There was barely a dry eye in the house as Meryl Streep finished speaking.
Without ever mentioning the incoming president’s name, Streep used her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes awards to recall the moment at a rally last year when Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter. “The instinct to humiliate, when it’s modelled by someone in the public platform…filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she warned, adding that when the powerful become bullies “we all lose”. It was as perfectly pitched a performance as any she’s ever given but the awkward question is whether something that didn't work before the election – when Hollywood queued up to endorse Hillary Clinton – will work any better now.
For too many Trump voters couldn’t care less for the opinions of fancy liberal actresses in what his spin doctor, Kellyanne Conway, acidly called “gazillion-dollar gowns”. If anything, they love it when he upsets the rich and famous. Criticism from the “wrong” people doesn’t just slide off, it actively helps him.
And yet saying nothing, pretending everything’s fine, helps him too. There’s no obviously good way of landing a hit and that's why populists like Trump make their critics start to doubt themselves; to wonder if actually somebody else shouldn’t be leading the charge instead.
Streep provoked Trump, and he couldn’t resist lashing back at her, calling her ‘over-rated’ as an actress
Which is presumably why now even Jeremy Corbyn seems to be taking his lead from Trump, with a New Year relaunch explicitly modelled on lessons learned from him.
Apparently the Labour leader will now attack the media more aggressively – Trump famously portrayed anything less than fawning coverage of his campaign as lies – and worry less about negative coverage. The lesson from America, his aides think, is it’s better to be talked about for the wrong reasons than ignored. Stop trying to please everyone, pick some fights, and if in doubt call your opponents liars. “Just more very dishonest media!” as Trump tweeted yesterday of the now-notorious incident Streep described, as if the video of him flapping his hands while mimicking the reporter (whose disability affects his arm movements) didn’t exist, or didn't mean what anyone with eyes would think it did.
After all, last year was proof that breaking all the rules works in politics, at least if you don’t mind what else gets broken in the process. Trump arguably taught us that voters will buy some fairly implausible policies if they’re wrapped in enough rage against bankers and big business – although the snag is that it didn’t work for Bernie Sanders, Corbyn’s nearest equivalent in the US.
Over here, meanwhile, the Leave campaign taught us that playing fast and loose with facts works. Paint an exaggerated figure for what Britain pays the EU on a campaign bus, and every time someone says the actual figure is wrong, the row puts the story that EU membership is expensive back into people’s heads. The snag, once again, is that stretching the truth didn't actually work for the Remain campaign on the few occasions it tried. But the lesson both sides learned is that if you provoke your enemies enough to start a row, they'll help spread your message for you.
And interestingly, that’s roughly what Meryl Streep seems to have done. She provoked Trump, and he couldn’t resist lashing back at her, calling her “over-rated” as an actress. And the resulting row has put a half-forgotten story right back into people’s heads. Streep may have reminded Trumpers why they hate Hollywood but she has also reminded millions of Americans why their incoming president worries them. And if there’s a backlash against her – well, frankly if you're old enough and famous enough to win a Golden Globes lifetime achievement award, you’re happily past caring about that.
So perhaps the real lesson for Trump's critics isn't to become more shameless liars, but to be less ashamed of defending their beliefs. Trump didn’t get where he is today by worrying about any backlash. He didn’t agonise over whether, as a hereditary billionaire, he was the wrong person to criticise big business. He won't be intimidated out of saying what he thinks. And his opponents won't beat him until they feel the same.