There’s an old joke about Democrats and Republicans that might help us understand the anti-Trump rantings of pop-culture icons such as Robert De Niro and Bruce Springsteen.
Two old guys are talking politics. One asks the other which party he supports.
‘The Democratic party,’ he responds.
‘Because my daddy voted for the Democratic party, and my granddaddy voted for the Democratic party. So I vote for the Democratic party.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ rejoined the Republican voter.
‘So, if your daddy had been a hoss thief, and your granddaddy had been a hoss thief, does that mean you’d be a hoss thief, too?’
‘No, sir,’ replied the Democrat. ‘Then I’d be a Republican.’
Tribalism offers the only semi-coherent explanation for why De Niro consistently attacks President Trump so splenetically, when everything about the actor and his art suggests he ought to be defending him.
As an artist, De Niro is the real deal. He demonstrates his brilliance again in the new Martin Scorsese movie The Irishman. But an odd thought arises from the De Niro canon: practically every significant character he’s played — Johnny Boy Civello in Mean Streets; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver; young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II; Michael Vronsky in The Deer Hunter; Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull; Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas; right up to and including Frank Sheeran in The Irishman — would have voted for Trump with gusto.
Yet since 2016, De Niro has dissed Trump without end. Shortly before the election, he told an audience, ‘What [Trump’s] been saying is really totally crazy, ridiculous. He shouldn’t even be where he is, so God help us.’ De Niro has decided that he has to go full Travis Bickle when talking about Trump. Before the election, he made a video saying: ‘He’s so blatantly stupid. He’s a punk. He’s a dog. He’s a pig. A con. A bullshit artist,’ further elaborating that he’d ‘like to punch him in the face’. At the 2018 Tony Awards, De Niro got a standing ovation from the luvvies for cursing the President. ‘I’m gonna say one thing: fuck Trump.’
Trump responded: ‘Robert De Niro, a very Low IQ individual, has received to [sic] many shots to the head by real boxers in movies…’
In recent months, De Niro has been at it again, in what might be taken for an attempt to leverage his antagonism towards Trump to plug his latest movie. In an interview he said: ‘I’m worried because if he gets re- elected, it’s gonna be very, very bad… he’d love to be president for life. He jokes about it. I think that if he became president for a second term, he’d try to have a third term, and let smarter people manipulate it into getting us into some kind of altercation: a war…the only other president who served a third term was Roosevelt because he was in a war, and this fool would go and start something.’
This is plain ignorance: Roosevelt was president before the passing of the 22nd Amendment, which made it unconstitutional for a president to serve more than two terms — unless by taking over from a president and then going on to win twice, in which case the limit is 10 years. Until Roosevelt, the two-term limit prevailed as mere convention, which FDR chose to break due to the onset of World War Two, leading to his winning a third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944. President Trump is constitutionally prohibited from serving beyond January 2025.
We’ve become inured to this kind of undergraduate literalism from Hollywood airheads, but we might expect De Niro to be different. He is not a ‘Low IQ individual’: it takes intelligence and discernment to make the movies he’s made. Contrary to fears that decades of clunkers proved that his talent had dimmed, The Irishman testifies that De Niro has lost none of his genius.
You expect someone with a sublime awareness of American sensibilities to have some idea of what’s going on in the country. You might even expect him to make intelligent contributions regarding what’s happening to the kind of people he’s depicted in his greatest movies. But instead of speaking like the great artist he is, De Niro chooses to use the celebrity end of his mouth to issue pseudo-progressive platitudes that, if you read them cold, might have been uttered by Elton John on a bad hair day.
Perhaps surveying, with the rest of the world, the trainwreck that is the lineup of Democratic possibles, De Niro has started giving shoutouts to Michael Bloomberg, recently telling Stephen Colbert on CBS’s Late Show that the former NYC mayor was a ‘grownup’ who might get us beyond ‘this horrible situation’. (All very well until Trump winds Bloomberg up and the two are seen wrestling on the floor like septuagenarian schoolboys, The Donald having that effect on even the most ‘grownup’ of people.)
Notwithstanding his having contracted Anyone But Trump syndrome, the problem may be as simple as that De Niro has always been a Democrat through and through. Back in 2015, he endorsed Hillary Clinton (‘She’s a woman, which is very important’), and in October he dined in New York with Barack Obama. But, like Springsteen, perhaps owing to the comforts derived from successfully exploiting a remarkable talent, he is caught in a cultural and political timewarp. Neither man seems to understand that Dems no longer speak for the blue-collar tribe to which both of them once pledged allegiance, and that Trump has stepped in to give a voice to the people who once featured in the movies of De Niro and the songs of Springsteen.
