Once and forever Dirty Grandpa Robert De Niro caused quite a stir at the Tony Awards on Sunday night by going all Dirty Grandpa all over the President of the United States.
The legendary actor was introducing a performance by Bruce Springsteen when he went rogue. “I’m gonna say one thing: ‘Fuck Trump,'” the star of Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers began, to wild applause from the Tonys crowd. “It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump,’ it’s ‘Fuck Trump,'” he continued, a rhetorical escalation that mirrors Trump upgrading CNN from “Fake News” to “Very Fake News.” It was a headline-grabbing moment, exactly as it was intended, but rather than draw attention to any of Trump’s myriad deficiencies fueling the sentiment, it pulled focus onto the sentiment itself.
It’s not that De Niro went too far, it’s that he stayed too shallow. We’re living in a post-cuntgate universe now; everybody is currently familiar with swear words and their power to jolt. Sam Bee’s recent choice of expletive unfortunately overshadowed the important point she was making about Ivanka Trump’s radio silence on the policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. With DeNiro, there wasn’t anything to overshadow. The inspiration for the expletive can only be assumed. And just because the inspiration could be any number of options from an infinite roulette wheel doesn’t make it immune from misrepresentation.
The Tony Awards audience is filled with skilled actors, but few of them possess the dramaturgical gifts of the average Fox News pundit to act offended by the left. (Except for Glenda Jackson. She can do it all!) On any given day, some member of the conservative press will pop off about why the left “hates Trump.” (Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently said Democrats need to “decide whether they hate Trump more than they love the country.”) It’s become one of their greatest hits because framing Trump’s opposition as “haters” suggests that they hate Trump in a vacuum. They just don’t like the cut of his jib.
It’s not that his policies are destroying families and also the Earth, or that he and pretty much his entire cabinet reek of open corruption, or his endless sewage stream of lies, or his making the NFL police brutality protests about himself, or the many sexual misconduct accusers he claimed were too ugly to abuse, or the apparently 4,600+ Puerto Ricans who perished in Hurricane Maria due to his incompetence, or the constant denial of collusion with Russia–even as indictments and guilty pleas accumulate and while he goes out of his way to be brazenly pro-Putin as often as possible. Whenever Tomi Lahren or one of her interchangeable cohort claims the left is too blinded by hate for Trump to see all the good he’s doing (for rich whites), they ignore all of the above items. In their depiction, the left is merely mad at Trump because he’s a tacky steak salesman and failed casino owner who tweets too much. When De Niro has a chance to seize the world stage and make a statement about this biblical plague of an administration and all he can say is “Fuck Trump,” he gives those pundits an opening to ascribe him any motivation, or none at all.
De Niro maximized his scant allotted time in front of a microphone and gave the Tonys crowd the satisfaction of hearing a probably frequent inner thought voiced by no less than Travis Bickle. A man of few words, De Niro is far better at venting his anger toward Trump than his reasons for it. When introducing Meryl Streep at the National Board of Review gala earlier this year, De Niro went off on a rant about the resemblance between the “Jerkoff-in-Chief” and Nixon that was as gleefully profane as it was event-appropriate. He was railing against a presidential war on the media while introducing the star of The Post, a film about a related topic. With the Tony Awards, though, he gave a far larger live audience a blunt bit of preaching-to-the-choir protest that seemed almost perfunctory. Perhaps this kind of generic denunciation quietly conveys that Trump’s infinite flaws are so profound that, fuck it, let’s attack the whole package. The crowd certainly sounded pleased to hear it. But generic denunciation plays right into the conservative media narrative that the #Resistance is trying to bring Trump down because they’re allergic to winning or whatever.
Making a political protest at an award show is a risky proposition at a time when Trump supporters rally around the idea of out-of-touch Hollywood elites. (As though Trump never hosted a game show, obsessed over his own ratings, or repeatedly offered unsolicited advice to Robert Pattinson about his relationship with Kristen Stewart.) Meryl Streep was articulate, impassioned, and polite during her powerful 2017 Golden Globes speech in which she smartly homed in on one specific Trump misdeed that should have been an election dealbreaker, and she still incurred the wrath of the president and his supporters. People like Meghan McCain and Kellyanne Conway painted her as the walking definition of Why Trump Won, the most nebulously defined common insult of this era.
When Trump and his supporters laid into Streep, though, they were more likely to engage with Streep’s argument, even if in bad faith.
“I’m glad that Meryl Streep has such a passion for the disabled because I didn’t hear her weigh in and I didn’t hear her even use her platform last night, to give a shoutout to the mentally challenged boy who last week was tortured live on Facebook for half an hour, by four young African-American adults who were screaming racial and anti-Trump expletives and forcing him to put his head in toilet water,” Kellyanne Conway told Fox News’s Ainsley Earhardt, referring to a then-recent disturbing incident. “So I’d like to hear from her today, if she wants to come and continue on behalf of the disabled.”
Fox News viewers may not have changed their minds about whether it was Bad that Trump mocked a disabled reporter’s condition during the campaign, but at least they had to think about it again for a moment. That’s a minor win for Streep. Kellyanne Conway’s powers of deflection from issues like these are masterful, regardless of whether they’re fair or possess even a tenuous link to reality. De Niro never gave her a chance to use them, though. His blanket criticism of Trump will only serve to briefly inflate the MAGA set’s certainty that Hollywood hates their hero for no reason–and it will be forgotten by Tuesday, when the Commander of Cheese meets with Kim Jong-Un, reportedly preparation-free. De Niro’s protest was an expression of raw anger that gave his ideological opponents exactly what they wanted, without even making them scramble to defend or at least mention the death toll in Puerto Rico or the children reportedly being kept in cages right now. It’s well-meaning but ultimately meaningless. It’s like playing Bernie Madoff in an HBO movie while some of the senators who supposedly share your progressive ideology vote to roll back financial regulations on Wall Street.