One of these stories dominated the news over the weekend, and even if you weren't paying attention, you can probably guess which one: “Hamilton.”
This led to all kinds of consternation. How was the media focusing more on the “Hamilton” flap than the Trump University case? The president-elect had just shelled out $25 million in the face of fraud allegations, after all.
Critics pointed to Trump's tweets about “Hamilton,” which the media definitely seized upon.
Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2016
They pointed to the New York Times' decision to devote three columns to the situation — albeit below the fold (to the extent people still pay attention to such things) — on its front page. Here's an illustrative complaint:
The belief was that Trump, through a pair of tweets Saturday and one Sunday, had hoodwinked the media into focusing on a sideshow — a rather unsubstantial or at least far-less-important tiff over a Broadway play — and in the process relegated his controversial appointments and Trump University to second-tier status.
Politico's Jack Shafer implored the media to not play Trump's game in a piece titled “Stop Being Trump's Twitter Fool” on Saturday:
Like Pavlov’s dog, too many of us leap to object or correct the president-elect whenever he composes a deliberately provocative tweet, as he did this morning, commenting on the somber and vaguely lecturing treatment vice-president elect Mike Pence earned from the cast last night at a performance of Hamilton....Haven’t any of these people raised children? Don’t they know about bait and switch? Have none of them been paying attention to Trump’s Twitter strategy for the past 17 months? For anybody who has read a half-dozen of Trump’s tweets, the pattern is obvious. He compiles these tweets precisely in order to elicit strident protest.
Conservative commentator and Trump opponent Ben Shapiro offered this on CNN's “Reliable Sources”: “I would recommend that the media sort of take a second look at how much focus they put on things like this, because the fact is if you're going to turn it all the way up to 11 on a 'Hamilton' tweet, it's going to be a long presidency for all of you.”
Fair enough. Perhaps the “Hamilton” coverage has been overkill. Maybe we should all stop being surprised that Trump doesn't much like to be criticized and will hit back using his preferred social media outlet.
But this idea that Trump is somehow duping us into ignoring the real controversies while he laughs all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is too rich. It's hardly a new accusation, of course; it cropped up every time he was rising in the polls and Trump critics were concerned that the American people weren't consuming the Trump news that they felt was important.
First off, it's not like Trump's tendency to foment these Twitter battles has done him any favors. He won the presidency in spite of his unprecedented unpopularity as a presidential nominee and in spite of long-standing reservations about his temperament. Just because he won doesn't mean this kind of thing didn't hurt him. If you shift the vote a little more than one point across the Rust Belt or in Florida and one other key state, he loses, and suddenly, the postmortem is that he made himself unelectable with his thin-skinned tweets.
Second, the “Hamilton” story would have been chewed over plenty no matter what Trump did. This is a cultural phenomenon colliding with concerns about Trump's presidency that have been the subject of postelection protests across the country. It was also a cast member making a very unorthodox political statement to the face of the vice president-elect. There are simply too many interesting angles and democratic debates to be had about whether this was appropriate. It was a sexy story, even if Trump didn't demand an apology.
And thirdly, if Trump really was trying to sweep the Trump University case under the rug, you should probably tell his Twitter account. Just before his first “Hamilton” tweets, he tweeted this about Trump U:
I settled the Trump University lawsuit for a small fraction of the potential award because as President I have to focus on our country.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
Right there is the chance for the press to write about Trump's curious argument for why he settled! If he was trying to bury this story, why would he tweet such things about it?
No, what's happening here is that Trump is an indiscriminate counterpuncher. Yes, the media is fascinated by that, because it's so different from what we expect from a president (and perhaps we shouldn't be anymore). But he hits back on everything.
Trump is a social media provocateur and apparently will remain so as president, but it's not part of some grand plan. It's just who he is, and the “Hamilton” story was more interesting than a complex legal battle that has been covered extensively before.
Trump got elected president, and therefore he clearly did some things right, including on social media. The idea that he's constantly playing the media, though, is overwrought.