Who won #Hamiltongate?
Not the cast, who offered a dignified and respectful speech after their performance on Friday.
Not the audience, who that same night booed and jeered fellow attendee VicePresident-elect Mike Pence.
No. Trump, and only Trump, won this round in the culture wars. And with many more rounds to come, liberals need to find some way not to take his bait.
Maybe Pence decided to see the hottest show on Broadway because it’s the hottest show on Broadway. Or because it’s a Pulitzer-Prize-winning work by a bona-fide genius. Or because, with its story of a destitute autodidact pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, it has had documented appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike.
But I also wouldn’t be surprised if Pence attended Friday’s performance specifically hoping, or at least expecting, to stoke boos and a brouhaha that would ultimately rouse the Republican base — and distract from much more embarrassing Trump-related news.
Think about it. Trump could not have chosen a more perfect cultural foil than “Hamilton” if he’d designed the show himself. The show has — somewhat paradoxically — become an unwitting symbol of out-of-touch, cosmopolitan liberal elites.
Tickets to the smash hit can fetch thousands of dollars, making them inaccessible to all but the reasonably wealthy. The show is fawned upon by effete elites such as myself. Some joked that there was a quota for “Hamilton” coverage at the New York Times (my former employer, where, among other things, I wrote theater reviews).
Most important, at least to Trump’s base, “Hamilton” has Hispanics literally taking the jobs of old white men.
That is, the show chooses to cast people of color to play nearly every Founding Father (and Mother). It also employs the musical idiom of some these marginalized groups — hip-hop — in its storytelling.
These choices — emblematic of the show’s obsession with “who tells your story” — were revelatory and revolutionary, from both an employment perspective and a storytelling one. Actors of color find precious few opportunities to play such textured, multidimensional roles; and reimagining these historical figures as nonwhite visually transfers their achievements, rights and legacies to demographics often denied them.
To liberals, these creative choices enhanced the show’s virtuosity. To many conservatives, though, those same choices — and the liberal echo-chamber that celebrated them — were evidence of their deepest, darkest fears.
This critical darling was a form of “cultural appropriation,” a revisionist attempt to brown-wash American history, in the same way that unpatriotic Advanced Placement textbooks are now supposedly doing.
And to the extent that Trump’s voters had previously heard anything at all about this Broadway phenomenon, they’d likely heard about the “reverse racism” pseudoscandal of last spring. As Fox News and others sanctimoniously reported, the show had posted casting notices seeking “NON-WHITE men and women, ages 20s to 30s, for Broadway and upcoming Tours!” (Casting notices were later rephrased.)
No wonder, then, that #Hamiltongate presented such a potent political crucible.
My own Twitter feed has been full of triumphant liberals celebrating the theater’s revived ability to effect political change and unmask Trump as a tetchy crybully; and triumphant conservatives celebrating how smug, moralizing and clueless this whole incident revealed liberals to be.
Both sides had so much fun patting themselves on the back that they sometimes failed to notice how much attention they drew away from the Trump University fraud settlement, the legalized bribery happening as foreign diplomats book stays at Trump-owned hotels, and rabidly bad administration picks.
Art should be political (as this brilliant show already is, in spades). Artists should be political, too. I applaud the cast’s instinct not to “throw away their shot,” to paraphrase one of the show’s anthems. Particularly since many of them may justifiably feel personally threatened by the policies espoused by the incoming administration.
But no matter how unfailingly polite and pointed the production crafted its statement to be, when those words came on the heels of audience jeers, they still unwittingly played directly into Trump’s hands.
This, I fear, will be the central challenge of mounting an effective opposition to Trump in the years ahead. Like Silvio Berlusconi, Trump has an uncanny instinct for setting off a “Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents,” as economist Luigi Zingales recently put it, which only strengthens him.
Calling out injustice always feels like the righteous thing to do. The uncomfortable question for Trump’s opponents in the years ahead now must be: How do we call out injustice, without unintentionally reinforcing it?