As you probably heard, Meryl Streep caused a bit of a kerfuffle the other night at the Golden Globes. In accepting her Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, Streep spoke not about her career, or her favorite roles, or her acting philosophy. Instead, she talked about Donald Trump, both directly and indirectly, discussing immigration, the Hollywood “bubble,” and “the one performance this year that stunned me”: Trump’s horrifying imitation of New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, which she used as entry point to implore the press “to hold power to account,” and the public to support that free press.
The president-elect responded exactly as you’d expect:
It’s the second time since Trump’s election that an artist got the PEOTUS’s back up by using a public forum to raise questions and concerns about the movement that put him into office; back in November, the cast of Hamilton used a curtain speech to implore audience member and Vice Present-Elect Mike Pence to “uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.” Trump responded, again, by throwing a temper tantrum on Twitter (insisting, in an ironic choice of syntax, that the theater should be “a safe and special place”) – which has also been the site of his weekly whining sessions over Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live. (Wait until he sees what they do with these watersport rumors, good golly.) And all of this comes in the midst of his team’s embarrassing scramble to find any A-list talent willing to perform at Trump’s inauguration or that evening’s celebratory balls, which has left them with some comically low-wattage lineups.
None of this should come a surprise – and yet somehow, year after year, conservative politicians are shocked and disappointed that their favorite artists don’t share their values, or aren’t at least willing to put them aside to kiss the ring of power. (My personal favorite example: Bruce Springsteen’s long-running mission to spurn super-fan Chris Christie.) It speaks to a fascinating lack of self-awareness among such figures, who are seemingly incapable of understanding why “Hollywood” is (the occasional Eastwood or Stallone aside) so frustratingly liberal, or at least so resistant to conservative dogma.
But it’s not that hard to grasp. From the tender school years forward, the arts are typically populated by underdogs and outcasts, by geek kids and gay kids, by those who don’t belong and end up forming a community where they do. And what do they learn in that community, and from each other? More often than not, they learn empathy – the skill of acting, in particular, hinges on one’s ability to step into another person’s shoes, and to see the world through their eyes. And if they’re lucky enough to turn those interests into a vocation, artists find themselves surrounded by people different from them – sexually, culturally, socially – on Broadway stages, in music and comedy venues, on soundstages, and so on. Yet this administration in particular, and this political movement in general, is about denying that empathy, whether by restricting women’s health care, allowing discrimination based on sexual preference, mass deportation of immigrant populations, or appointing a known racist as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
That disconnect, between one’s own experiences and those of other Americans, is why the never-ending debate over “coastal elites” and the “bubbles” they live in is so nonsensical. One can only speak from personal experience here – which is part of the problem to begin with – but I spent my first 30 years smack dab in the middle of the “heartland,” born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and I’ve spent the last 11 years in New York City. And all I can tell you is this: the question of which area is plagued by homogeny of culture, gender, and thought is no question at all.
And that’s part of what’s so maddening about Trump. It’s one thing for a backwards fuck like Mike Huckabee or Mike Pence to show their ignorance people of color and the LGBTQ community; they rarely come in contact with anyone with those qualities in their little evangelical white cis-male bubbles. But Donald Trump was born and raised in New York City – rich, yes, but still surrounded by a diversity of Americans, and thus choosing to demonize them, when he should (and maybe even does) know better.
But those New York roots are also key to understanding Mr. Trump, and to grasping why these snubs and slams hit him (literally) where he lives. He inherited his father’s real estate company – but Fred built and managed in Queens and Brooklyn, while Donald always had an eye on Manhattan. He longed not only to build and live there, but to belong there, for its movers and shakers to accept him as one of their own. And over the course of his lifetime, he’s discovered that no matter how much wealth he amassed, how many high-rises or casinos or airlines or football teams he bought or sold, how much gold he slathered across his lobbies, or how many times he was on the front of the papers, he would never have their respect, because you can buy class (as in upper) but you can’t buy class (as in high). And now, even as he’s been elected to the most powerful office in the country, they still don’t respect him, and when the Times or Vanity Fair or Saturday Night Live (all long-running New York institutions) scald him, he can’t resist firing back. And the more he insists that he cares about “THE PEOPLE” and not “so-called ‘A’ celebrities,” the clearer it is that their continued rebukes and rebuffs are driving him crazy.
Every time one of these stories surfaces, a chorus of Responsible Citizens takes to social media, political blogs, and public airwaves to scold us for falling for another of Trump’s “diversions,” pointing out whatever ethical lapse or horrifying conflict of interest or bass-ackwards policy proposal is being ignored while we focus on his latest celebrity feud. And there is some merit to that. But I would counter that, for Trump, those are the diversions; his primary concern is achieving the unblemished fame and fawning respect he’s spent his life pursuing. And as long as his focus is on that, perhaps he won’t have the time or energy to roll back decades of women’s and civil rights progress, or default us into a Depression, or provoke a full-on nuclear war.
So I implore you, celebrities and satirists and entertainers of all stripes: mock this man. Criticize him with your every breath. Humiliate him from your studios, your awards stages, your magazine pages. Deny him the respect he not only desires, but requires. The very fate of our nation may depend on it.