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Parsing Trump’s Streep Tweets

January 9, 2017

Among movie critics, Meryl Streep is widely regarded as the best actress of her generation, and it’s hard to argue the point. She has more Oscar nominations (19) and more Golden Globe nominations (30) than anyone else in history; she is the only living actress to have won three Oscars and one of only six people ever to have done so; her eight Golden Globe awards is more than any other person in history. The Wikipedia entry for “List of awards and nominations for Meryl Streep” has 98 sections – not 98 awards; 98 categories of awards.

Streep went to public school in New Jersey, got a bachelor’s degree with honors from Vassar in 1971 and a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale in 1975. She moved to New York that year and began her career in theater, landing six roles on stage her first year, including several produced by the New York theater legend Joseph Papp, appearing with luminaries like John Lithgow, Raul Julia and Sam Waterston. And she only went up from there.

Streep landed her first film role alongside Jane Fonda in the 1977 film, Julia. In her second film, in 1978, The Deer Hunter – the first time I saw Streep perform – she played Robert deNiro’s girlfriend and won her first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress. Her first Oscar win was for best actress in the 1982 movie Sophie’s Choice.

Streep has proved to be remarkably durable. In an industry that is notoriously hard on middle-aged women, and even harder on older women, Streep continues to star. She has performed in 67 movies, including at least one in each year of this decade.

Last night Streep was presented the Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille award, given annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Only 64 human beings have won this award, starting with the great director after whom the award is named, and including such names as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren, Laurence Olivier and John Wayne.

Streep’s acceptance speech ran nine paragraphs. She began by observing that the name of the awarding organization, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, represents “the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.” She then observed that no one in Hollywood is actually from Hollywood, and she illustrated with the night’s honorees the often humble and sometimes foreign origins of Hollywood stars:

But who are we, and what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola [Davis] was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island; Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids in Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in London — no, in Ireland I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a girl in small-town Virginia.

Ryan Gosling, like all of the nicest people, is Canadian, and Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, and is here playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

Streep mused that the job of an actor is “to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like,” and she observed that many performers this year “did exactly that.”

But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled 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. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.

Streep concluded with an ever-so-modest call to action:

We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

Before turning to the response from President-Elect Donald Trump, that “person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country,” let’s pause to consider what Streep said about him. She said that he “imitated a disabled reporter” out of an “instinct to humiliate,” that Trump has more “privilege, power and the capacity to fight back” than the reporter he imitated, and that “when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.” She called on the free press to “safeguard the truth,” and she called on Hollywood to support the free press.

Donald Trump, the leader-in-waiting of the free world, the President-Elect of the United States of America, the soon-to-be commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force in the history of the world, responded in four sentences over three tweets from 6:27 to 6:43 a.m.:

Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never “mocked” a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him “groveling” when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!

The first sentence is classic Trump: when someone criticizes him, he attacks the person’s appearance or professional accomplishments, in a manner that has nothing to do with the criticism. It’s as if petulant little Donald is on the playground at school; Meryl Streep throws him out at second base, and Donald responds, “Yeah, but you’re fat!”

The second sentence is also classic Trump: the opinion of any person who criticizes Donald Trump is trivial or biased or both – in this case, because Streep was a Hillary Clinton supporter. Trump may eventually find new enemies, but for now, the entire world is divided between the “us” who supported Trump in an election that was over two months ago, and the “them” who supported Clinton. There isn’t a conciliatory bone in his body, or a conciliatory instinct in his personality, and he lacks the class or the respect or the judgment even to try to fake it.

And it wasn’t sufficient for Trump to dismiss Streep’s criticism of him as biased by her support for Clinton; Trump had to belittle her support for Clinton by calling her a “flunky.” A flunky is a sycophant or a servile person who is retained because of her loyalty, not because of her ability or her intellect. In other words, Streep didn’t come to be a Clinton supporter out of any ability to reason, and she wasn’t welcomed by Clinton because of any positive quality.

As to losing big, grammatically speaking Trump was saying that Streep “lost big,” but I suspect he meant to say that Clinton “lost big” – which, of course, she didn’t. Trump lost the popular vote by a substantial margin, and his electoral win was the 46th biggest out of 58. By that standard of bigness, Hawaii – the 40th most populous American state – is a “big” state.

The third sentence is Trump’s only response to Streep’s actual accusation that he “imitated a disabled reporter” to “humiliate” and “bully” him. And his response was not a denial of her accusation. Trump did deny that he “mocked” the reporter, but Streep had not accused him of that. Trump insisted that instead of “mocking” the reporter, he only “showed [the reporter] ‘groveling.'” That is, he imitated the reporter, which of course is precisely what Streep had accused him of. That fact that Trump imagined that the reporter had been “groveling” pretty much proves Streep’s perception of an “instinct to humiliate.”

In his fourth and final sentence, Trump made his own accusation: “Just more dishonest media!” Maybe Trump thinks of Streep, and Hollywood, as part of the media. Maybe Trump thinks the media was “dishonest” to report on Streep’s speech. I suspect Trump was responding to media characterizations of Trump’s “imitation” of the disabled reporter: the New York Times, for instance, in reporting on Streep’s speech and Trump’s response, referred to Trump’s imitation as “appearing to mock a disabled reporter.” But accusing Streep of saying it was certainly inaccurate, and at least careless, if not dishonest: “People keep saying I intended to mock the reporter’s disability, as if Meryl Streep and others could read my mind.”

Streep delivered her speech last night with poise and passion – she is, after all, the greatest actress of her generation. Streep stood up for outsiders, for victims of powerful bullies, for freedom of the press, and for the truth. Trump delivered his response with the thin-skinned nastiness that is the hallmark of a narcissist. He stood up for no one but himself.


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