Mike Pence was elected vice president by a coalition of mostly white voters nostalgic for what they thought of as the good old days in America and galvanized by promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
On Friday night, Pence came face-to-face with a symbol of the new America: A hit musical called “Hamilton” that celebrates the principles of the nation’s founding but reimagines the revolutionary period with multiracial actors playing the statesmen and the contributions of immigrants central to the story.
As he took his seat in New York’s Richard Rogers Theatre, Pence heard an impassioned, sustained boo. He sat through a performance celebrating the country’s multiculturalism. And when the show was over and he headed for the exits, the cast was not quite finished.
“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” said Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who played Aaron Burr, reading a statement the cast members had drafted together.
“But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us,” he continued.
The remarkable moment crystallized the cleavage wrought by a toxic presidential campaign, in which millions of aggrieved white Americans propelled Donald Trump and Pence to the White House and left millions of others — blacks and Latinos, gays and lesbians, Muslims and Jews — fearful of what might become of their country.
“It was this collision of two different Americas and two different visions and two different sets of experiences, happening at once, and happening in a rather dramatic way,” said Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
By Saturday morning, Trump decided to respond. He could have chosen to offer assurances that he would be a president for all Americans — that he would respect everybody regardless of race or gender or creed.
But Trump being Trump, the president-elect punched back.
“The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” Trump tweeted. “The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
There was a certain irony to Trump’s demand, considering that as a candidate he rarely if ever apologized for the blizzard of insults he sprayed across the country.
“Have you ever apologized? Ever? In your lifetime? Close your eyes, think back to Baby Donald . . . ,” Jimmy Fallon asked Trump on NBC’s “Tonight Show” in September 2015.
“I fully think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong,” Trump replied.
He added, with a laugh, “I will absolutely apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
Trump did apologize in October for the comments he made in 2005 to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush bragging about having grabbed women by their genitals.
As a candidate, Trump set off hand grenades with provocative tweets at moments of his choosing to attract the attention of the news media.
Regardless of whether this was Trump’s intent Saturday morning, his shot at the “Hamilton” cast served to distract from a negative news story that broke late Friday: The president-elect had agreed to a $25 million settlement to end the fraud cases pending against Trump University, his defunct real estate seminar program.
Trump tweeted Saturday that he had settled the case because he had to “focus on our country.”
“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!” Trump tweeted, although there was no clear indication whether he would have prevailed had the case gone to trial.
In many ways, “Hamilton” has become a touchstone in America’s ongoing culture wars. Hillary Clinton embraced the musical — its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, openly supported her candidacy — and recited its lyrics in her speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.
Talk about “Hamilton” is different in Trump’s orbit, however. Last Thursday at Trump Tower, when a reporter asked Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) how long he intended to be in New York, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway interjected: “Have you seen ‘Hamilton’?”
“I have not,” replied Sessions, who the next day would be announced as Trump’s attorney general nominee.
Trump’s handling of the Pence incident is in keeping with how he confronted past cultural controversies and could presage how he will act in the White House. Although he is a billionaire who lives in a three-story apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, he long has felt excluded and shunned by the New York and Washington elite. Trump is sensitive to perceived snubs — and has mastered the art of snapping back at criticism from coastal liberals as a means of ingratiating himself with his middle-America base.
On Saturday, Trump’s defenders rushed to condemn the “Hamilton” cast and voice outrage at perceived disrespect. His supporters started a “#BoycottHamilton” campaign on Twitter — although “Hamilton” tickets are such a hot commodity that the production is sold out well into next year.
“The arrogance and hostility of the Hamilton cast to the Vice President elect (a guest at the theater) is a reminder the left still fights,” tweeted former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser.
Gingrich went on to liken Trump to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher aroused the same bitter hostility because like Trump she was a threat to the establishment’s claim to moral superiority.”
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said Trump’s Twitter retort was a striking act of divisiveness by an incoming president struggling to heal the nation after a bitter election.
“Instead of doing what a Franklin Roosevelt or a John Kennedy or a Lyndon Johnson would have done, he’s exacerbating the differences by saying they owe him an apology,” Dallek said. “For what? What were they asking for? They were asking for a kind of regard for minorities. It wasn’t as if they were asking him to give up the office.”
Said Wehner: “He’s not the sole reason that the campaign was ugly and divisive, but he’s the main reason it was. . . . And now, having won, it falls on him to bind up the wounds. Even if you feel what happened by the cast of ‘Hamilton’ was wrong or inappropriate or indecorous, he’s the leader of the country.”
Although Trump won a clear majority in the electoral college, he garnered just 47 percent of the popular vote — more than 1 million votes short of Clinton, with millions of votes still to be counted in primarily liberal states.
“I don’t think Trump understands that beneath the surface of his electoral college victory, there’s a lot of people who simply are not willing to accept the rhetoric of his campaign as the language of government,” veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine said.
“Trump has opened Pandora’s box,” he added, “and we’re looking for hope at the bottom.”