If TV execs were asked to classify James Poniewozik’s illuminating new book...they might use the term 'dramedy.' Poniewozik is a funny, acerbic and observant writer ... But Poniewozik, the chief television critic of this newspaper, uses his ample comedic gifts in the service of describing a slow-boil tragedy. If humor is the rocket of his ICBM, the last three years of our lives are the destructive payload ... Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Audience of One is that it makes Trump’s presidency seem almost inevitable. Of course he won ... Audience of One is worth the price of admission just for its brilliant dissection of the 1980 film comedy Caddyshack, which I had mostly remembered for Bill Murray’s battle with some species of marmot. In Poniewozik’s take the movie is a prophecy of our current nightmare ... Poniewozik never underestimates Trump’s malicious genius (as so many of us have) ... ...Poniewozik offers few solutions for the problems that plague the mass media realm...He is less a neurosurgeon (though I suspect he would not confuse a Middle Eastern fundamentalist movement with baba ghanouj) than a general practitioner with his stethoscope tight on our country’s wheezing chest.
Poniewozik is a witty, acrobatic guide through recent decades of TV ... Reading Poniewozik is like watching a motorcyclist zip around traffic. (Traffic being the wider history of populism, values voters, demography, etc.). He is abundantly smart, and you get the sense that he's just tossing out connections and theories the way you might scatter bread crumbs to pigeons ... But the book's largest omission is a serious consideration of Trump's supporters. You can easily see how Trump's belligerent, spiteful performances would get him attention. But what happens in that small, crucial distance between attention and support? ... when [Poniewozik] imagines himself into the minds of Trump voters, the result feels artificial ... both brilliant and daring, particularly when it comes to Trump's image making. It is a tactile pleasure to read. Poniewozik's sentences zip! His jokes land! His interpretations shimmy! ... But I couldn't get past that gap, the one between image and audience, the place where the thinking, digesting, and responding happens. In Poniewozik's reading, Trump's supporters must be stupid, dazzled creatures, absorbing the darkest messages of television and regurgitating them uncritically on the ballot. But people are not mere receptacles of culture. And treating Trump voters as yous rather than its — in other words, as though they have interiority, beliefs, and the ability to weigh options — does not exonerate them. If anything, it acknowledges that they are fully responsible for the choice they made.
Among other Trumpian lacunae in their educations, it’s unlikely that most political writers had ever bothered to actually watch The Apprentice. Poniewozik most certainly did, and that’s how he’s able to go past the usual lazy comparisons of Trump’s White House to a reality-TV show to break down, in detail, how uncannily The Apprentice anticipated the m.o. of the current regime at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue ... At its most far-reaching, the book retells Trump’s life story as, in effect, nothing less than the history of television ... Poniewozik is at his best in charting the metamorphoses in TV’s demographic, cultural, and political role in American life since midcentury that eventually combined into the perfect storm that bears Trump’s name ... For reasons that may be generational—he began writing about TV the same year The Sopranos premiered—Poniewozik overstates the blandness of traditional broadcast-network fare ... It’s to Poniewozik’s credit that he underlines how the upscale, boutique shows that liberals and 'TV critics like me' enjoy—Mad Men, The Good Wife, and so on—are so alienatingly at odds with red-state reality-TV faves like Duck Dynasty that the two audiences can scarcely be said to still be watching the same medium. Unsurprisingly, his recommendation that we need to wean ourselves off Trump TV and remember the medium’s—and our culture’s—other, more inclusionary narratives is among the weakest passages in this uncommonly rich and stimulating book.
But as many snide kudos as Poniewozik might warrant for comparing Trump with a giant, fat-headed, brainless scavenger with tiny hands, there’s an odd but noticeable tremor of disconnect running through his book, and it often centers, ironically enough, around television. The author’s central contention seems to be simple: that Trump is a creature of TV and is best understood in TV terms. But this contention only works if the reader feels that Poniewozik himself understands TV, and too often his interpretations of common TV touchstones seem decidedly off, almost enabling ... Poniewozik’s deepest condemnation of Trump seems to be that he makes for bad TV ... These are, at least on some frustratingly over-simplified level, good questions, and they deserve better than the ratings-friendly all-timezones answers Poniewozik tends to give them.
Audience of One slugs this story pretty hard ... 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 ... The deep-contextual explanations of Trump have an air of slightly forced wonder ... The misreadings start to add up when Poniewozik says of the rags-to-riches yokels in The Beverly Hillbillies that...the Clampett family were the prototype of Trump voters: they bore in silent outrage the scars of 'the shared grievance that they were laughed at, scorned as ‘deplorables.’' Well, the show was silly, but its governing conceit was the perfect good nature of the Clampetts ... The point about the hillbillies was not their bitterness but their aplomb. Poniewozik’s chapters on early television grow more credible as they approach his own childhood years as a TV watcher ... Yet the story finally wears thin because Poniewozik can’t refrain from trying to match up his skills as a television critic against the essentially political subject matter: he can hardly name a TV series without discerning the deep structure of the souls of white folk ... if one has in mind the academic virtues of scope and proportion, his is the more coherent book [compared with Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc.]. It is weakened by a certain complacency—a refusal to see that the strange and new is actually strange and new—which can muffle perception.
... highly readable if disturbing ... a lively, fascinating book that makes a convincing argument; however, it’s not the whole story of Trump’s relationship with the media. Poniewozik does not discuss in depth the crucial importance of the new media to Trump’s success, particularly Trump’s constant use of Twitter (11,000 Tweets since he took office), which nourishes his supporters and feeds the outrage of his opponents. The tweets, more than television, have changed the way presidential power is exercised ... Nor does he emphasize the many extremist websites that provide the conspiracy theories that Trump retweets. Trump has indeed mastered television, but much of America depends for their information on other sources, and Trump clearly has his eyes on some of the darker websites. Nonetheless, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America is a must read for those who want to understand the media phenomenon now in the White House.
In his stellar debut, Poniewozik demonstrates how Trump, over a period of four decades, 'achieved symbiosis' with the TV medium ... The author chronicles Trump’s actions against a deeply insightful history of vast changes in the media and popular culture during the period ... This intelligent eye-opener belongs on the small shelf of valuable books that help explain how Trump created his base.
Epochal shifts in entertainment media have driven the derangement of American politics, according to this caustic, scintillating cultural history ... Poniewozik’s trenchant, brilliantly witty critique of the cultural archetypes percolating into American politics is one of the best analyses yet of the Trump era.