New York Times Book Review • Notable Book of the Year
Washington Post • 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2019
Publishers Weekly • 10 Best Books of the Year
An incisive cultural history that captures a fractious nation through the prism of television and the rattled mind of a celebrity president.
Television has entertained America, television has ensorcelled America, and with the election of Donald J. Trump, television has conquered America. In Audience of One, New York Times chief television critic James Poniewozik traces the history of TV and mass media from the Reagan era to today, explaining how a volcanic, camera-hogging antihero merged with America’s most powerful medium to become our forty-fifth president.
In the tradition of Neil Postman’s masterpiece Amusing Ourselves to Death, Audience of One shows how American media have shaped American society and politics, by interweaving two crucial stories. The first story follows the evolution of television from the three-network era of the 20th century, which joined millions of Americans in a shared monoculture, into today’s zillion-channel, Internet-atomized universe, which sliced and diced them into fractious, alienated subcultures. The second story is a cultural critique of Donald Trump, the chameleonic celebrity who courted fame, achieved a mind-meld with the media beast, and rode it to ultimate power.
Braiding together these disparate threads, Poniewozik combines a cultural history of modern America with a revelatory portrait of the most public American who has ever lived. Reaching back to the 1940s, when Trump and commercial television were born, Poniewozik illustrates how Donald became “a character that wrote itself, a brand mascot that jumped off the cereal box and entered the world, a simulacrum that replaced the thing it represented.” Viscerally attuned to the media, Trump shape-shifted into a boastful tabloid playboy in the 1980s; a self-parodic sitcom fixture in the 1990s; a reality-TV “You’re Fired” machine in the 2000s; and finally, the biggest role of his career, a Fox News–obsessed, Twitter-mad, culture-warring demagogue in the White House.
Poniewozik deconstructs the chaotic Age of Trump as the 24-hour TV production that it is, decoding an era when politics has become pop culture, and vice versa. Trenchant and often slyly hilarious, Audience of One is a penetrating and sobering review of the raucous, raging, farcical reality show—performed for the benefit of an insomniac, cable-news-junkie “audience of one”—that we all came to live in, whether we liked it or not.
Epochal shifts in entertainment media have driven the derangement of American politics, according to this caustic, scintillating cultural history. New York Times television critic Poniewozik sets Donald Trump's political rise against American television's evolution, from a three-network monopoly broadcasting inoffensive, common denominator fare to a fragmented cable and internet spectrum of isolated niche channels, a world where liberals watched Mad Men while conservatives watched Duck Dynasty. That polarization, he argues, bred new televisual genres that incubated the Trumpian worldview: antihero dramas where ugly violence is needed to defeat even darker forces, reality shows where life is a cutthroat, zero-sum struggle between amoral operators, and cable news shows that portray the world as a chaos of noisy, flashy dogfights where perceptions of truth are dictated by tribal allegiance. Meanwhile, Trump's own media persona "the blunt, impolite apex predator" on The Apprentice, the trash-talking bully in pro-wrestling cameos, the birther conspiracy theorist on Fox News guest spots shaped his political style and then subsumed him entirely: Trump became "a cable news channel in human form: loud, short of attention span, and addicted to conflict," Poniewozik writes. "TV became president." 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.