As President Donald Trump was headlining another daily press briefing on Sunday, Joe Biden’s campaign was holding a coronavirus crisis event of its own — a virtual town hall focused on unemployment in the entertainment industry.
Biden was not present, but it reflected one of his campaign’s signature themes — that empathy matters. And in the hourlong town hall, the subtext was that in the wake of record unemployment and more than 40,000 deaths due to the coronavirus, that empathy was not coming from the White House.
The host was Tony Goldwyn, who played the president on ABC’s Scandal and also campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
He said that what is needed at this moment is “a real cheerleader of empathy, not just a promoter, a self promoter. With President Trump, everything is in relationship to himself and every one of his press conferences is a promotional opportunity of ‘Look how great I am. Look how great we’re doing.’ And meanwhile people are dying and certainly struggling.”
Goldwyn said he himself lost his job, as his Broadway show The Inheritance was sidelined when theaters were shuttered in March. His criticisms of the administration extended beyond just that of Trump’s tone. He said that the White House is beset with mixed messaging, as the plan forward “seems to change every news cycle. We hear one thing one day, and the next day is the opposite.”
The event was focused on Broadway and live performance, which have been especially hard hit by the crisis as all shows have been postponed or canceled. According to the Broadway League, the industry supports almost 97,000 jobs in New York.
Other participants included three who have been hit by the economic impact of the crisis: Pete Donovan, who was the head electrician for Phantom of the Opera; Alvester Garnett, a percussionist; and Jeannie Naughton, wardrobe dresser on Hamilton and the upcoming Company. They were joined by Symone Sanders, senior adviser to the campaign.
Democratic presidential candidates have enjoyed lopsided support from the entertainment industry and live theater in particular, but that may be even more the case during this cycle. As was noted during the town hall, Trump has proposed to slash federal funding for the arts, including zeroing out the National Endowment for the Arts.
The town hall did deal with some issues specific to workers in theater, including the business’s dependence on independent contractors who otherwise may have trouble accessing unemployment benefits, as well as the network of small businesses who support Broadway. Others, like Naughton, talked of what they are doing in the interim. She said she and other colleagues are using their skills to make masks for hospital workers.
“Most people are coming out of a kind of collective shock, and they are starting to find purpose and move forward,” Naughton said.
But this was a campaign event, and while there were personal experiences shared, much of the hour was spend contrasting Biden’s experience to that of Trump’s.
“Federally, it feels like a rudderless ship, to be honest,” Donovan said. “And so, certainly on Broadway, and I know this to be true in other industries, but I can see it here. We’ll be back. The paychecks have stopped by we haven’t. The paychecks have stopped but we haven’t. This is just a long intermission.”