In “Lysistrata,” the smash-hit musical of 411 B.C., Artistophanes turned antiwar politics into sexy comedy, which gives an idea of just how long dramatists have been milling fine plays from heavy issues. In New York today, theater patrons can experience revivals of two milestones in gay rights history, “The Boys in the Band” and “Angels in America.” They can contemplate Arab-Israeli relations through “The Band’s Visit,” reflect on political propaganda via “Wicked,” view domestic violence through the lens of “Waitress” or get a jolt of woke feminism from the upraised middle fingers in “Mean Girls.”
So a strong political statement at the recent Tony Awards was hardly out of place. Instead, the problem with Robert De Niro’s two-word dismissal of the president of the United States — an F-bomb plus the president’s last name — was its pure, unadulterated tribalism. There was no effort to persuade or win over. The Raging Bull unleashed his raging id to divide his audience into Us against Them.
Normally, the dropping of an F-bomb by one New Yorker on another would be about as newsworthy as hot sauce in a Texas diner. Doubly true when the bomber is De Niro, whose deployment of that sturdy little word in all its declensions over decades of movie masterworks is to cussing what Chopin is to melody.
But there are a couple of reasons to pause over the percussive put-down, which brought the house to its feet cheering while sending the CBS censor diving for the mute button.
The first is that De Niro and his applauding audience may be overestimating the size and appeal of their tribe — a highly relevant matter if the goal is to defeat him. In an earlier column, I pointed to the trend of the president’s rising approval ratings as evidence of his political durability. Today, I’ll take the path of anecdotal evidence. Three friends, non-journalists, heard from in three separate settings over the past week:
All of them are astute and informed politically; none, I’d venture, owns a MAGA cap. The first has been baffled and unsettled by Donald Trump’s radicalism. Yet what worries this person now is the president’s utter dominance of public discourse. There’s nothing but Trump, his acolytes and a cacophony of redundant criticism. Persuadable independents, my friend fears, are tuning out.
The second anecdote comes from a person who strikes me as more favorably disposed toward Trump’s unorthodoxy, yet deeply distressed by his bad manners. This friend fretted that the president’s critics have lost their own sense of decorum. “At West Point, we were taught to respect the office if we were unable to respect the person,” he observed.
The third involves a friend who says flatly, “I hate Trump” — yet adds that his TV is no longer set to MSNBC. “They’re just so biased and slanted, it has become painful to watch.”
These are winnable votes for the Trump opposition, each of them unhappy with some aspects of Trump’s policies and demeanor. Instead of winning them over, however, the relentless tone of the opposition is driving them away. Make of that what you will.
Yet if one believes, as De Niro surely does, that Trump is doing damage to the country, might the F-bombing be an act of patriotism regardless of its political effectiveness? A bracing speech last week by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats suggests the answer is no.
In a warning equally applicable to Trump and De Niro, the intelligence czar said that political polarization and inflammatory rhetoric play directly into the hands of the United States’ very active enemies. “As I see every day in our intelligence reports, we live in a time of uncertainty, turmoil and peril for Western democracies,” Coats said in Normandy, France, two days after the anniversary of D-Day. “From Russia’s renewed aggression, to China’s global ambitions, to the persistent threat of terrorism, democracy and faith in our national institutions are under assault.”
Coats, a Trump appointee, agrees with former CIA director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and is trying to do the same this year. Western intelligence analysts see similar interference with recent elections in Britain, France, Germany and Italy — all in hopes of weakening the West by polarizing voters. In “what is the most complex, volatile and challenging threat environment since World War II,” Coats continued, “we are particularly concerned by external actors working to exacerbate existing social divides in our countries and undermine our democratic order.”
For whatever reasons, Trump is pursuing his own polarization agenda, cranking up the volume on his divisive brand of politics. But the patriotic response — the approach that will strengthen the United States and its allies against these historic threats — is reasoned discourse and patient goodwill. “Fire” is no longer the only F-word dangerous to shout in a crowded theater.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.