Hollywood’s Protests Might Seem Ineffective —But They’re Actually Getting to Trump

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Meryl Streep accepts Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 8, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. Photo: NBC/Getty Images

On January 4, the president-elect of the United States woke up in a mood, as he seems to have done on so many mornings since the election. It was a day of angry tweeting — about the media’s “double standard,” about the “terrible things” the DNC did, about the “failed ObamaCare disaster” and the “Schumer clowns” who must not be let out of “the web,” whatever that is. But capping his fulminations was this: “Jackie Evancho’s album sales have skyrocketed after announcing her Inauguration performance. Some people just don’t understand the ‘Movement.’”

For those of you who have been thinking about Cabinet appointments or the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act or the Russian hack or America’s relationships with China or Israel rather than the truly important things, a quick primer: Jackie Evancho is a 16-year-old pop singer from Pittsburgh who, despite a Wikipedia entry that is three times as long as the one for Joyce Carol Oates, has only two real claims to fame: She came in second on the 2010 edition of NBC’s competition series America’s Got Talent, and she was, as of Trump’s tweet, the biggest celebrity to agree to perform at his inauguration.

Never mind that the claim that her sales had “skyrocketed” was quickly debunked by, of all places, Access Hollywood, which is apparently in contention to become PEOTUS’s personal Javert. That celebratory-but-actually-defensive tweet outlined the contours of a tiny post-election tempest: The entertainment industry does not like Donald Trump. He got inauguration turndowns from everyone. The A list is staying away. The B list is staying away. Most of Nashville (with the exception of Big & Rich, a duo one half of which won Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2011) is staying away. Even the Rockettes, that bespangled bastion of heartland America in a bubble within the bubble of the putative coastal elite, raised a ruckus when MSG executive chairman James Dolan tried to get them to perform, with one dancer pointedly asking whether they were supposed to “tolerate intolerance.” (Yes, said Dolan, who ultimately lost that battle.)

This unofficial boycott — never announced, but fully enacted — is the fitting endpoint to a campaign year in which Hollywood has had to come to grips with the fact that its freeze-out of Donald Trump has been at once completely successful and utterly ineffective. Clinton had virtually the whole entertainment industry except for Susan Sarandon: SuperPACs, the ads, the music business, Jeffrey Katzenberg, TV stars, Cher, The Avengers, Shondaland … and it all added up to nothing but a reaffirmation of the respective positions held by the two Americas. Those who oppose Trump can take vague comfort in the pathetically small victory that the inauguration is likely to be lousy TV, devoid of anything like the stirring moment when Aretha Franklin sent “My Country 'Tis of Thee” aloft over the Mall on a freezing day in 2009. And, on the other hand, many of Trump’s supporters, for whom “Hollyweird” is just another swamp they’d like to see drained, view a stiff-arm from the entertainment community as just another sign that their guy must be doing something right.

So we could call it a draw — a sour, glowering, low-stakes toss-up — except for one twist: No President in any of our lifetimes, not even the one who started out as an actor, has been more obsessed with show business or its many yardsticks of success than Trump is. This is a man who, two weeks before assuming the presidency, publicly crowed about how numbers for “The New Celebrity Apprentice” are down now that Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting. Two days after his tweet about Evancho, Trump referred to himself as a “ratings machine”; that boast connects to his obsession with crowd size at his rallies, which connects to his public preening about how his every appearance gooses the ratings for the cable news channels that both enrage and transfix him. As The Apprentice’s late publicist noted, Trump’s obsession with ratings is no less real for being impervious to reality. He is a ruler who loves rulers; if it’s measurable, he wants to measure it. Three weeks from now, one can imagine him pounding his desk in the Oval and barking, “Bring me the post-inauguration Evancho numbers!”

So Hollywood’s cold shoulder hurts him — after all, Jackie Evancho was not the dream, any more than ringing in the new year at Mar-a-Lago with Fabio was. When Trump is hurt, he gets angry, and when he gets angry, he gets vengeful. The inauguration flap is, in that sense, a preview of coming attractions. Some of which will be, by any standard, minor: What, for instance, is going to become of the annual ceremony at which the president traditionally hands out National Medals for Arts and National Humanities Medals? It is as hard to imagine Audra McDonald, Philip Glass, Moises Kaufman, and Wynton Marsalis (to name four of last year’s recipients) showing up to accept honors as it is to imagine the 45th president spending an entire afternoon praising the achievements of others. And some issues are comparatively graver: It is no great leap to speculate that Trump will meet a snub with a slash, finally giving a large chunk of the GOP Congress what it has wanted for decades by gutting the National Endowment for the Arts.

