New Book Examines How Television Enabled Trump's Political Rise

Sep 9, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 6:08 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back in the 1980s, America was preoccupied with the rich and famous, and Donald Trump symbolized both.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE RASCALS")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (As Waldo's Dad) Waldo, you're the best son money can buy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR")

ALFONSO RIBEIRO: (As Carlton Banks) It's The Donald. Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX AND THE CITY")

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie Bradshaw) Samantha, a cosmopolitan and Donald Trump - you just don't get more New York than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NANNY")

FRAN DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) Donald Trump, I'd like you to meet - oh, what am I talking about? All you handsome zillionaires know each other

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: From "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" to "Sex And The City," for years Trump was an undisputed icon of money and power in pop culture. A new book by New York Times chief TV critic James Poniewozik looks at how television enabled Trump's political rise.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: He had this fantastic, instinctual sense to zero in on this change that was happening in the zeitgeist. You know, Ronald Reagan got elected. There's sort of a move away from the populism of the '70s to materialism, and it's OK to want things again. And Madonna's making the "Material Girl" video. And there's a real opportunity for somebody to become that sort of broad pop culture cartoon of, you know, I'm big, and I'm successful, and I'm living large, and I'm not ashamed of it. And he embraced that fully and became sort of a media star doing that.

MARTIN: And Hollywood bought what he was selling, I mean, so much so that, as you describe in the book, they would create opportunities for him to show up in cameos to just represent richness and wealth, in New York in particular.

PONIEWOZIK: Because once you sort of, you know, create yourself as the symbol of New York rich guy, that makes you a useful shorthand that, you know, people can use if they need somebody to appear, yeah, in a sitcom cameo or in a movie. And this was also really useful to the public image of Donald Trump because, you know, what happened to him at the end of the '80s was that his businesses ran into a lot of business trouble...

MARTIN: Right.

PONIEWOZIK: ...And, you know, went through bankruptcies. And his job, you know, essentially became to play the character Donald Trump, you know, in the media, on "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," you know, because that kept the brand Trump alive because it was so tied to his persona and that public performance. His job basically became to become the mascot of himself.

MARTIN: So the perception of his wealth was far more important to Americans than the reality of his finances.

PONIEWOZIK: And he understood, you know, from the beginning - and I think this is just, you know, his key insight - that symbolism is incredibly subconsciously powerful to people. It is more important to look like the biggest businessman in New York than it is to be the biggest businessman in New York.

MARTIN: Critics of the administration like to call it the Trump show, as if the presidency were in total - a performance. And it has a lot of that feel, right? But do you think that Donald Trump has been successful in manipulating the media as president?

PONIEWOZIK: I think he has been successful in getting the attention of the media as president. You know, one thing that he is very successful at is just knowing what stimulates a camera and what keeps the red light of the camera on. One thing that I think, you know, is not necessarily the case is that he's been able to sort of manipulate the media in ways that are strategic and practical for him. You know, he's not necessarily disciplined in it. When he was on "The Apprentice," he had somebody like, you know, the producer Mark Burnett and, you know, all their story editors to go back and sort of edit logic onto the program.

MARTIN: What do you mean edit logic onto the program?

PONIEWOZIK: Meaning that, you know, people who worked on the show have talked about how, in the famous boardroom scenes where he would fire a contestant on "The Apprentice," he would often make decisions that were sort of random or - you know, from, like, a minor annoyance over something that somebody said. And they'd look at each other and say, there's nothing in the rest of the episode that...

MARTIN: It just doesn't make sense. Right.

PONIEWOZIK: We have to go back and re-edit this so that we're, you know, putting logic on his actions. And now there's nobody to do that except, you know, Mike Pence and, you know, his press secretaries. So, you know, it - now it's more like we're seeing the raw, unedited feed. And so it certainly works in terms of making him the protagonist of this, you know, 24-hour TV show that's the news. He doesn't necessarily always use it to tell the story that's most advantageous for him to tell.

MARTIN: But it's almost like he knows instinctually, though, what will at least help him sometimes in the short term. I mean, I'm thinking about the summit in Singapore for the first time that he met face to face with Kim Jong Un.

PONIEWOZIK: Yeah. And that was one of the instances where, you know, he arranges this meeting with Kim. It is dramatic because this is, you know, something that has been unprecedented in American diplomacy. And it sets up all these images, like them walking through the garden together at the summit - you know, just these images that sort of, in short clips on TV, say diplomacy, progress, deals.

MARTIN: Right, it doesn't matter if there's any substance in the talks; the performance is the news. That is the significant thing that's happening.

PONIEWOZIK: And a lot of times, you know, small images are just what - the mass of people who have other things to pay attention in their lives, that's what they take away from them. Deal-maker goes to make a deal, shakes somebody's hand - that's what deal-making looks like.

MARTIN: It's important to note this word that you include in your subtitle - "...The Fracturing Of America" - because Donald Trump, you write, has been able to leverage the fracturing of the media landscape, right? Over the last decades, we've seen that Americans, we can dive into our subcultures. We can create kind of parallel worlds, and we can just stay there and live there. And Donald Trump has capitalized on that, has he not?

PONIEWOZIK: He has. You know, and this is - for me, as a TV critic, this is sort of a double-edged sword, you know, because I think that the fragmenting of media has created a lot of great things. Media and television is more representative and inclusive and diverse than it used to be. But, you know, we also have this situation where everybody is in their own sort of little media bubble. And this creates a real opportunity if you are, say, a politician who can benefit from turning one group against another because there are so many groups out there who are primed to be turned against another by the mechanics of how media works now.

MARTIN: New York Times chief TV critic James Poniewozik. His new book is called "Audience Of One: Donald Trump, Television, And The Fracturing Of America."

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