Inside Story

“Its appetites were his appetites; its mentality was his mentality”

Books | To an alarming degree, reality TV matches how Donald Trump sees the world

Matthew Ricketson 29 January 2020 3528 words

Template for chaos: Donald Trump during the recruiting tour for The Apprentice in July 2004. Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America
By James Poniewozik | W.W. Norton | $43.95 | 325 pages

Everybody knows that Donald Trump is the first American president to come from reality television, but what does that actually mean, beyond a lot of eye-rolling about his lack of foreign policy knowledge or his love of cheeseburgers? Remember that many of us were similarly snooty about George W. Bush’s lifelong wrestling match with the English language. But Dubya served two terms as president (2000–08) and Trump won in 2016 when most polls and pundits said he wouldn’t. And he could well win a second term in November this year.

Trump’s presidency has been pored over in unprecedented detail. Midway through his first term it had already been the subject of eighteen books. But to the best of my knowledge there hadn’t until now been one devoted to understanding the relationship between Trump and television, which is what James Poniewozik provides in Audience of One.

This is a very welcome addition to the burgeoning Trump library — or, more precisely, the library about Trump, given that the president appears allergic to reading. As Poniewozik tartly remarks about Trump’s delivery of prepared lines following release of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes in 2016: “Few sights convey unhappiness as much as Donald Trump having to read something.”

A long-time television and media critic, for Salon, Time and then, since 2015, the New York Times, Poniewozik has written a book that is at once about how television has “reflected and affected our relationships with society, with politics, with one another” and about the current president’s symbiotic relationship with the medium. “Its impulses were his impulses; its appetites were his appetites; its mentality was his mentality.”

Donald Trump grew up in television’s early years and his coming of age coincided with television becoming the “greatest aggregator of a simultaneous audience ever invented.” To retain advertisers who were happy to pay millions of dollars to reach a mass audience, the three big American networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, needed to find what one network executive described as the “least objectionable program” — content, in other words, that never gave the viewer a reason to change the channel.

Trump first surfaces on network television in 1980, during NBC’s The Today Show, on which the host, Tom Brokaw, wears a suit the colour of toast and the whole set is decorated in shades of brown. As Poniewozik recounts it, Trump, then a budding real estate investor, slouches on the couch looking like a “prep-school kid at an interview for an internship he’s been assured that he’s going to get.” Critically, though, Trump’s manner is agreeable, his tone mild. Given an opportunity to engage in controversy, he demurs. It is the kind of bland breakfast television interview that typified the mass media age and Trump slots himself into it like a slice of white bread in a pop-up toaster.

It is also, to anyone who has listened to almost anything Trump has said (or tweeted) in the past five years, utterly at odds with his current persona. What happened? First, television changed: in the 1980s, network executives learnt the power of demographics: the attention of some (usually wealthy) people was worth more to advertisers than the attention of (usually poor) others. Then, around the same time, cable television began its rise; what had been a mass audience became a mass of niche audiences. Whatever your interest, a network existed to feed your knowledge and your passion. Which was good in some ways, but less so in others, as we will see.

On cable, especially on HBO, networks were no longer constrained by the need to make the least objectionable program. Unleashed was a series of antiheroes, the best known of whom were Tony Soprano in The Sopranos (1999–2007), Al Swearengen in Deadwood (2004–06, 2019) and Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008–13). Earlier series had worked on the premise that protagonists paid for their sins — that crime doesn’t pay — but, as Sopranos creator David Chase said, “Well, that’s false. Crime does pay.” The effect of these brilliantly written and performed shows was to induce viewers to engage emotionally with the antihero, even as they were horrified by what Tony or Al or Walter actually did.

But if the need to hold and contemplate two such conflicting emotions was key to these dramas’ power, there was an obverse problem: not all viewers could or would hold them simultaneously. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum called them “bad fans”: “The Sopranos buffs who wanted a show made up of nothing but whackings (and posted eagerly about how they fast-forwarded past anything else).”

While television was fragmenting, for better and worse, Trump was rising spectacularly as a property developer, and then falling just as spectacularly. Despite a golden leg-up from his property-developer father, Donald was never the great businessman he claimed to be. But he did have a key insight, into himself and the American public. As Poniewozik writes, “In the 1980s, Donald Trump was a businessman who used celebrity as a helpful promotional device. By the 1990s, he was a celebrity whose calling card was the ability to play the figure of a businessman.”

