Robert De Niro’s anti-Trump comments at the Tony Awards on Sunday have been met with predictable criticisms from predictable corners. Trump tweeted Wednesday that De Niro is “a very Low IQ individual” who’s perhaps taken a few punches too many to the head. Conservatives like radio host Tammy Bruce are calling De Niro’s remark—which consisted mostly of “Fuck Trump”—another example of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and arguing, hilariously, that the incident could threaten the purportedly large stream of revenue Broadway earns from Trump supporters. She called De Niro’s comments “a direct insult to everyone who voted for President Trump—the very people those invested in Broadway want to buy tickets.”
A liberal critique of De Niro came Wednesday in the New York Times. In a piece titled “How to Lose the Midterms and Re-elect Trump,” columnist Frank Bruni argued that cheering shrill partisan rhetoric from celebrities hurts Democrats. Bruni invoked Michelle Obama’s familiar line about “When they go low, we go high,” calling it “a fine set of marching orders, disobeyed ever since. It was definitely ignored by those of you in the Manhattan theater where the Tony Awards were held on Sunday. You answered De Niro’s expletives with a standing ovation.”
This is a line of thinking we’ve heard multiple times in the past year in response to anti-Trump rhetoric and displays from Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, and Kathy Griffin. If the Democrats underperform in November or lose in 2020, we’ll be treated to a litany of pieces arguing that bombastic Hollywood liberals helped doom them. This is absurd.
Consider the presidency of George W. Bush. Well before public opinion shifted decisively against him, celebrities and figures on the cultural left enthusiastically enlisted themselves in what might have been called #theResistance had hashtags been around back then. Comparisons to Hitler were common. Michael Moore’s withering anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, was widely praised by critics and won the top prize at Cannes in 2004. American Idiot, a politically charged album made by a band fond of hurling fuck-yous at Bush, was awarded a Grammy. Madonna hurled a fake grenade at him in a music video. A novel about assassinating Bush was put out by a major publisher just months before the 2004 election. In the face of all this, Democrats continued to embrace anti-Bush celebrities and figures in the arts. At a fundraiser attended by John Kerry, John Edwards, and a menagerie of anti-Bush celebrities in 2004, Whoopi Goldberg joked that Bush should be kept “where he belongs, and not in the White House,” with a gesture to her genitals.
One of the most preposterously seismic political moments of the decade came in March 2003, when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience in London that the group opposed the Iraq war—then just a few days away—and were ashamed that Bush was from their state. Radio bans, boycotts, protests and furious denunciations from conservative pundits immediately followed.
At the time, the Iraq war was supported by more than 70 percent of the American public. Fifty-seven percent of Americans approved of Bush’s performance as president in the days just prior to the London concert. That number jumped to 71 percent after the invasion began. Loud and angry opposition to Bush and the war was far more radical than opposition to Trump is now.
Did any of this hurt Democrats? They lost the 2004 election—replacing a president presiding over a passable economy and a war supported by a majority of Americans isn’t easy—but won both houses of Congress and a slew of governorships and state legislatures in 2006. They won the presidency in 2008. Did Hollywood become any less stridently liberal between 2004 and 2006? Most who watched Kanye West say that Bush didn’t care about black people on national television in 2005 would probably say no.
These pocket controversies don’t matter. Anti-Trump punditry from celebrities doesn’t help or hurt Democrats or Republicans in any obvious or meaningful way. Thick volumes could be written about the hysteria and violent fantasies of conservative figures and celebrities during the Obama administration. The Republican Party holds more power now than either party has in many decades—backlash to the rants of Ted Nugent did not stop them.
Believing that celebrity rhetoric alienates voters requires one to believe that there exists a large constituency of people in America who will look about their lives and finances in November and say to themselves, “Well, I was going to vote for the Democrat, but that Michelle Wolf was really out of line at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.” It is true, of course, that many voters deeply dislike Hollywood’s liberalism. But they dislike Hollywood liberalism because they dislike liberalism broadly speaking. If right-wing or right-leaning voters were repulsed by the behavior of politically outspoken and vulgar celebrities alone, Donald Trump would not be the president of the United States. Their grievances with Hollywood are cultural and ideological and would not disappear if Samantha Bee were nicer.
But it is far harder, on deadline, to offer serious analyses of those grievances than it is to pretend that Joe Six-Pack cares deeply about what is said at the Tony Awards. Be wary, always, of pundits who roll up their sleeves and attempt to demonstrate that they understand the world outside their bubble by emphasizing the importance of something within it.