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.
About the Author
James Poniewozik has been the chief television critic of the New York Times since 2015. He was previously the television and media critic for Time magazine and media columnist for Salon. He lives in Brooklyn.
Illuminating... Poniewozik is a funny, acerbic and observant writer… [He] 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…Poniewozik brings a new microscope with which to analyze the drug-resistant bacterium that is our president. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Audience of One is that it makes Trump's presidency seem almost inevitable.
— Gary Shteyngart
The smartest, most original, most unexpectedly definitive account of the rise of Trump and Trumpism we’ve had so far. It’s also the best book yet written about the bride-of-Frankenstein mating of American politics and American pop culture, a wedding practically nobody saw coming until Trump provided the shotgun… [An] uncommonly rich and stimulating book.
— Tom Carson
In his stellar debut, Poniewozik demonstrates how Trump, over a period of four decades, “achieved symbiosis” with the TV medium.... His telling analyses of Trump’s appearances on The Apprentice, Fox & Friends, and The Howard Stern Show will come as revelations to readers unfamiliar with those programs.... 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.
— Kirkus Reviews [starred review]
Caustic, scintillating cultural history…. New York Times television critic Poniewozik sets Donald Trump’s political rise against American television’s evolution…. 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.
— Publishers Weekly [starred review]
This is both a fascinating look at the ways television has changed and shaped the U.S., and a compelling lens through which to look at how we got to November 8, 2016.
A dazzling dual biography of television and Donald Trump.... The book is so rich with insights about the man and the medium that it isn’t until the end that readers will realize it’s still not clear how 60 million Americans could come to see an obviously phony performer as the person they wanted in the Oval Office.
— Jessica T. Matthews
We’re saturated in Trump coverage and analysis these days, but Poniewozik has been offering consistently unique, informative, and whip-smart commentary in his post as New York Times TV critic. Here he expands on his newspaper work by dissecting the president through the lens of his favorite medium.
The Mueller Report of television criticism! James Poniewozik’s Audience of One is both damning and illuminating, a witty, penetrating exposé of Trump’s most intimate relationship, the one with the medium that made him.
— Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker
Now that the Donald Trump freak show has replaced all regularly scheduled programming, staggering us daily, as one of its longtime chroniclers I’m grateful for this brilliant, lucid, and essential book to help make sense of this American nightmare.
— Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire
In the vast literature of Trump-theory, Audience of One immediately takes a place in the first rank; it has to be read by anyone interested in understanding how such a buffoon became our nation’s chief magistrate. We have always known of course that Donald Trump’s success is attributable in some way to television; what we have not grasped—what we have refused to grasp—is how his career reflects the tastes and predilections of our beloved entertainment industry right down to the smallest details of its technological development. For anyone who still counts on enlightened celebrities to deliver us: Read this book and repent.
— Thomas Frank, author of Rendezvous with Oblivion
In this brilliant new book, James Poniewozik shows how the media landscape increasingly fragmented over the past few decades, with the rise of cable, the Internet, and social media, and how our political world fractured as a result. Smartly argued and beautifully written, Audience of One deserves an audience of millions.
— Kevin M. Kruse, coauthor of Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
With wit, insight, and clarity, James Poniewozik puts Trump at the center of a series of changes that swept through American popular culture and political systems. Poniewozik’s essential book shows how these evolutions incubated Trumpism, even as Trump’s rise exposed the limits and vulnerabilities of the media, which too often found itself floundering in the face of his shameless manipulations.
— Maureen Ryan, chief TV critic for Variety