Two big events two days apart reflected two differing visions of America. But despite taking place a continent away and a political and cultural world apart, there were significant similarities between the Academy Awards and President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress — including indications that each side is pre-emptively tuning the other out.
Each also featured an unexpected outcome.
In a Hollywood ending, “Moonlight” eclipsed “La La Land” for Best Picture. And in Washington, Trump’s off-the-cuff rhetoric was jacketed by a TelePrompter-read speech.
Few, if any, seemed upset with the upsets.
Gracious producers of “La La Land” ceded the stage and statues to stunned “Moonlight” producers. And Democrats, let alone the news media, acknowledged the president’s stylistic, if not ideological, shift. But the well-telegraphed nature of each event seemed to prompt some partisans to tune out.
No one was surprised, of course, by the political component of Trump’s speech. And yet the goodwill, or at least curiosity, compelling viewership of previous first presidential addresses was dampened, despite (or perhaps because of) Trump dominating the news narrative.
About 47.7 million viewers watched Trump’s speech, which was up from the 31.3 million who viewed President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address last year. But that was down from the 52.3 million who watched Obama’s 2009 debut after his historic “Hope and Change” campaign. And even that was topped in 1993 by the man from Hope, Ark., former President Bill Clinton, who was watched by a striking 66.9 million viewers in his first address.
Former President George W. Bush was an exception, with a relatively low total of 39.8 million watching his first address, which came after the bitterly contested election that went to the Supreme Court. The resulting polarization may have made some who were sore over the result decide to tune out the victor.
A similar dynamic may have transpired Tuesday night. Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity this early among Democrats was reflected in individual network audiences. Fox News was first with 10.4 million viewers, while left-leaning MSNBC only reached 2.6 million, suggesting that many in the opposition opted out of the speech altogether.
Similarly, some Trump supporters seem to have skipped the Academy Awards, which as anticipated featured frequent pokes at the president. Ratings fell 4 percent from last year’s lackluster level, with 32.9 million viewers slogging through the longest Oscar telecast in 10 years. While still the top draw for an award-season show, it’s well short of the record who watched in 1998 when “Titanic” — the film equivalent of a political landslide — attracted 55.2 million.
While host Jimmy Kimmel’s White House wisecracks got the most media attention, a more meaningful critique of this fraught era came from five foreign-language film nominees. In a searing statement, they expressed their “unanimous and emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the U.S. and in so many other countries, in parts of the population and, most unfortunately of all, among leading politicians.”
On stage, a statement read on behalf of the Iranian winner of the foreign-film Oscar, Asghar Farhadi, was equally acute. “I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others, an empathy which we need today more than ever.”
Trump, of course, offered a different take. “Our obligation is to serve, protect and defend the citizens of the United States. We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism. … It is not compassionate, but reckless to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur. Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values.”
These competing narratives reveal the global impact of an America riven with divisions over the nation’s fundamental nature.
The world is watching to see which vision prevails. But as the selective reception to the president’s speech and the Academy Awards suggest, it’s not clear either side is seeing, let alone considering, the other.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.