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Hollywood hardly holds its tongue—from FDR to Truman, from Kennedy to Reagan, politics has often divided—sometimes bitterly—the film fraternity. But few US presidents have been so reviled, lampooned and hauled over the coals as Donald Trump since his entry into the White House. “I’m scared, I am scared of him and his possibility,” actress Meryl Streep said in a recent interview about the US president, playing on the concern that many Americans have about the country taking a perversely illiberal course under Trump.
Streep had criticised Trump at the 2016 Golden Globe Award ceremony, thus opening the floodgates of disparagement of the 45th occupant of the Oval Office from members of the entertainment world. They have ranged from impersonating Trump—as Streep famously did—ridiculing his accent, hairstyle, body shape to having fun over the (speculated) size of his male organ.
The president dismissed all of this, equally famously, as “fake news”, describing Streep—one of the modern acting greats—as a “much overrated” actor.
Trump’s unapologetic cockiness fuels the fire at all times. “Donald Trump is the only president who has decided not to represent the whole country,” says former vice president Joe Biden. Trump’s sudden prominence into the political scene has certainly opened up existing fissures in society. His sharply divisive personality and policies have split politicians, academia, journalists, traders and industrialists into hostile camps. Of these, the sharpest razors deployed against Trump have been wielded by Hollywood. Beverly Hills royalty like Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Mia Furrow, Taylor Swift, Ben Afleck, Olivia Wilde, Jimmy Fallon, Lady Gaga—you name them—have all been vocal Trump baiters.
On the other side of aisle there are Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, John Voight, Sylvester Stallone, Owen Wilson, Martin Sheen and a few others. The anti-Trump group is clearly weightier by a long margin.
One reason for the wide, and spreading, influence of the anti-Trump section may come from the pronounced progressive stand that the American entertainment world takes pride in promoting and safeguarding. Much of their criticism of Trump is related to his racist pronouncements about Blacks, Hispanics or people from the Muslim world who supposedly pose a threat to America, and rightwing, anti-immigrant policies like his favoured ‘wall’ to keep Mexicans out. Cannily, the president has often peddled his line by pitting underprivileged and under-educated sections against elite, well-educated liberals. “This is not what America stands for”, his detractors growl tirelessly; their cherished ‘liberal’ values of America will be diluted and finally destroyed, they insist.
But, in this continuing discharge of broadsides, it is hard to miss a strong element of hypocrisy that exists in the interstices of Hollywood liberaldom. The US entertainment industry has not always been on the progressive side of the scale. An American history of the 20th century would involve long chapters of “witch-hunt” against creative artistes, writers and performers. Much of this happened in the 1940s and ’50s, in what’s infamously known as ‘McCarthyism’, the pathologically anti-Communist, divisive policy pursued by Wisconsin Republican senator Joseph McCarthy to go after (among other Americans) leading Hollywood figures known for their leftist leanings, some of whom were members of the US Communist Party, and suspected of being spies of the USSR, the Cold War arch-rival.
It’s an interesting parallel, therefore, that one of the main sources of the disquiet in Hollywood now, as it was then, originates from Moscow. Hollywood’s anti-Trump brigade argues that the 2016 presidential polls were manipulated by Russia who wanted Trump, instead of Democrat Hillary Clinton, as president.
During Hollywood’s darkest chapter in the last century, as a series of ‘Red scares’ took hold, dealing with the ‘reds’ (and their masters in Moscow) became an obsession for many. Pitiless and paranoid McCarthyism, using undemocratic methods to destroy ‘enemies’—real or imagined—socially, economically and politically, finished off promising careers and good men.
McCarthy found a collaborator in the redoubtable FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, with blessings from the land’s topmost office—Democratic president Harry S. Truman and his Republican successor Dwight Eisenhower.
The perceived threat from Moscow predates McCarthy. It began almost from time the Bolsheviks established the world’s first socialist state in November 1917. Like elsewhere in the world, it had a major impact in the US, initially giving rise to militant trade unionism but subsequently also drawing a large number of progressive people into the USCP, among them artistes and creative personalities from Hollywood. Major international developments influenced the waxing or waning of official US attitudes towards Communism. It was deplored during the Stalinist purges and ‘show trials’ (and the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact) during the ’30s, and accepted uneasily after 1941, when the Soviets were partners in fighting fascism. After the war, Russia’s acquisition of the atom bomb and the Communist victory in China in 1949, followed by the Korean War in 1950 created an anti-Communist mood in the US. This helped McCarthy and others in the US establishment—both in the executive as well as in the Congress—to go after Communist sympathisers in Hollywood. A number of leading personalities like John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye and others were victims of the witch-hunt.
Among the most notorious episodes in the whole sordid affair was the encouragement given to some to squeal on their friends—most notably done by filmmaker Elia Kazan when he identified many of his friends before the senate investigating committees as Communist sympathisers. Kazan never regretted what he did, later justifying his action through his movie On The Waterfront (1954).
Initially many of those—especially the group known as ‘the Hollywood Ten’ tried to take shelter behind the First Amendment of the US Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression. But it did not impress the Supreme Court; their plea was rejected and they were found guilty of contempt of the US Senate. Many were fined, some were jailed and expelled. Most lost their livelihood and few got a chance to work in Hollywood again.
In subsequent years, other members of Hollywood who were also similarly accused of Communist sympathy hid more effectively behind the Fifth Amendment that prevented them from indicting themselves. McCarthy facilely dubbed them the “Fifth Amendment Communists”. Even that appellation spelt doom for many, as they became film industry outcasts.
As the fight between Trump, his supporters and those in Hollywood led by Streep and others get hotter with each passing day, most people in the entertainment world remain worried, should there be a return to McCarthysim—a period that put the ‘leader of the free world’ to its severest test.