Critic's Notebook: Donald Trump Takes Aim at Meryl Streep — and We All Lose

It hasn't even begun, but the Trump presidency has always been about erasing lines.

If you're a fan, you obviously feel like Trump has erased the boundaries between the people and their government and, through Twitter, the boundaries between the leader of the free world and the voters he's speaking to.

If you're less of a fan, it's the boundaries between hate and respect, between verbal terrorism and civilized discourse, between competent professionalism and dangerous dilettante amateurism that are becoming increasingly hard to visualize.

And if you're a movie or TV critic, perhaps the oddest thing Donald Trump has done is erase the boundary between what I do for a living and what he does — which is mighty peculiar, since I've never, for a second, thought I should be president, but Donald Trump is certain that he's qualified to be a cultural critic.

This isn't a new thing. Even before he ever imagined he could be president, Trump was using Twitter to critique TV shows he hadn't seen, singers he didn't listen to and actors and actresses whose careers he wasn't really following. We'll never know if Hillary Clinton would have secured more votes by using the slogan, "Trump: Wrong About the Title Black-ish, Wrong for America," but it probably wouldn't have hurt

Since being elected, Trump's transition to acting presidential doesn't seem to have happened, and he also hasn't moved away from a clear yearning to forgo the White House for an unpaid community blog on Entertainment Weekly's website.

He continues to malign Saturday Night Live, a show that politely enabled him for several months, during which he was silent about a creative decline that he seems to be suggesting happened overnight — as if "Why Isn't Saturday Night Live as Funny as It Used to Be?" isn't the hack critic's favorite annual column.

Trump continues to analyze TV ratings, particularly the glories of his own Celebrity Apprentice numbers, even though the last time he appeared at the Television Critics Association press tour, I tried to explain to him that not only was Celebrity Apprentice not the No. 1 show on TV, it wasn't the No. 1 show on its night, and it wasn't even beating Mike & Molly. Donald Trump is obsessed with TV ratings, and has always been obsessed with TV ratings, and yet is consistently wrong in his understanding of TV ratings.

Now Donald Trump is attempting to encroach on the terrain of THR's film critics and awards expert Scott Feinberg by declaring Meryl Streep to be "overrated." Unlike his objectively incorrect analysis of TV ratings and his objectively banal analysis of Saturday Night Live, I think there's room for a conversation here. Streep is absolutely one of the pre-eminent actors of her generation or any other generation, but can even the biggest Streep fan say that she has earned all of her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations exclusively on merit, rather than on the power of being Meryl Streep? I'm sure some can, but if the standard of being overrated is the ability to garner attention or praise based on reputation alone, this is at least open to debate.

But Donald Trump is not tweeting, "Overrated Meryl Streep! Why did she get a Golden Globe nomination for The Manchurian Candidate? She's no Angela Lansbury. Sad!"

No, Donald Trump is calling Streep "overrated" without further analysis because she was a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter and, mostly, because Streep used her Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille Award speech on Sunday night to take Trump to task and not to speak on the pleasures of working with Jonathan Demme on multiple occasions or to ask the HFPA why it didn't like Ricki and the Flash.

If there's any line Trump has erased most completely, it's that between "bait" and "fish."

Was Streep chiding Trump with the assumption that he would take the bait? Sure. Donald Trump may be the biggest man in the world, but when it comes to rhetoric, he's pathologically incapable of ever being the bigger man — and he seems to have passed that trait along to his supporters, or at least enabled and emboldened his supporters to follow his lead.

What, exactly, did Streep say last night? Well, if you listen to conservative Twitter this morning, whatever she said was more evidence that Hollywood liberals are out of touch with America and that Hollywood liberals like Streep are the reason Trump was elected, which is nonsensical on many levels. But more than being nonsensical, it doesn't in any way address what Streep actually said. It's actively ignoring what Streep observed at the top of her speech, when she recited biographical details about many of the stars in the room, details meant to argue that "Hollywood liberal" is a convenient and monolithic designation that has nothing to do with the very diverse group of people who are part of Hollywood. Her point was that Hollywood isn't just one thing and that it isn't just about embodying, portraying and presenting one point of view.

I'm politically liberal, and Streep didn't say anything that I found particularly liberal in any way. I've seen people talking about Streep's speech on behalf of Hollywood socialists, but, um, none of that was in her actual speech. She didn't advocate a redistribution of wealth, but she also didn't warn about potential infringements on abortion rights, humanitarian aid or anything that liberals fear might be hurt by a Trump presidency. She urged the press to do its job — prompting thousands of predictable "Why didn't she ask the press to do its job in investigating Clinton?" tweets — and she called Trump a bully.

As powerful and careful as Streep's speech was, she made it easy for those wanting to marginalize her. What was gained from suggesting that without artists, we'll have only football and MMA to watch? Nothing. That's not a binary that benefited her argument or even a rudimentary dream of national unification. I watch hundreds of movies and television shows per year, and I also watch football for hours each Saturday and Sunday — and although I have no interest in MMA, I like boxing, and you wouldn't gain my sympathy by telling me that the sweet science isn't actually science at all.

She also chose to focus her illustration of Trump's bullying exclusively on his alleged mockery of reporter Serge Kovaleski's disability. You can believe that there's no other rational explanation for Trump's famous mimicking of Kovaleski — I happen to — but Trump has addressed this one repeatedly, which gives him easy license to be dismissive. It's only the tiniest corner of what Trump has done, but it comes close to saying, "The House of the Spirits is a bad movie, so Meryl Streep is a bad actress." I think Streep probably used it as her example because she thinks it's a piece of cruelty that is so beyond the pale that nobody would defend it, but that hasn't been the case.

Donald Trump loves punching down. As a billionaire and now the future president of the United States, there's literally nowhere Trump can go to punch up. When he takes on individual journalists, he's punching down, but he's also punching down when he challenges sitting senators or award-winning actors or even many media organizations. There's a reason why no president in the modern media age has made it a practice to insult rivals or a motley assortment of variably potent civilians. It previously was considered to be immature or unsightly, but Trump doesn't care, and he doesn't care that he's basically never had a moment in his life where he's been in a position to be the underdog, where he hasn't in some way been the hegemonic power forcing himself on others.

One might make the argument that Trump's lone moment of speaking "truth" to power was his trollery against President Barack Obama's citizenship — except that the reality that he was given publicity and a forum for a crusade for which he possessed not one iota of facts in his favor proves that he was never at any disadvantage at all. A person without power doesn't get the forum Trump's birtherism got, so even when he was just a businessman, Trump was maybe the only person capable of bullying the president of the United States.

The only ideology Streep actually was espousing was, "Don't let a bully be a bully," and if that's out of touch with mainstream America, we should all be terrified of what that means. It shouldn't be ideological. But here we are.

It certainly doesn't matter if it's ideological to Trump because he was able to call Streep overrated without citing any of her work, which is the worst cultural criticism imaginable. But if Trump took Streep's bait, the rest of the media is now taking Trump's bait, and we're writing about this, just as we wrote about his ignorance of TV ratings and his obsession with Saturday Night Live. And I'll leave it for folks on Twitter to continue to chronicle Trump's number of tweets about these frivolous matters, rather than other things that probably ought to be more important, given his position

We've never had a president who wanted to be a TV and movie critic before, and we've definitely never had a president who used that desire to distract us from his presidency before.

We don't have to let him. But here I am, taking the bait.

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