Donald Trump is the greatest show on TV: Critic James Poniewozik on how it all ends

Trump is a "mediated character," not a real person, says Poniewozik. Like Tony Soprano, he'll never admit defeat

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 7, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, with old televisions overlay on top (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, with old televisions overlay on top (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Age of Trump is a horrible never-ending story. One page is turned, and another appears. "The End" is nowhere in sight. Although Election Day 2020 is less than a month away, the days and weeks ahead feel interminable.

As a story the Age of Trump is simultaneously drama, comedy and tragedy. In terms of genres, it is a spy thriller (Russia's control and influence over Trump), a crime story (Trump and his taxes, a political mafia family, vast corruption), dystopian speculative fiction (how could so many horrible things all happen at once?), and a political drama and documentary (how fascism came to America). Donald Trump's story, unfortunately, is also a distasteful softcore farce (considering the sordid details of his known or alleged affairs).

In the season of death caused by the coronavirus and Trump's negligent and criminal response, life in the Age of Trump is also a horror movie.

At some point last week Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus. On Friday he was hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center. The Trump regime, of course, distorts, lies, dissembles, circulates disinformation and refuses to tell the whole truth about Trump's health and related matters — including just how many people in the White House and Trump's inner circle have contracted COVID, and how and when the infection began.

As a story, Trump's personal experience with the coronavirus, and the regime's reporting on it, resembles a North Korean and/or Russian propaganda film. After what Trump has presented as a miraculous recovery — quite likely a temporary steroid high — he was released from the hospital on Monday. For his cult members and other followers, Trump's saga of infection and "recovery" makes him even more into a type of Christ figure, or an Übermensch blessed with "good" genes.

In a Monday interview on Fox News, Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp had this to say about Trump: "He obviously has stayed in contact not only with the campaign but also talking directly to the American people in saying, 'We're going to get through this. We're going to defeat this virus. We're not going to surrender to it like Joe Biden would surrender to this virus.'" She suggested that Donald Trump is "the ultimate fighter."

Such a narrative is another example of Trump's fascist allure and power and the threat it poses to American democracy. At the Independent, philosopher Jason Stanley, author of "How Fascism Works," warns: "In this kind of politics the leader is the nation. The leader is supposed to be strong. They're just trying to represent that he's strong and it doesn't affect him and it won't affect the nation. [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil did the same thing."

On Monday via Twitter, Stanley elaborated further:

In fascist ideology, the enemy is diseased and weak. The fascist leader is masculine and strong. As Bolsonaro said in March, if he gets Covid, because of his history as an athlete, it won't be an issue. The enemy — minority groups and political opponents — are weak and diseased.

Don't be afraid of Covid, says our leader, who has soundly defeated it. It only harms the weak. If you are harmed by it, you were already weak.

Donald Trump, a reality TV star and con man — and now a fascist, white supremacist cult leader — is an amazing story that defies almost all explanation, except in a kakistocracy and pathocracy that has amused itself to death.

Ultimately, TrumpWorld is very real. Unfortunately, the American people are trapped in it, with no obvious way to escape. Perhaps even more worrisome, many of them do not want to.

In this story, what type of character is Donald Trump? How does he imagine his role? How did Donald Trump master the new rules of television and the media in the 21st century to gain so much power? As Election Day finally approaches — with an unknown outcome and the real possibility that Trump will use legal and illegal means to steal the election — what would be the perfect ending for Donald Trump the character, and his bizarre epic story?

In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with James Poniewozik. Once a writer for Salon, he is now chief television critic at the New York Times and author of the new book "Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America."

You can also listen to my conversation with James Poniewozik on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

Does Donald Trump really exist?

Part of my premise is that Donald Trump is not a person. Donald Trump as we know him and as he matters to us is really more a mediated character and performance. The performance has evolved over time in response to the rewards he has received being a celebrity. If the real Donald Trump does exist, I am not sure that he even knows who he is anymore.

What happens when the person playing the character is lost in their performance?  

