James Poniewozik started prepping for his future career as the New York Times chief television critic early. "I grew up watching more TV than is probably strictly advisable," says the University of Michigan alum, who was born and raised in Monroe.
As the youngest sibling in his family by nine years, Poniewozik also was exposed to shows that were, as he puts it, age-inappropriate. He watched the 1970s late-night soap satire "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" with his older sister, and -- here's the pre-VCR age part -- had to listen to before-its-time talk show parody "Fernwood Tonight" on audiotape recorded by his sister because it was on too late.
Such dedication helped Poniewozik hone his skills for observing how TV changed American culture and vice-versa, a critical tool for his new book "Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America," out Tuesday. It's a smart, engaging analysis of how the evolution of TV and Donald Trump's rise to the presidency are inexorably tied together in what's become a "Bachelor"-type love affair where publicity and ratings, and the love of his 30 to 40 percent base, conquers all.
Publishers Weekly calls "Audience of One" a "caustic, scintillating cultural history." It's that, and more, as Poniewozik deconstructs the ways Trump had wormed his way into our collective consciousness long before he rode the down elevator in Trump Tower to kick off his White House campaign. He makes a convincing case that the splintering of the three-network system, the rise of reality TV and the 24-7 news cycle was the Petri dish that fed the cellular structure of a presidential victory that politicians and pundits didn't see coming. (He also uses "Caddyshack" to deconstruct at least one portion of Trump's campaign strategy.)
Poniewozik spoke to the Free Press recently about Trump's ability to reflect a changing TV landscape and his stylistic evolution through the decades. Here are six things about the book that help illuminate the 24-7 reality saga that America has been living in since the November 2016 election.
1. Donald Trump, the TV character
Poniewozik traces the birth of Donald Trump, the TV character, to a 1980 interview with then-"Today" host Tom Brokaw that presented Trump as a crown prince of Manhattan real estate. Was the author surprised by Trump's comparatively restrained tone back then, which he notes matched the mainstream manners of the pre-cable landscape? "I'm surprised by, when you watch those early clips, how soft-spoken he is. There are still elements of the Trump who is president now ... the kind of swagger even in those early appearances. It's not just that he speaks in much more diagrammable sentences. ... (He's) this kind of charming, preppy rascal rather than the belligerent, constant fighter, 'you're fired' guy. It was the tone that was very different, and that sort of led me to the angle of how the tone of television has changed over the years, and he's had a chameleon-like ability to evolve with it."
2. 'Look like the thing'
In the 1990s, Trump appeared as himself in sitcom cameos and TV commercials, cementing his status as an icon of wealth. "Symbolism is very important to TV. It's very important to entertainment. He always understood that it is more effective to look like the thing than to be the thing," says Poniewozik. Even when Trump was co-starring in pop-culture flotsam like a McDonald's ad with the fast-food chain's purple mascot Grimace, it didn't devalue him "because the premise of it is Donald Trump is this fabulous, braggadocio rich guy and he holds that little chunk of your brain. ... A Christmas tree means Christmas, the Statue of Liberty means freedom, and Donald Trump means rich guy."
3. A boost from 'The Apprentice'
Poniewozik illuminates Trump's reign in the 2000s on "The Apprentice" by noting that reality TV fans are aware that the genre is manipulative and staged, but they still enjoy it. That fact may have helped Trump's 2016 presidential campaign on several fronts. "He was putting on the (campaign's) show, and the show appealed in one way to people who were his dedicated partisan fans through Fox News, and it appealed in a different way to people who were maybe just kind of fed up with things and wanted to quote-unquote shake things up. And the show even played to people who didn't like him politically, but had a good time dunking on him and (saying), 'Isn't it crazy, Donald Trump, this character from TV, is running for president!' That turned out to be a huge not-so-secret weapon for him."
4. Blaming cable news
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in cable news networks, according to Poniewozik's astute take on how the format has changed -- and perhaps wrecked -- our political culture. "I think that whether you want to call it blame or credit, cable news may have a bigger responsibility for what politics is like than any other factor in our society. Certainly Fox News has basically created the tone of the conservative movement for the past two decades. It has created this assault on the idea of objective truth outside of Fox News. And it has contributed to this polarization and the reaction against it on the left." But all cable-news networks are required to fill their airtime with news, whether or not something newsworthy is happening, a road paved with sensationalism, conflict and the exacerbation of viewer emotions. And as Poniewozik illustrates, dramatic sagas of the late 2000s like Octomom and Balloon Boy merged reality TV and cable news into an exploitative hybrid.
5. Michigan and Ted Nugent
Poniewozik weighs in on Trump's "Make America Great Again" messaging with a passage that takes a hard look at the author's hometown region. "To have grown up in southeast Michigan was to have grown up in a culture soaked in nostalgia," he writes. "It was to hear, generation after generation, about how life was better before you were born, when the car factories were pumping out Fords and Chevys and paychecks." It also was to see "nostalgia gone ugly and curdled in Ted Nugent -- the deer-hunting, used-to-be rock star who once called Barack Obama a 'subhuman mongrel' -- and to know the dog-whistle tune Nugent was playing when he opened an election-eve Trump rally in Sterling Heights, insulting black former Detroit mayors, longing for "the real Michigan ... the old, real Michigan" from when he was born in 1948 and asking, "Are there enough working-hard, playing-hard, American Michigan (profanity) kickers to take this state back and vote Trump for president?'"
6. A prediction for 2021
Let's imagine it's 2021. What will Trump's role on TV be then? Still tweeting from the White House? Running a Trump cable news network out of office? Poniewozik has one safe bet after thinking about Trump's social media war with Debra Messing during Hurricane Dorian: "In 2021, Donald Trump is going to be on Twitter feuding with former sitcom stars and complaining about ratings and obsessing over what's going on at Fox News. The catch is he's going to be doing it whether he's president or not. That's my prediction."
'Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America'
By James Poniewozik
Liveright/Norton, 352 pages, $27.95
This article is written by Julie Hinds from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.