The Hamilton/Trump Duel and Art as Protest

From voices people will listen to.

The story of what went down this weekend when Vice-president elect Mike Pence went to see the broadway hit Hamilton is a narrative in two acts.

For those of you who need to catch up, the cast, who knew Pence was in the audience, had a message for him at the end of the show. Delivered by Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, it was a call for the new administration to work for all Americans, as you can see from the text below:

The message was part one and Hamilton was the perfect vehicle through which to deliver it: a musical about the country’s founding based on Ron Chernow‘s non-fiction tome, in which real-life historical figures are played by a cast who would have been overlooked or worse at the time of the country’s founding: African-Americans, Latinos, women, members of the LGBTQ community. The music is mainly rap and hip-hop–two uniquely and originally American forms of music. Hamilton serves both as an ode to the country’s history and a corrective, reimagining a more perfect freedom than the one intended originally for white, male landowners.

It stands as an insanely popular antithesis to the preservationist, progress-eviscerating, antediluvian vision of America white nationalists are so desperate to return to.

This alone was enough to guarantee this the cast’s message would be a story many would be talking about, but then Donald Trump added in some thoughts on Twitter, and we all know how that goes. Trump tweeted that the cast was “very rude” to Pence and should “Apologize!” Pence, it should be said, did not feel offended.

And this was act two. The Trump Twitter reaction and its media-saturated aftermath.

Some, notably Jack Shafer in Politico, warned that this was another carefully calibrated ploy by Trump to distract from an earlier story on Friday about the Trump University fraud case settlement in which Trump agreed to pay $25 million. Normally we would tend to agree, but the Hamilton story would have been big, and indeed was trending that way on Google before Trump’s twitter reaction. Trump’s tweets were delivered Saturday morning at 8:48 a.m. The lawsuit story at that point had been around for almost 24 hours, and the Hamilton story had overtaken the Trump University story before Trump took to twitter.

Here, for example, is a Google trend comparison of interest in two search terms, “Hamilton Pence” and “Trump University.”

Maybe this wasn’t a diversionary tactic but an example of another one of Trump’s uses for Twitter–to attack that which he feels threatened by. He did again Sunday morning, criticizing Saturday Night Live’s latest show, which featured Alec Baldwin in the cold open reprising his role as Donald Trump, portraying him as a man clueless about running the country.

Art is not always political, but when it blends medium and (political) message effectively, it’s transformative. Think of Guernica, which emerged as an enduring, instantly recognizable masterpiece among Picasso’s largely apolitical works and still stands as a protest against the Franco government and the universal horrors of war. The horror is understood not intellectually, but rather as a feeling, through the massive canvas’ bloodless black and white imagery, the screaming, bodiless specters and hands grasping toward an emptiness. It persuades. It inspires. It wakes people up. It draws on that same rhetorical mechanism employed by populists: emotion. And populists know how powerful a tool emotion is.