In Audience of One (Liveright, Sept.), New York Times television critic Poniewozik argues that “without TV, there is no Donald Trump.”
You interviewed Donald Trump about The Apprentice in 2003. What was that like?
He was glad-handing me like a celebrity pitching a Hollywood product who wanted people to like him. I remember I came into his office, and he handed me press clippings and said, “You’ll see if you read this how I’m the largest developer in New York,” which was not technically true and was not the actual claim in the article.
How did television shape Trump’s political persona?
As cable channels proliferated and television pursued smaller niche audiences, it developed programming like The Sopranos—with problematic, ruthless antiheroes that could not have been successful protagonists on earlier mass-market network TV. Reality TV also embraced antiheroes—abrasive jerks who were fascinating to watch, such as Richard Hatch on Survivor. That was Donald Trump on The Apprentice. It was fascinating, and liberating, to watch him tell people “You’re fired.” Part of the appeal was that he “says what he means”—which doesn’t mean it’s honest—even if it’s cruel or dangerous; “being real” was the highest value. You can draw a line from that to his political style. What happens when people stop being polite and start being real is Donald Trump, president of the United States. The Apprentice also shot him in power positions, coming down an escalator like a golden god descending from the sky. In 2015, when he announced his candidacy, he again came down that escalator at Trump Tower, just like he did on The Apprentice.
You write that, as president, Donald Trump is “controlled by TV.” How so?
He has always been a TV junkie. As a regular Fox News guest before his presidential run, he was like a tuning fork humming on whatever frequency Fox put out. If Fox gets mad about the Ground Zero mosque or immigration and Mexico, then so does he. Trump is the Fox audience embodied. As president, the 24-hour cable news cycle is literally about him, and they fuse into this symbiotic being. He gets pleased or angry and he tweets, the tweet crosses the screen onto cable news, and suddenly the story is about how people are reacting, and he reacts to the reaction. TV’s ability to prod him ends up setting the agenda for the president and his administration.
Did television prepare Americans to vote for Trump?
The fascinating antihero, the reality-TV truth-teller, the angry guy on cable news, they become part of the national mythology that a politician can model himself after. They didn’t make people vote for Trump, but they gave him a way of telling his story.