show us that TV has everything to do with the formation of Trump’s character—his manners, his place in the commercial culture, his ability to track and manipulate popular sentiment and opinion. It seems a reasonable hypothesis. How good is the evidence?

Trump entered the presidency, says Poniewozik, backed by “a four-decades-long TV performance.” That is not quite true. During the first two of those decades, Trump was mainly a creature of the tabloids and celebrity magazines; occasional appearances on TV may have helped, but were not the main event. Television facilitated his passage from tabloids to politics, with a starring role in The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice—a survivor show that looked like a quiz show. All the while, of course, Trump was famous as a real estate billionaire in the post-Reagan era when “lifestyles of the rich and famous” were a favorite subject. Anyway, TV-and-Trump is the argument here. They are said to march together more inevitably than, say, Reagan and movies or FDR and radio. We are meant to acknowledge a pairing as inseparable as P.T. Barnum and the circus.

Audience of One slugs this story pretty hard, with sentences like “Donald Trump and TV would grow up together” and “TV was mother’s milk to Trump.” The functional clichés are symptoms of a small but persistent vice of style. When Poniewozik wants to impress the reader more than the evidence warrants, he talks fancy. So he refers, early on, to Trump’s mother’s “lofted nimbus of hair.” His opening chapter, which argues for the all-importance of the medium itself in an age of mass reproduction, abounds with almost-aphorisms such as “Television is the business of ubiquity.” With the broadcast of baseball games on TV, “Suddenly there isn’t just one Yankee Stadium. Now [in Trump’s toddler years] there are tens of thousands—eventually there will be millions.” In those same years, the heyday of popular preachers like Bishop Sheen and Billy Graham, “television became a kind of church itself.” The deep-contextual explanations of Trump have an air of slightly forced wonder.

Television in the 1950s found Trump on the verge of puberty, a crucial period of maturation, which, Poniewozik tells us, corresponded to the release of the Walt Disney miniseries Davy Crockett (1954–1955). He thinks Davy Crockett “demonized American Indians” and had lasting effects “not unlike the toxic racial imagery Donald Trump would later campaign and govern with.” A good many similar points are midwifed by the compulsion to run the history of TV on a parallel track with the education of Trump. Poniewozik says of Playboy—which Trump may have picked…


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