Satirist John Oliver has devoted episode after episode of Last Week Tonight to showing the gobsmacking phoniness of Trump’s claims to be the great deal-maker. But the revelations, Poniewozik argues, have not had the disastrous effect on Trump’s career you would expect. Unlike Rupert Murdoch, who rebounded from his near-death experience with bankruptcy in 1990 to become an even more successful media businessman, Trump pivoted to become the star of a reality TV show, The Apprentice, which premiered in 2004.

If, as Vanity Fair contributing editor Fran Lebowitz has said, Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” then he had been collecting the necessary totems of success all his adult life: a private jet, a helicopter, an international hotel and a string of casinos, all branded with his name. His apartment in Trump Tower, writes Poniewozik, was “an orgasm of gold and chandeliers that outdid the palatial love lairs of The Bachelor.” The producers of The Apprentice would make ample use of these symbols in their program. (Indeed, if you’ve ever wondered why Trump shows up in so many pop culture moments from the 1980s and 1990s, it’s because, Poniewozik reports, he would make himself and his props available to almost anyone.)

Trump was bizarrely well suited to the mode and methods of reality TV because, to an alarming degree, that is how he actually sees the world. Poniewozik makes the point by outlining the moral universe of Survivor, a pioneering reality show he happily admits to having watched avidly since its premiere in the US in 2000. Survivor’s pool of contestants, living as a “tribe” in a remote location, had to work together for food and shelter but also vote members out, one by one, until the last one standing won a million dollars. “Nominally, the show was about humans against nature. The real game, and the real attraction, was human against human.”

The winner of the first season was corporate consultant Richard Hatch, the key to whose success was not his wilderness skills but his ability “to lie, to make alliances and break them, to convince people that it’s in their interest to hold their nose and work with you until you no longer need them.” In the finale of season one, “his vanquished opponents awarded him the million bucks in spite of this, or rather because of it. They recognised that he outplayed them.” What Survivor did, and still does, was to invite viewers to “compartmentalise morality from outcome.” The logic behind the Tribal Council’s final vote was that “Richard is bad, but he’s entertaining, and he played a great game.”

Who does that remind you of? Trump is bad (how long a list would you like to draw up?) but he’s entertaining (even his critics admit he is an attention magnet) and he plays a great game. Poniewozik reminds us how Trump treated the seventeen-strong field of candidates for the Republican Party nomination in 2016 as an elimination-based reality show, during which he wiped the floor with his opponents. Trump has little patience for reasoned arguments but does have a viper’s tongue and a hawk’s eye for an exposed nerve.

He also values loyalty far more than integrity, which he learnt from his mentor, Roy Cohn, the utterly amoral New York lawyer and fixer who taught him the power of doubling down in the face of any allegation of impropriety and never admitting defeat. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump famously asked early in his presidency, after FBI director James Comey and attorney-general Jeff Sessions had refused to put loyalty to Trump ahead of the law, or even standard departmental procedures. Both were subsequently fired by Trump.

Most of this has been known about Trump since his ghostwritten book, The Art of the Deal, was released in 1987. But a passage from the book assumes greater weight now that Trump is president, not to mention in the midst of an impeachment trial. In the passage, Trump compares Cohn with “the hundreds of ‘respectable’ guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty.” As Poniewozik notes, the implication is not just that loyalty outranks integrity but that integrity is never really genuine. “It’s just a put-on that phonies ‘boast about’ to make themselves look good while they stab you in the back.”

The corrosive effect of a reality TV view of the world and of Trump’s bullying of public discourse can be seen, Poniewozik writes, in the treatment of two phrases beloved of conservatives, “bleeding heart” and “virtue signalling.” In the Nixon era, conservatives at least acknowledged that bleeding-heart liberals were moved by genuine feelings. When Trumpian conservatives use the term “virtue signalling” they are implying that liberals are fakes and, in reality, no one is virtuous. When the administration provoked outrage in 2018 by separating undocumented families at the US–Mexico border and imprisoning their children, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, responded on Fox News by mocking as a crybaby a Democrat strategist concerned about a child with Down syndrome separated from her mother.

