We’re not supposed to care about Donald Trump attacking the cast of Hamilton. The wokest response to the president-elect’s Twitter strop about Mike Pence getting booed at a performance of the show is to say: who cares? Aren’t there bigger things to worry about than a few actors having a flounce?
Of course there are bigger issues. No bones were broken, bodies imprisoned or human rights ripped up in the foyer of the Richard Rodgers Theatre that night. But if people can’t speak back to power, we’ll never know about those bigger issues. Dissent is delegitimised when artists cannot challenge authority. Yes, we should write about structural white supremacy, about voter fraud, about Trump’s funny-smelling business deals. But let’s not concede that freedom of speech – particularly the freedom of oppressed people to stand up and ask for their fundamental rights to be respected – is a side-issue.
With well-timed hysteria, just as news of his latest lawsuit was breaking around the world, the president-elect took to Twitter to attack the cast of Hamilton for calling out his second-in-command during Friday’s performance of the sold-out Broadway hit. Actor Brandon Dixon, who plays the historical Vice President Aaron Burr, read out a statement which Trump denounced as “harassment”, which is Trumpian for “someone dared to tell me something I didn’t want to hear”. What he said was this:
“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,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
This interaction matters. It matters even if the outrage was manufactured. It matters because the culture of speaking back to power is under threat across the west as never before.
Right now, I’ll put my jazz-hands up to being a Hamilton fan, even though I was late to the party. For those not familiar with the show, it’s easy to underestimate how radical it is. How retelling the story of the founding fathers with actors of colour and reminding the audience of the perniciousness of political backroom dealing in a nation which still condoned slavery, is a poke in the eye to the self-satisfied theatregoing audience. Hamilton is a profoundly political show in a way that exceeds even the biographical dorkery of its subject matter. The production, for a start, is heavily associated with the Obamas — the First Couple were early champions.
Like most fans, I haven’t seen the show live, and I probably never will. I got to Hamilton from the soundtrack, from gifs and clips and snatches posted online. It’s enough of a masterpiece for that to suffice. The notable thing is not that some of the Hamilton audience booed Pence. It’s that some of them cheered. Whatever Trump and a good number of conservative stuffed shirts claim, Mike Pence did not go to Hamilton in order to “engage” with anything. He went because this is a show that, in its iteration as a live production, is exclusive. Its very name is synonymous with not being able to afford a ticket. This is the treacherous terrain that artists have always walked with regards to power and privilege, which is why the authoritarian left has always been suspicious of art in its turn.
Down the centuries in Europe, the theatre was one of the few places where commoners could talk back to kings — and you could always tell a despot when they didn’t take it on the chin. Aristocrats patronised productions which satirised their way of life — as long as they didn’t go too far, of course. Hamilton is not satire. It’s a rowdy rewriting of the story America likes to tell about itself starring the descendants of, among others, the slaves who built the nation. In keeping with their theme, the actors’ statement was stunningly respectful both to Mike Pence and the office he now represents — but it did not shy away from the elephant in the auditorium. Namely, the fear that the cast, and the diverse group of people they represent, feel about the course that the US is set on.
Trump, in apparent seriousness, demanded that the cast apologise and declared that the theatre should be a “safe and special place”. The idea that Pence, a man who has spent his political career pursuing the LGBT community, pushing “conversion therapy” and attacking state funding for HIV treatment, should expect any respect on Broadway is laughable, as is the idea of a show by and about immigrants becoming a hit in the latter days of American imperialism, when a post-ironic racist, sexist figurehead is about to prance into the White House. Both are phenomena of a culture at war with itself.
This story broke at exactly the moment when it was revealed that the president-elect had just settled an outstanding fraud case involving Trump University for $25 million. Whether or not you believe that Team Trump chose to fan the flames of the Hamilton story depends on how clever you believe the new administration is — as it is always safer to overestimate such people, I’m inclined to go with the theory of deliberate trolling. The time when political trolling could be dismissed, however, died long ago — and if demanding an apology from actors who dared challenge the new regime is a distraction, there is intent to it. This so-called scandal establishes a precedent whereby culture may not talk back to the new political class, even with the utmost respect.
That is not the hallmark of a democracy that values free speech. It is not the hallmark of a democracy at all. A president who will not tolerate artistic dissent, let alone satire, is not the leader of a free country.
Culture cannot be irrelevant when you’re fighting a culture war. The same misogynist, white supremacist trolls who organised for Trump and went into ecstatic hysterics over his victory have also spent their time stalking and harassing artists of colour, queer and feminist creatives with a dedication that has little historical precedent. These are the same people who considered the all-female Ghostbusters film such an existential threat that they were entitled to bully its black star, Leslie Jones, off the internet.
These are the people who consider the increasing currency of popular stories that aren’t by and for white, straight American men evidence of a civilisation in decline, who have got together to abuse artists while crowing about free speech. For any artist or writer who has been fighting that tide of hate to be told that culture is irrelevant, that the arts are the preserve of self-indulgent white liberals and nobody else, is an act of erasure. Storytelling, at times like these, is not just escapism. It is an antidote to despair — as Neil Gaiman reminds us, stories allow us to believe “that dragons can be defeated.”
This is no ordinary time in American history, and the upstart cast of Hamilton are not in any ordinary musical: the whole show is about retelling history so that it casts a different shadow on the present. Donald Trump does not seek to retell American History. He wants to rewrite it as a single story with his own face on the cover, embossed in gold.
He lives in a world where artists speaking back to power is “harassment” — but racist thugs who support him just “love their country.” Now more than ever, culture must continue to resist not just bigotry and despotism, but those who would strip art of its significance, dismiss its radical potential. As NK Jemisin, an extraordinary writer who has faced years of abuse from white supremacists since the success of her 2015 award-winning novel The Fifth Season, tells us:
“The next few years will be a test for all of us. But art is a weapon. Artists were made for times like these. We control the vertical and horizontal. We can influence the Zeitgeist. We can remind the world that bigotry is shameful and weak. And all we have to do is not be mediocre. Not pander to the fearful and the entitled. Write for humanity, not one tiny sliver of it. They come for the artist’s first in times like these. So be it. I will fight them — been doing that. I will outwrite them. ”
Damn right. So will I. Like I’m running out of time.