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10 January 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 12:15pm

Donald Trump’s Twitter attack on Meryl Streep reveals why he won

The president-elect uses social media storms to divert media attention away from debating his policies. Or lack of them.

By Tom Seymour

Late on Sunday evening, during a lifetime achievement award acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep condemned a performance that “sank its hooks in my heart.”

“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. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life,” she said triggering a wave of tweets, likes and hot takes.

Streep was referring to Trump’s remarks during the campaign, when he appeared to mock New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, which visibly limits the functioning of his joints. 

The next morning, at 11.27am, Donald Trump tweeted that Streep is “one of the over-rated actresses in Hollywood”. Then he waited nine minutes, and tweeted again. Streep is a “Hillary flunky who lost big,” he said. He followed it up with a final tweet seven minutes later denying that he ever intended to mock Kovaleski.

What did he do in the nine minute gap between the first and second tweet? My guess is he sat back, watched Twitter explode with partisan outrage, and congratulated himself on another great piece of showmanship.

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Liberals everywhere were resplendent; someone has finally managed to get under his skin, and it’s Meryl Streep! Trump’s supporters had #BoycottGoldenGlobes trending within hours.

Does Donald Trump care what Meryl Streep thinks? Or did he respond with a show of strength — a quick and brutal demonstration of just how effective his performance is.

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For Streep is right — this is all a performance. And, like all good performers, Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. Three tweets, sent 16 minutes apart, and the news cycle for that day is sewn up.

Trump is about to become the leader of the free world because of an ability to feed something in contemporary culture that no-one else has been willing, or capable, of feeding.

He sensed this fusing of reality and reality TV, of politics and showbusiness. He sensed this rupturing of the old power elites, a diffusion of authentic, fact-based voices, and of a thirst, amongst many of the dispossessed, for binary answers to complex questions, for the world to be characterised, for people to be defined as patriots or enemies.

He realised, if he generates enough of a storm on his feeds, so the despised mainstream media must dutifully follow suit, so reliant are they on the flow of traffic.

He realised it’s now enough to merely grab someone’s attention. And he learnt, even in horror and outrage, people yearn to be entertained.

Does Donald Trump want to talk about Syria, or Palestine, or Libya, or a hundred other humanitarian crises intimately tied up with American interests? My guess is, he’d much rather we create memes and tell jokes and write opinion pieces on Meryl Streep, or Kanye West, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is his performance. And, frankly, he’s making it look easy.

Because, let’s face it, however anxiety-provoking and depressing and dispiriting the whole charade is, however tarnished we feel by his rise to the pinnacle of democratic power, we’re still hooked by the surreal, hilarious spectacle of it all.

So another day goes by, and Trump’s foreign policy plans aren’t debated. Another day passes without any serious focus on the potential conflicts of interest, the concerns over nepotism — his son-in-law Jared Kushner will be among his top advisers — and the cabinet of political outsiders, Wall Street tycoons and white men.

Another day goes by when normal people aren’t given the information they need about healthcare, or gun control, or civil liberties, or terrorism, or social security.

“All the world’s a stage,” another great performer once wrote. “And all the men and women merely players.”

Right now, we’re being played, and it’s on us to change the game.

Tom Seymour is a freelance journalist