There is a danger for someone with power and responsibility over others — in this case a whole country — that once you reach that point a person can lose their core self. A person is just a persona and they know what to do in response to certain expectations and stimulation. Your behavior is dictated by how you have been received by others and the reactions that your behavior engenders in others. Certainly, that performance can be brilliant in show business. In a way, it can be very effective in politics. But governing a country involves making decisions that have to do with much more serious matters than how you are perceived and the impressions you are making on other people.

For better or for worse, Donald Trump was the most entertaining thing on television during the 2016 campaign. In many ways, that remains true even at the end of his first term. Trump is a product of an American culture of spectacle and distraction. That is the foundation of his power.

The metaphor that I like to use for Trump running for president in this media era was like Julius Caesar taking power in Rome. Trump spent his entire career mastering the weapons which are used for combat in the television era. Trump did this as a tabloid figure. He's done it as a reality TV figure. He has done it across various arenas, and so much of it was directly translatable to politics. Trump's skill in the arena of this media age goes beyond his message to any particular segment of the electorate.

How do you assess Trump as a performer?

He's not a good actor in the sense that a film actor is. There's an essential difference between what a film actor does and what a reality TV performer does. When you play yourself as a character in reality TV what you are doing is being yourself but louder, presenting an exaggerated version of yourself. As far as acting — a skill that requires empathy and basically imagining that other people are real — you can see Trump's shortcomings whenever he has to visit the site of a tragedy or read off a teleprompter.

What Donald Trump does works pretty well for his particular style of political performance. For him, much of his message is about life as a zero-sum competition, conflict, winning and the idea that for you to get something, somebody else has to lose something. Trump's brand is based on those values.

Trump also has a great off-the-cuff, pugilistic sense of verbal combat. He is very good at throwing up a lot of dust and keeping people off balance. That has worked very well with the kind of persona that Trump was presenting as candidate and then as president. It is not necessarily a kind of performance that might have worked well for another person or a politician with a different message.

What is beguiling or compelling about Trump as a character for his supporters? I find him to be a repugnant human being, but he is infinitely watchable. I also believe he is a more sophisticated performer than people give him credit for.

For those who love him as president, he is someone who fights. That goes beyond policy. Trump seeks to inflame conflict rather than smooth it over. In a political debate there are always at least two messages going on: One is the text of what you're saying and one is this meta-narrative of, "In the way that I debate, here's how I'm going to champion you as president."

Among people who hate Donald Trump — and obviously there are myriad political reasons that people hate him — I think part of the heart of it is that he is a culture warrior instinctually. Beyond the strategic embrace of certain public policy issues, he has a sense for locating exposed nerves and jabbing at them, inciting conflict in a way in which it will leave the most bad feelings after it's finished.

What happens to truth and people's understanding of reality when they have to confront a person such as Trump, who is so skilled in terms of being a performer and a professional liar?

All the places where Trump has thrived have been fields where there is a thin boundary between fact and fiction. This is true of the New York tabloids, professional wrestling, reality TV and now being president of the United States. Trump has created a type of permission structure which dispenses with the idea of verifiable, objective reality and just takes cues from the people that you have loyalty to. Authoritarian leaders like Trump cultivate a following by nurturing the idea that everyone is lying and the truth is always fuzzy.  

What fantasies does Trump represent for the viewer, his public?

The fantasy of Trump has evolved from the 1980s to Trump as a presidential candidate.

The proto-Trump of the Reagan era was the fantasy of the lottery winner. He was somebody who intuited very early on that it was more important to look like a very successful businessman than to actually be the most successful businessman. Trump understood how to leverage appearance, which in turn allowed him to build a brand. The easiest way to accomplish that is with cartoon symbolism, a tower with your name on it in three-foot tall golden letters or a helicopter with your name on the side.

It's a combination of that cartoonish fantasy of prosperity combined with the notion that — this is where the lottery-winner aspect enters in — that you don't need to change to be this way. This is part of what allows him to cultivate the blue-collar billionaire notion, and for Sean Hannity to push it later. Because this lottery-winner performance also allows people to imagine themselves as a rich person, not beholden to the proprieties of gatekeepers, not having to change yourself or your tastes or your likes. 

