Alyssa Rosenberg: Trump pundits should learn from the real critics

By Alyssa Rosenberg comment

US President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo / AP
US President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo / AP

COMMENT

As a wave of positive headlines describing US President Donald Trump's first address to Congress rolled in, Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie tweeted in disgust, "This morning is a good reminder that so much of what passes for political analysis is just theatre criticism."

On behalf of critics everywhere, I take a minor amount of umbrage: After all, we generally set higher standards for performances than "basic competence," and we tend to address style as well as substance.

But given that his real point is that the pundits who praised Trump seemed to be falling for mere optics, maybe political commentators could stand to take a few tips from those of us who practice criticism for a living.

1 Divergence

When someone doesn't tell the truth, the reason for the distortion matters as much as the distortion itself.

One of the hot debates in pop culture criticism right now is what obligations fiction has to be historically accurate. Culture writers parse the ways in which The Imitation Game diverges from Alan Turing's actual life and death, or whether The Big Short overstated the prescience of its characters in identifying the impending housing crisis, or how American Sniper managed its own subject's inventions and exaggerations. (That last one was me; I am complicit.)

The thing about identifying areas where pop culture diverges from the cultural record, or where a work of fiction embraces one school of historical interpretation over another, is that at the end of the day, it's still fiction.

So it's generally more interesting to analyse what goals or ideas those diversions serve, rather than simply identifying that they exist. The president of the United States has a much, much higher obligation to tell the truth than movies and television do.

But fact-checking is still a first step: Identifying what function Trump's errors, distortions and outright lies perform in his presidency matters, too.

2 It's a series

The presidency is a season of television, not an episode.

Observing Trump's campaign and presidency has been a lot like watching a not-very-good cable attempt at an anti-hero drama that occasionally turns out an extremely effective episode.

Maybe Sons of Anarchy late in its run is a good analogy.

Watching analysts treat a single speech as evidence of a major pivot is like watching a critic who hasn't been slogging through that mediocre run of a show tune in for a single decent episode and declare on the evidence of that one hour that the whole thing is a masterpiece.

You don't judge whether a television show as a whole is good or bad on whether the showrunners, writers, actors and directors can sustain what's good about their work for an hour or two, the way you would judge a single episode of television.

You judge it on whether they can do that for a season, and then for the majority of the show's run.

Political analysts need to approach a presidency the same way. The test of whether Trump has found a way to be presidential (if, in fact, you judge his performance yesterday as meeting that standard) is not whether he can do it for one day, but whether he can do it for years.


3 Different motives

Remember that different actors may be trying to do different things, particularly in the absence of a director or showrunner.

One of the most hotly debated elements of Trump's address to Congress was the presence in the audience of Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy Seal William "Ryan" Owens, who was killed in Yemen during a raid that Trump ordered.

Was she, as filmmaker Michael Moore said, being exploited? Or was she, as conservative commentator Mary Katharine Ham suggested was possible, pursuing her own interests, which could range from practicing the strength she'll need in the weeks and months to come or producing an homage to her husband that will be meaningful to her children? The question even penetrated gossip sites such as Hollywood Life.

If Trump's address was a movie or a television show, there would be a director or a showrunner who had made those decisions and worked with the actors playing the president, the widow, the first daughter, the Senate majority leader and other parts on developing their motivations.

But it's not, and so analysing the address as a piece of theatre requires critics to remember that every person there has their own motivations and is making their own contributions to the unfolding script.

- Washington Post

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