Shortly after President Donald Trump’s address to Congress concluded on Tuesday evening, I listened to what PBS’s post-speech panel had to say about it.
The panel wasn’t exactly chock full of Trump fans. It included New York Times columnist David Brooks, who’s penned some scathing things about the president. But even though a few members criticized some of the content of Trump’s speech, they all praised his tone, which they agreed seemed “presidential.”
As the discussion continued — and let me remind you that it aired on fairly staid PBS, not one of the more animated cable news networks — it started to feel like an episode of Siskel & Ebert.
During that earlier show’s run, there were plenty of times where the two hosts didn’t much like the movie they were talking about, but felt obligated, for whatever reason, to find something nice to say. And because of the strictures of television, where any point of agreement will end up being re-emphasized over and over by one party or another in the name of pretending there’s common ground, the primary takeaway of those episodes would always be, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad.”
That was the primary takeaway of the PBS panel, too. “On the Trump scale,” Brooks said of the presidential address, “I give it an A.” It’s not hard to imagine that quote emblazoned on a movie poster as “I give it an A!”
Here’s the key difference between modern presidential punditry and Siskel & Ebert: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert knew what they were doing. They were good cultural critics, steeped in knowledge about what they were talking about, with long-standing personal quirks and peccadillos that viewers could read into anything they said. (Siskel was a notorious mark for dumb action movies; Ebert had a weakness for certain attractive actresses.)
Political pundits in America — especially those who appear on television — are often bad cultural critics. But they’re increasingly trying to offer critiques of political performance, even though they rarely seem to have any idea how to separate tone from content, and tend to wildly overpraise anything they can agree seemed pretty okay. That’s a risky path to walk.
Arts criticism is about more than trying to guess what an audience will think
I tried thinking about this in terms of the summer blockbuster, which is the place where a film critic will be most tempted to find something to praise — no matter how mildly — because she suspects that her audience will have a very different opinion from her.
This often leads to negative reviews that, nevertheless, call out a particular performance or technical element as something worth noting. It’s the classic, “The movie doesn’t make a lot of sense, but [insert star name here] is a true movie star!”
Sometimes that’s merited. The 2007 movie I Am Legend isn’t great, but it’s a true testament to the star power of Will Smith, who has to carry the movie largely by himself. (Okay, he has a dog, too.) His Herculean efforts elevate it from middling to genuinely okay.
But qualities of performance and technical achievement have to be truly stupendous to save something that’s rotten at its core. And the “He sounded like a president!” comments Trump gets every time he manages to stay on message and read off a teleprompter — regardless of whether his message has previously been criticized, or whether he’s making a bunch of big promises without details — increasingly strike me as saying something like “Sure, Batman v Superman was bad, but the actors knew their lines, and you didn’t see the camera onscreen at any time!”
This is not to say that Trump can’t be an effective speaker or media presence. And considering that his generic persona seems like a blend of reality TV villain and stand-up comedian, it’s worth viewing his performances through the lens of arts criticism. There are times when Trump can be genuinely funny, and if you’ve watched any reality TV in the past, you would have spotted the “villain who will say or do anything to win” arc he positioned himself within early in his presidential run.
But because reality TV arcs and standup are idioms that professional pundits don’t always understand, everything Trump does is read through the guise of whether it made him seem “presidential.” And the further Trump in reality diverges from the platonic ideal of what a president might sound like, the more dangerous it becomes to rate him as presidential simply because he slightly improved his tone.
In essence, “Trump didn’t change his message, but his tone was more presidential, and his fans will love it” is the equivalent of movie reviews that neglect to discuss a film’s themes or technical elements or even its performances in favor of wondering how the fan base will react.
But the more important question is how the movie fits into American culture as a whole. What does it say about us, or about how we see the world, or about what we want?
We don’t judge movies based on how much they seem like movies. Why do we judge presidents — especially this one — in that fashion?