Every iteration of Trump as a pop-culture character involves a notion of fighting and conflict and grievance. Those two elements were the form of Trump that ran for president and won.

How would you explain or track Donald Trump's career, relative to broader changes in the terrain of the American news media?

My book is basically a parallel story about the character of Donald Trump over the decades and the media that he evolved in sync with. The journey of the American media from when Trump was beginning his public career, basically around 1980, until he ran for president is also the journey from the mass media of the mid-20th century to the fragmented media of the 21st century.

When Trump started, if you put something on television it had to appeal to tens of millions of people. There was a big-tent strategy of programming. You had to tailor things to a broader audience. As cable developed, as the internet developed, the outcome was more outlets and more targeted programming. There were increasing rewards for more polarizing programming, whether it's entertainment or news, fiction or nonfiction. And that produces all sorts of things, be it provocative sensationalistic reality TV or be it Fox News and political talk radio.

This is a story of the media becoming a space where somebody as belligerent and pugnacious and outrageous as Donald Trump can successfully build a career and then become a political leader and run for president and win.

Would Donald Trump even be president if there had been a Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow who successfully confronted him during his first campaign? A public figure in the news media who was viewed with respect and trusted by the American public?

I do not believe so. It's not just that we no longer have a Murrow, it is that we no longer have Murrow's audience. There is no collective audience in America that is willing to accept that there are agreed-on facts and arbiters of truth. I do not believe that one could have someone go directly from hosting a TV program, like Trump did, to then becoming president of the United States until you had a media environment where politics was basically a form of entertainment combat that was carried out through the media.

Somebody like Trump, with his sense of showmanship and flimflam and exaggeration, could have had a successful business career in another era. P.T. Barnum existed long before television. But something significant had to change in media, and therefore in American political culture, before somebody like Donald Trump has got a serious shot at the presidency.

The Age of Trump is a perpetual cliffhanger. There is never any closure to the story, just one scandal and crisis after another. There is no emotional release and closure. The story never ends. What does that do to the American people?

It is exhausting. People are frazzled. It is not just all the horrible things that are happening, but that everything keeps accelerating without any release. There is nothing but a buildup of tension. This moment with Trump as president is like the difference between watching a blockbuster movie and watching a trailer for a movie. Trailers are not necessarily narrative — they just need to communicate that if you go to this movie you will be excited all the time.

Living in a movie trailer constantly, for the length of a movie, is really exhausting for most people. That may not be true for Donald Trump, however, which may be one reason that he is so well-suited for this era. I honestly believe that there is something about Donald Trump where he feels that conflict and agitation are the best and most productive state of mankind.

What genre is the Age of Trump? Is it comedy, tragedy, drama or something else?

A kind of thriller where horror is combined with farce.

How would you write the end of the Age of Trump? If you were crafting the story, what would the resolution to the story and the main character be?

I feel like the truest story for the character Donald Trump is for him never to be defeated in his mind. That is Trump's narrative. As a character in the story, he will never acknowledge getting his comeuppance, disgrace, failure or punishment. He is not capable of acknowledging it. The end of the story that is the Age of Trump, whether it is Donald Trump actually victorious or Donald Trump utterly disgraced and a disparaged figure in history, is him with his arms raised in victory — because that is the way he sees himself.

I keep thinking about "The Sopranos," and Tony Soprano tripping on peyote during the final season. Tony has killed his nephew, Christopher, and he is saying, "I get it! I get it!" In Tony's mind he is at one with the universe and doing the right thing. Tony Soprano, like Donald Trump, is not capable of seeing himself otherwise.

Will the end of the Age of Trump be as subjective as the end of "The Sopranos"?

I do not think the screen will cut to black. There is not going to be a question of what ultimately happens with Donald Trump. But no matter what, there is not going to be consensus on whether Trump was victorious or defeated, whether he got his just deserts or whether he was robbed, whether he was a hero or a villain. No amount of evidence is going to create consensus on anything about Donald Trump. With "The Sopranos," people are still arguing about what happened to Tony at the end of the series. It doesn't matter what the definitive explanation is. For Donald Trump and Tony Soprano, there is going to be an argument no matter what happens at the end.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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