The inauguration standoff is also a preview of what the creative class will face over the next four years. I have cringed at the premise that at least some great art and pop culture will emerge as a result of the election — you can keep your silver lining if that’s the cloud that comes with it — but it points to a more interesting divide that may open up in entertainment that is, in its way, a microcosm of the big question for Democrats: Is the job of movies and TV and theater and music to fortify the resistance, to create art that galvanizes progressives and swells the will of the choir by preaching to it? Or is it to reach across the chasm? Recently ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey suggested that the election made her realize that her network had too many dramas about “very well-to-do, very well-educated people [who] drive very nice cars and live in extremely nice places.” To me, that was a weird way of turning a micro-problem (too many bad ripoffs of Scandal have hurt the ABC’s ratings over the last year) into a macro we-liberals-just-don’t-get-it self-criticism session.

More shows about white people who drive bad cars does not seem like a step forward to me, but I could be wrong; as the president-elect noted, some people just don’t understand the ‘Movement’! But I sympathize with anyone in showbiz currently trying to figure out whether the job is to make art for Trump’s America, or about Trump’s America, or about an America that Trump fails to see or to appreciate, or about an America that is not defined by the word “Trump’s” or any other possessory modifier. In the first month of the Trump years, “Where do we go from here?” feels like the right question for artists to ask. And even though “Not to the inauguration” feels good, it isn’t nearly enough of an answer.

How about “back to the microphone”? A different approach to what Hollywood opposition to Trump might look and sound like came on Sunday night at the Golden Globes, when Meryl Streep used her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award — the show’s lifetime achievement honor — to remind audiences that diverse (and largely immigrant) talent continues to define and reshape the movie industry, to talk about the need for an independent press that holds power accountable, and to throw a hard punch at Trump for his mockery of a disabled reporter.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Hollywood liberal gets political at awards show — we know that song. No, no, no: This was Meryl Streep, beloved, respected, emotional, and precise; the punch she threw was clearly carefully considered, and it landed hard. She held the moment, the room, which sat rapt for five minutes and then stood to cheer, the audience, and social media. She didn’t use Trump’s name — an approach borrowed from Michelle Obama; she didn’t rant; she didn’t make fun of his vulgarity or his wealth or his empty promises or his tweeting or his voters. She picked the one thing that would make it hard for critics to brand her an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal — his propensity to use cruelty to play to his audience — and zeroed in on it. By contextualizing him as a performer, she leveled the playing field and went after him actor to actor. And when Meryl Streep does that to you, it’s a contest you’re not going to win.

On Twitter afterwards, reaction broke as one might have expected, with lavish praise from the left, including much of Hollywood, anger and contempt from some on the right, and no small amount of concern-trolling. “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won,” warned Meghan McCain. “And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how — you will help him get reelected.”

No sale. The argument that Trump voters flocked to a TV star as a counterreaction to Hollywood values is an unsupported and barely disguised attempt to try to muzzle opposition by suggesting that anything anyone in entertainment says or does about Trump will only make things worse. There’s no basis to believe that, or to trust the motives of those who articulate it as a self-reinforcing principle that insists the very act of using a public platform to speak against Trump proves that you’re out of touch with the people to whom you’re speaking. Streep’s speech was extremely shrewd; there wasn’t a line in it that the right could extract and use to portray her as living in a bubble of privilege or oblivion. And she knew her audience well: She was reaching people who were appalled by Trump’s taste for nastiness, including some who swallowed hard and voted for him anyway. It changed nothing — but, reached after midnight by the New York Times’s Patrick Healy, Trump reminded people that Streep was a Clinton supporter, and insisted he never “'mocked’ a disabled reporter” (he did, of course, and his statement that he didn’t has given the press permission to remind everyone he did ). Then he went to bed, apparently slept very little, and, again, woke up in a mood. In a mini-fusillade of irate predawn tweets, he seethed that Streep is “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “a Hillary flunky who lost big.”

In other words, she got to him.