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Donald Trump’s ‘Hamilton’ Twitter genius isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

The cast of "Hamilton" delivered a message to Vice President-elect Mike Pence from stage after he watched the show at Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. (Video: Twitter/Hamilton via Storyful)
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One of the best things about winning a political campaign is that, suddenly, everything you did is vindicated or even labeled political genius. After all, you won, right?

Such is the tendency when it comes to analyzing Donald Trump and his Twitter account. We should resist this tendency.

Two big, Trump-related news events happened Friday. The first was that it was announced that he was settling his Trump University fraud cases for $25 million. The second was that a member of the “Hamilton” cast addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was present at the performance, and told him that diverse Americans are “alarmed and anxious” about the incoming Trump administration. By Saturday morning, Trump was demanding an apology on Twitter.

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.

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:

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.