Similarly corrosive of the institutions of government was the way Trump controlled the nomination hearings for the Supreme Court in the style of a network TV executive. When Christine Blasey Ford appeared before the nationally televised hearings in 2018 and accused nominee Brett Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted her when they were high school students, Trump immediately saw how persuasive her testimony appeared on television. He compared it unfavourably, Poniewozik writes, with Kavanaugh’s earlier appearance on the Fox network where the nominee appeared meek and respectful of women. Kavanaugh got the message and responded heatedly to Ford’s allegations, his face red and twisted with rage. When this divisive, undignified performance worked, Trump tweeted his “review”: “Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him.”

Add to “corrosive” the word “chaotic,” probably the term most commonly used to describe the Trump administration. Its roots can be traced to The Apprentice, in which the key scene of each episode was the gathering of contestants in a boardroom that “oozes cigar-club masculinity.” There, each would attempt to persuade Trump not to utter his barked catchphrase, “You’re fired!” What had happened during the program’s “challenges” might or might not influence Trump; now, it was mainly about “attempting to commune with the mind of Trump, to anticipate his moods and needs. There is no long-term strategy, only the moment.” As has become increasingly clear from the veritable pile-up of administration leaders and aides who’ve left or been deep-sixed since 2017, the mock boardroom was a blueprint for his government — a “dogpile of competitors, cronies and relatives throttling one another daily for survival,” according to Poniewozik.

There’s one more important televisual element to be noted in the Trump–television symbiosis: professional wrestling. It is well known that in 2017 Trump tweeted a video of himself at a World Wrestling Entertainment event pummelling what looked like a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head — a message about as subtle as the blows he rained down. Less well known is that Trump has been in the WWE hall of fame since 2013 for his “Battle of the Billionaires” match (which he won, of course) with WWE owner Vince McMahon, from which the mocked-up video was taken. Apart from his love of hyped, gaudy spectacle, Trump has drawn from the world of pro wrestling a mode of public engagement that has paid rich dividends. Pro wrestling winks at what is real and what is fake. “Kayfabe,” the term used in the industry, means the matches may be fake (or, more accurately, carefully scripted and choreographed) but the rivalries between wrestlers are treated as real.

Trump’s campaign rallies, both in 2016 and this year as he campaigns for re-election, are almost indistinguishable from WrestleMania events. As Poniewozik writes:

A Trump rally, with the candidate holding forth for an hour-plus, chasing butterflies of thought, wasn’t a political speech like we’d come to know them. His language was rambling but direct: win, hit, bomb the shit out of them. Things were huge and beautiful. He played on existing American themes — vastness, dynamism, ambition — but stripped of the noble pretence. What was in it for you?

At early rallies during the 2016 campaign, journalists reported that the people they spoke to before the rallies were polite and chatty, like they were out for a night at a concert. Once they were inside, though, Trump whipped them into an atavistic frenzy. He loves their howling support, of course, and as of last October had held seventy-eight rallies since becoming president. Almost every time a crisis has hit his presidency, he has turned to rallies as to mother’s milk. Increasingly, the crowds’ fury has been directed at the news media filming the event, sometimes resulting in verbal and even physical attacks on these so-called “enemies of the people,” a phrase Trump uses apparently without knowing, probably without caring, that it has been deployed previously by people like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Politicians have long worked assiduously to get their message across to the public via the media while simultaneously avoiding scrutiny from journalists. At least as far back as George W. Bush’s presidency, they saw the essential flaw in objective journalism as a method: the principle of balance, supposed to be a bulwark against unfairness amid the daily crush of deadlines, is easy to game. The government, especially its leader, is quoted almost irrespective of what it says, simply because it is the government. And if the government is criticised, it is given the right of reply.

This means a government can bully the news media into following its chosen news agenda. In a media conference in early March 2003, shortly before the United States invaded Iraq, George W. Bush set out his justification for the coming war. In just under an hour, he invoked al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 fourteen times. “No one challenged him on it, despite the fact that the CIA had questioned the Iraq–al Qaeda connection, and there has never been solid evidence marshalled to support the idea that Iraq was involved in the attacks of 9/11,” wrote Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review later that year, when this and other rationales for invading Iraq were crumbling.

