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A TV Master, a Celebrity President and the End of a Political Cease-Fire

Mr. Lear’s opinion of the president isn’t surprising or new. He told The Daily Beast last year that “Archie Bunker was far wiser of heart” than Mr. Trump. “Sure, the thoughts he held were antediluvian,” Mr. Lear said. “But Donald Trump is a thorough fool.”


Mr. Lear, the groundbreaking television writer and producer, in 2014.

Andrew Renneisen/The New York Times

Traditionally, however, the Kennedy Center Honors have been a political cease-fire. Presidents, Democrat and Republican, have hosted artists at White House receptions before the gala ceremony, where the honorees have sat in the Presidential Box.

This is one more way that things are different with Mr. Trump, whose campaign was as much a cultural battle as a political one. Another honoree, the singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, born in Cuba, has said she plans to use the event to challenge the president on immigration.

The honors, which CBS will broadcast on Dec. 26, are likely to reignite the controversies over artists and the Trump presidency, as when A-list stars cold-shouldered his inauguration and he feuded with Meryl Streep over her criticism of him at the Golden Globes.


Gloria Estefan has said she plans to use the Kennedy Center Honors to challenge the president on immigration.

Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

On the one hand, there’s the argument that artists who appear with Mr. Trump “normalize” his behavior. Asked by Joy Reid on MSNBC last November whether stars would join the president at the Kennedy Center Honors, the former “All in the Family” co-star Rob Reiner said, “Boy, I hope not.”

You could counter, though, that including four artists of color out of five honorees is itself a repudiation of the racial backlash of the last year. (Besides Ms. Estefan, the musician and record producer Lionel Richie, the hip-hop star LL Cool J and the dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade are also receiving awards for lifelong artistic achievement.)

On the other hand, there’s the case that awards ceremonies — and thus, pop culture generally — should “leave politics out of it.”

That’s a silly demand under normal circumstances. When a television character is president of the United States, it’s insane. If Mr. Trump is nothing else, he is proof that entertainment is already well-injected into politics.

Mr. Trump is not president despite being a celebrity. He is not president in addition to being a celebrity. He is president because he is a celebrity.

Before his campaign, he held no elective office, but he did have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His defrocked communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, suggested the White House utilize “the greatest TV star in history” by producing videos that served as “‘The President Donald J. Trump’ show.”

If people voted for him as a businessman, it was because he played a businessman, on “The Apprentice” and in the media since the 1980s. Other executives made more money and built bigger companies. Mr. Trump built his brand, hanging his name on his properties in gold letters, becoming — in the tabloids, in movie and sitcom cameos and in a reality-TV boardroom — a highly effective caricature of success.

Beyond his self-performance — he once told Playboy magazine that his yacht and golden towers were “props for the show” — Mr. Trump has never backed away from cultural divisiveness.

He campaigned as an insult comic. He once recorded a video denouncing the remake of “Ghostbusters” with a female cast. He was nearly undone by “Access Hollywood.” He knows that cultural affiliation is a means to grab people by the — um, gut. He has done that with his tribe and hasn’t let go.

Donald Trump reviews Ghostbusters(2016) Video by ExtraRareTrumpSteak

So of course the cast of “Hamilton” spoke out when Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance after the election. Mr. Trump’s campaign — and his presidency, including his proposed restrictions on legal immigration — has challenged the premise of “Hamilton,” that immigration is America’s essence, not a threat to its essence.

You can take either side of that argument, of course. But to say that art has no business arguing is to say that art has no ideas worth holding galas to celebrate. If we know anything from Mr. Lear’s career — and Archie Bunker’s powerful life and afterlife — it’s that argument is itself a form of art.

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