A year ago Springsteen told Esquire that President Trump is ‘deeply damaged at his core’ and ‘dangerous’. Last month, he told USA Today: ‘Unfortunately, we have somebody who I feel doesn’t have a grasp of the deep meaning of what it means to be an American.’
Once nobody would have dared to suggest anything similar about Springsteen, but now things are not so clear. Springsteen once seemed to know that America was best represented by its working people. Now it often seems like he is auditioning to be an anchor on CNN.
Can Bruce really not see that virtually every single male character in his songs (quite a few of the female ones, too) would have walked 1,000 miles on broken glass to vote for Donald Trump? Billy, Bobby, Hazy Davy, Jimmy Bly, Lonesome Johnny — every one would have donned MAGA hats. Why can’t The Boss see this?
Maybe the problem is banal: art can make people into superstars, inevitably separating them from the sources of their inspiration, so that in the end they speak only to other celebrities, exchanging the same guff daily.
No celebrity really lies awake at night fretting that Trump is going to grow an orange Hitler mustache and, come January 2025, send tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue to remain in power.
This notion demonstrates a particular version of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Artists of this kind — actors, athletes, guitar heroes — feel the need to distance themselves from the Orange One because their public standing depends on exhibiting the ‘correct’ views on all unspeakables, of which Trump is currently top. It is a kind of superstition: they probably do lie awake at night worrying that people might think them unsound on the Trump question, the GOP question, all the ‘right-wing’ questions. They want to assure the world that they are not now, and have never been, hoss thieves.
So they insist on making hoss’s asses of themselves by prating nonsense that would make an intelligent adolescent blush. Where is the tenderness, humanity, irony, complexity and ambiguity that characterized so many of Springsteen’s songs and every Scorsese/De Niro film?
We’re all happy enough to see De Niro plugging his excellent new movie. After all the lean years, he deserves any glory that flows from The Irishman. The thing is: my generation looked up to these guys as gods of mind and soul. They were oracles of our culture. We wanted them to be smart, which they were. They were serious artists who delved into the psyche of America, and by extension the wider world culturally colonized by America.
There is one figure, of equal status with this pair, who has not tried publicly to have a cut at Donald Trump. I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson, star of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, perhaps the best 1970s movie not to have either Scorsese’s or De Niro’s name on it. If you search online, you will find quite a few photographs from the end of the 20th century putting Trump and Nicholson together on the New York nightclub circuit.
It struck me watching the second Trump/ Clinton debate in 2016 that the mythology Trump tapped into to take on Clinton had something to do with weaponizing notions of power, sex and marginality possibly borrowed from Randle Patrick McMurphy, the character Trump’s pal Jack played in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The 2016 election campaign was a kind of remake, with Trump as McMurphy and Clinton as a chillingly convincing Nurse Ratched.
As reprobates go, McMurphy puts Trump in the shade. Having faked madness to escape his messy life, he found himself in an unanticipated role, surrounded by rejects and misfits who, though quite unlike himself, appealed to his natural state of felt injustice. Driven by anger at the maltreatment of his new dependents, he was cast into confronting a petty tyrant with the outward plausibility of authority and virtue: Big Nurse.
In his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ken Kesey’s book, Robert Faggen asked: ‘When he leads the men on a fishing expedition, is McMurphy…a Jesus-like fisher of men’s souls, a manipulative tyrant like Captain Ahab, or a confidence man taking the madmen on a merry prank on…a Narrenschiff or Ship of Fools?’ This is the kind of question an artist might ask about Donald Trump.
Trump represented and spoke for the ‘deplorables’ cast aside by their onetime champions in the Democratic party. He took their cause to Washington. Where were the artists, the actors, the writers and the poets while this was going on?
Donald Trump is a self-created myth that required a strange and ingenious imagination. It is lamentable that the cultural voices on whom America most depends to help it comprehend meaning are content merely to engage in facile moralizing.
The Trump story is no longer just the Trump story. It is worthy of a great movie; Scorsese and De Niro are the men to do it. It should be neither hit job nor hagiography (no fears there), but the story of how half of America came to need a man like Donald Trump — played straight, with no tendentious moves.
How about it, boys? It’s time for Scorsese to read his Victor Davis Hanson and wise up. It’s time for De Niro to put the prejudices and invective aside and give some thought to the possibility that he should, one day soon, ‘orange up’ for potentially the greatest part of his life. Working title: The Third American Revolution. Soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen.
This article is in The Spectator’s January 2020 US edition.