Before the invasion, only a few journalists were willing to step out from behind the safety of the “he said, she said” format and challenge the administration’s spin, as Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post did in an article headlined “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations about Iraq.” And their editors put the article not on page one but inside the paper where it “played as quietly as a lullaby,” as the New York Times’s then public editor, Daniel Okrent, described such questioning articles. As another journalist commented, “It’s a very good piece, but it is very tendentious. It’s interesting that the editors didn’t put it on page one, because it would look like they are calling Bush a liar.”

Donald Trump has been called a liar by the Washington Post and several other outlets. The Post has gone to extraordinary lengths to document what it says are 16,241 instances (as of 19 January) of false or misleading claims made by the president since he took his oath of office. If this illustrates how much further Trump has debased political discourse since the Bush administration, there remains an oddly timorous, ineffectual debate in media circles in the United States (and Australia, for that matter) about whether and when to say that the president has lied. This has a lot to do with the extent to which mainstream news media are unwilling or unable to see how politicians have blown up the standard news story and how they need to respond by updating the model for reporting politics. It’s easier said than done, of course, but as the presidential campaign gets under way and the impeachment trial unfolds, there is little evidence of progress in mainstream media coverage.

This means that whenever the Democrats’ allegations of impropriety are reported, Trump’s retorts — that his telephone call in 2019 to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was “perfect” and that the impeachment process is a “witch-hunt” — are also reported. Just as few mainstream news media reports note the hypocrisy of a person with a long history of allegations of sexual harassment against him using the term “witch-hunt,” so there are relatively few reports, especially on electronic media, that outline in any detail what Trump is alleged to have done to merit being impeached, and even fewer that examine the substance, or lack thereof, of the actual arguments being made by Trump and his lawyers in his defence. One shining exception was a Radio National Breakfast interview on 22 January with Professor Frank Bowman, author of the 2019 book High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.

More often journalists focus on how the result of the impeachment process is a foregone conclusion because the Republicans control the Senate and a two-thirds majority is needed for the president to be found guilty of the charges. They ask, often in a glibly worldly tone, why the Democrats are even bothering. A more relevant question for them to ask is: what has happened to the world’s most powerful democracy when politics has become so partisan that one side will not only refuse to consider clear evidence of impeachable offences but will work ferociously to ensure that the trial will not be a trial in any real sense at all?

It would be easy to slide into despair at the state of mainstream media coverage or at the possibility that a president who views the world through the prism of reality TV — not least because he is as much a consumer as a creator of it — may win a second term of office. But as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, wrote last year, despair is not an option; it is self-indulgence. Poniewozik, careful parser of reality TV that he is, is not beholden to it. He ends his book with a devastating anecdote about how Disney World’s Hall of Presidents has been updated, and subtly changed, since the inauguration of the forty-fifth president in 2017.

Part civics lesson, part kitsch, the Hall of Presidents runs through a film entitled The Idea of a President, which covers the writing of the constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the Great Depression, space exploration and so on. But a line from the previous version’s narration has been expunged since Trump became president: “All of liberty’s leaders have one thing in common, one trust that they have all accepted.”

The exhibit’s creators had a choice; either admit the original film’s idea of a president had dissolved or, to coin a phrase, make Trump great again. They chose the latter, with bizarre results. The film shows “Audio-Animatronic” semblances of every American president, with the Trump robot wearing “an expression unfamiliar from the face of the actual Trump: reverent, emotive, humble,” writes Poniewozik. “It looks awed by the moment, as if it might be moved to tears. It does not scowl. It does not smirk. It does not clench its fists or stab at the air when it speaks.”

The robot’s essential unreality may provide the most fitting and educational monument to this presidency. Poniewozik writes: “You see it, you hear it, and it triggers a voice inside you that says: This is not right, this is weird, this is not how I remember it at all. That voice you’re hearing? It’s called reality.” A reality TV worldview and approach to governing can only take you so far, in other words. The question is, how much damage will have been done to real people before the reality TV presidency is pulled by the network executives? •