Opinion

Robert De Niro Said What We’re All Thinking

On Sunday night, Robert De Niro lit up the Tony Awards when he went onstage and expressed something millions of Americans say every day in front of a television set, under their breath at work or out with friends having drinks: “F**k Trump.” The audience roared in applause.

It was electrifying, cathartic and galvanizing for those of us infuriated by this administration and determined to do what we can to stop the madness. Two simple words ― which De Niro repeated. 

This, of course, was followed by feigned outrage from conservatives like Mike Huckabee, who called the language “vile” but didn’t seem to have any problem with Donald Trump’s referring to any NFL player taking a knee during the national anthem as a “son of bitch” just weeks ago during a speech, not to mention Trump’s use of “shithole countries” and a whole host of things too numerous to list here.

Then came the liberal bedwetters who said De Niro would turn off potential voters, impede the swaying of Trump supporters and push away voters who are on the fence.

This argument is knee-jerk and facile.

It ignores the value of De Niro’s words while ascribing a highly unlikely downside to them. Some on Twitter fretted about the optics of rich celebrities being cheered on while using foul language and how this could drive voters away. But this claim completely ignores the fact that Trump is a rich celebrity who uses vile language and is cheered on by his supporters. Whether Trump’s supporters like De Niro or not (and many who love Trump are surely huge fans of De Niro and his films, from “Raging Bull” to “Goodfellas”), it’s laughable to think his use of foul language truly offends them.

If someone is intent on voting to help Trump in the midterms (or to re-elect him in 2020), not much outside of major political events is going to sway that person. If Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un and getting little in return doesn’t do it ― while attacking America’s traditional allies ― then it seems very little will do it. The idea that a person would flirt with such a shift, however, only to run back to Trump because De Niro said “Fuck Trump” is both ridiculous and not backed up by any kind of data.

And who are these people who are on the fence about Trump? This is not a normal presidency ― and we all know that ― and thus conventional political analysis doesn’t hold. You’re either in the Trump cult or you think this man is a danger to our democracy. The approval polls have certainly shown that, with Gallup polls showing the same percentages saying they “strongly approve” and strongly disapprove” of Trump now and 15 months ago, without budging.

At any rate, the small percentage of voters who might be on the fence are not going to make a decision based on a Hollywood actor’s four-letter word. The conjecture that some people will be disgusted by both parties seems like more obsolete political analysis, since a cuss word from De Niro ― who is not even a political figure ― is nothing compared with the brutality Trump has engaged in.

His words at the Tonys were like a spark letting loose from that lightning in a bottle. You can’t control it, nor should you.

I played the clip on my radio program several times, and the phones lit up with women calling in to exclaim, “Thank you, Robert De Niro!” Black women, white women, older women, younger women. Yes, many others called in too, but my producers and I were struck by the women ― a group that is now leading the resistance to Trump and, with regard to women of color specifically, is the most energetic force in the base of the Democratic Party. 

They were expressing their anger too, not only at Trump but also at the whole “They go low, we go high” philosophy — much as they love and respect Michelle Obama. They realize it didn’t work in 2016, but more so, they’re expressing their passion now in an organic way. None of this is forced or false. People are genuinely riled up, and for a political movement, that is lightning in a bottle. Anger in politics isn’t always so neat in the way it bubbles up, but it is essential to create action. Those of us who in years past were involved in groups like the AIDS activist group ACT UP know that very well.

The worst thing anyone can do right now is to try to suppress that energy, which is basically what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni told progressives they should do in a column headlined “How to Lose the Midterms and Re-elect Trump,” in which he chastised De Niro, Samantha Bee and others. It was the quintessential call for moderation as the tonic that will save the day. But that notion, right now, is completely out of touch.

Many of the candidates Democrats are electing in primaries, whether they are new and diverse voices or seasoned politicians who previously took a more centrist stance, hold or have shifted their positions on the issues that matter to people, moving toward the progressive base. Progressives have changed the party and its candidates and will continue to do so, and moderation is by far not a guidepost right now.

That brings me back to De Niro. His words at the Tonys were like a spark letting loose from that lightning in a bottle. You can’t control it, nor should you, particularly when we’re talking about someone who’s not even a political figure. His words energize the base, feed people’s determination and allow them to connect and energize others.

From all we’ve seen in special elections for congressional and state offices ― 43 of which have shifted from red to blue in districts Trump won ― it is the GOP that right now is having an enthusiasm problem. It’s going to take a lot more than the argument that the supposed leftist elite in Hollywood is saying offensive things about our president, especially if people are saying those very things themselves about Trump (often or sometimes), whether they be Democrat, Republican or independent.

De Niro’s comments are reflecting where the passion is right now, and they help stoke it. There is only an upside to his expressing them and no downside of any kind. 

Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter @msignorile.

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