Last night, Spike Lee delivered a short, powerful, and relatively nonpartisan acceptance speech for his Best Adapted Screenplay award. President Trump nonetheless took offense:
This brief outburst contains a few notable elements. First, there is Trump’s familiar habit of calling African-Americans “racist.” Lee’s speech did not contain any generalizations about white people, nor any calls for violence or retribution. The closest thing to a broad claim about white people in his remarks was a statement noting and denouncing slavery:
Trump has previously complained that “Django Unchained” is “the most racist movie I have ever seen,” so possibly he is triggered by references to slavery.
Second, Trump counterpunches typically include ad hominem attacks on their targets for being ugly, short, dumb, losers, and so on. This one fixated on Lee’s briefly stumbling in reading from what appeared to be handwritten notes, and mocking him for needing notes at all.
Here was a revival of a classic Republican dog-whistle charge against President Obama. While the teleprompter has been a standard tool for presidential speeches for decades, Republicans seized on Obama’s use of it to suggest he was shallow and uninformed, incapable of understanding the words that were written for him. A 2011 Washington Post article on the Republican obsession with Obama’s use of a teleprompter contained a couple party operatives sort-of explaining the joke.
“It’s sort of a soft joke that the president needs a teleprompter because he doesn’t have a sound command of the issues and doesn’t know what he’s doing,” conservative strategist Greg Mueller said. “It’s a sign that you can’t speak on your own two feet,” said Fred Davis.
Republicans have indignantly insisted that the teleprompter criticism was not some kind of coded racism. But Trump, who has turned a lot of his party’s subtext into text, has performed a usefully clarifying service. By reviving a version of the teleprompter attack on Spike Lee, he has made clear that “can’t speak without notes” is a joke about black people being unintelligent.
Finally, and most amusingly, Trump’s anger and offense was directed against a speech that is (by recent standards) notably nonpartisan. Lee did not mention Trump’s name. He did not endorse any candidates or parties.
“The 2020 election is right around the corner,” he said. “Let’s all mobilize, let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing.”
In theory, a president could listen to a call for making the moral choice of love against hate and doing “the right thing” and interpret it as an endorsement — or, at minimum, a nonpartisan statement. Trump processed it as a personal attack.