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Why both sides are a little wrong in the Meryl Streep-Donald Trump battle

The power of the populist politician is that they come practically inoculated against criticism

Gulf News

Hollywood award speeches — as someone who has endured more than any non-renditioned human ever should, I can say this unambiguously — are a funny thing. They’re completely boring and pro forma and make a lot of people complain “why are they so boring and pro forma?”

Until someone goes off-script. At which point, a lot of people complain, “can’t they go back to being boring and pro forma?”

Meryl Streep’s remarks about United States President-elect Donald Trump at the Golden Globes have wandered right into that cross-current, not to mention a few others. Streep in her lifetime-achievement speech last Sunday of course let loose on Trump; without mentioning him by name, she referred to his comments hostile to several ethnic groups and his alleged mocking of a disabled reporter. “When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose,” she said.

Trump replied, in Tweets that garnered about 200,000 likes, by calling Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “a Hillary flunky”.

The power of the populist politician is that they come practically inoculated against this kind of criticism. In fact, they can turn this kind of criticism into a huge advantage. If a large part of your argument, and appeal, is that “high-profile people want to stop you from listening to me,” the best thing that can happen to you is when one of them tries to do just that. Trump, with his claim (correctly or not) of a popular mandate, holds a particular power in this regard. Streep was criticising a style, a personality. And that slots right into a groove of the president-elect’s argument. “The elites can’t persuade you on my policies, so they have to turn to taking pot shots at me. And since I reflect you (or your interests, or your id), what Streep was really doing was taking a pot shot at you.” A populist leader implicitly puts critics in an unwinnable position: Stay silent and leave power unchecked, or speak out and validate their point.

The comments I and many other reporters who covered the speech received — “who was Streep to tell me how to think or whom to like,” in essence — underscored the power of this criticism shield. As Meghan McCain Tweeted last Sunday night, “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognising why and how — you will help him get reelected.”

McCain’s Tweet had an odd — really, an oddly pragmatic — tint. It wasn’t actually weighing in on the substance of Streep’s comments. It was claiming that the idea that they were made in the first place — in this forum, by someone like Streep — was the real issue. Trump’s approach may be right, it may be wrong, McCain wasn’t saying one way or the other. But a 30-time Golden Globe nominee criticising it was the wrong way to go; she simply wasn’t going to endear herself to the very people she’s trying to convince.

Of course, apart from Streep taking a dig at football and mixed martial arts — a questionably judge-y aside — nothing in her remarks was terribly exclusionary. Her speech questioned whether America wanted intolerance and xenophobia to prevail. “This instinct to humiliate when it’s modelled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she said. Hardly words that would be controversial in a kindergarten class, let alone a hothouse political environment.

The easy way to avoid McCain’s pitfall would be simply for someone like Streep to criticise Trump on the issues; it would take away a key part of its target’s ability to say elites are trying to silence him. But of course such a criticism wouldn’t get a fraction of the attention.

And, really, to what standard should Streep be held? Any person who understands the value of celebrity to influence public thinking realises that the best way to shape popular opinion is to speak out when they’re given a microphone.

Ironically, it’s a power Trump uses so effectively himself. Even the idea that Streep was “just acting” misses the point of the public-figure dynamic. What was Trump doing all the months of the election if not playing off his skills as an entertainer, a public-speaker, a rally-leader, to win people over to his way of thinking? The idea that Trump could use his skills and celebrity platform to become president but Streep should use hers to talk about how she filmed The Bridges of Madison County is inconsistent to say the least.

Still, there’s a quality of sincerity to many of the anti-Streep sentiments. Sure, a few are kneejerk and intolerant. But many are honest and well-intentioned, people who see someone like the actress at a shiny event like the Globes and feel like they’re being condescended to. It may be tough for the many well-meaning celebrities or influencers who applaud Streep to understand, but any behaviour that seems remotely prescriptive in a context like this will hit a trip wire. Also dinging Streep’s argument, through no fault of hers, was the anointment of the speech as an act of bravery. Personally, I think you can make the case that someone giving up the chance to revel in lifetime-achievement award goals to speak about something larger is making a bold move — and that subjecting herself to these very vitriolic comments calling her a coward is itself an act of bravery (paradox noted).

But, as many of you in my inbox also remind me, these were comments spoken inside the Hollywood tent and meant to garner a reaction from it. Rami Malek stood up at his Globes table after Streep’s address and said, “In a weird way, she’s our president.” I mean, I like Julie & Julia as much as the next guy, but come on, Mr Robot.

And Streep, it should be noted, relies on her own form of self-inoculation. One of the most foolproof ways to handcuff the subject of your criticism is to call them a bully; it instantly moots any response from them as an act of intimidation.

For anyone who cares about public discourse, there is good news. Once the inauguration is over and legislative proposals are made, the debate will not be about personality but policies. It will be a period of arguing, at least nominally, about the record, not rejoinders. And while the consequences will be greater, the discussion will be less superficial, less about whether someone is using bullying tactics to call someone a bully and more about what should be the right approach for the country.

One can hope, anyway.

— Los Angeles Times

Steven Zeitchik is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who has been covering film and the larger world of Hollywood for the paper since 2009.

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