The last couple of weeks have been rough for a lot of us, I think it’s safe to say. Speaking for myself, I’ve moved past my narrow-minded anger and fallen into a vaguely numb state about the election and the incoming administration. I went to a protest march, donated money to the ACLU, signed petitions and attempted to contact Congressional offices to voice my opposition to Donald Trump (only to be thwarted by jammed voicemail boxes). But my anger has mostly been replaced with fatigue, and a willingness to wait and see what to do next.
But then, Hamilton came roaring in to save me from my detachment, and do what all great art does: inspire.
In case you haven’t heard, last night Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway. What possessed his staff to choose that show for him is beyond me, as from my perspective the ideology of Hamilton stands in direct opposition to Pence’s. But nevertheless he went, and the result is something both unsurprising and so very gratifying.
For starters, the New York theatregoing crowd repeatedly booed and heckled Pence at every opportunity, including in response to various lines in the musical itself. On top of that, during the performance of “What Comes Next?” (a song where King George tells the new leaders of America “good luck dealing with the rabble being angry at you”) the song was sung directly at Pence himself. And during the curtain call at the end of the show, Aaron Burr performer Brandon T. Dixon implored Pence on behalf of the entire show to govern for all Americans, and respect the national diversity that Hamilton itself is trying to represent. From everything I read, it sounds like a beautiful bit of artistic catharsis, of artists seeing a potential oppressor and trying to direct their art towards him.
Of course this morning, Trump and other conservatives were quick to denounce the show, with #BoycottHamilton already trending on Twitter. Hamilton’s cast was accused of being rude and disrespectful by the President-elect, and there was a great deal of hand-wringing by the right about how inappropriate it was for the show to attack Pence in such a way (even though the actual booing and heckling came from the crowd and not the performers). But this condemnation not only misses the point of art and the First Amendment in general, but also shows a complete obliviousness to what Hamilton itself is meant to stand for.
Obviously, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, which not only includes the vocal condemnation of the audience but also the artistic expression of the performers on-stage. On that basis alone, the idea that the show is somehow in the wrong for taking the opportunity to call out Mike Pence is absurd. They have a right to express their opposition the same as everyone else, and condemning them is no different then condemning those of us who have marched or donated or called or signed against Trump/Pence in the days since the election. Free speech is free speech, and that cast and that audience are entitled to utilize it the same as everyone else.
But furthermore, to condemn Hamilton for such artistic expression is to be unaware of what Hamilton is meant to represent, and what Broadway theatre as a medium represents as well. A major component of Hamilton’s design is the reclaiming and recontextualizing of American history for immigrants and minorities. The race-blind casting, the repeated references to Hamilton himself as being an immigrant, and the rap/hip-hop music are all meant to reinforce the idea that the American story is not explicitly a white one, and that while the most prominent figures in the creation of America were white they can stand as precursors and inspirations to all of us, regardless of our skin or our citizenship status. And on top of that, there is at least one LGBTQ cast member in Hamilton right now: Javier Munoz, who currently plays Alexander Hamilton himself, is openly gay and HIV+.
With all of that in mind, how could anyone expect this cast and crew to see someone so implicitly opposed to who they are and what their show represents come into their theater and not respond to it? How could a show whose biggest applause line is “Immigrants: we get the job done!” not instill an inherent sense of opposition to someone like Mike Pence in its audience? Hamilton is a show born of multiculturalism and reconciling America’s past with its future, and anyone criticizing it now was never going to be an audience for it.
I listened to Hamilton the morning of Election Day, before I went to vote. By the next day, I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I could listen to it again without being bitter. That ended last night, when I blasted half of Act One off Spotify in celebration of the show’s moment of protest. And when I woke up this morning, I felt less numb than I did yesterday. In fact, I felt more motivated to be creative than I have in almost two weeks. Because in their challenge of Mike Pence last night, the cast of Hamilton reminded me of the power of protest through art. They reminded me of how necessary it is to produce art that speaks out against those who would hold us back, and that motivates others to push us forward. And as much as ever before, I want to make art that does the same thing.
That’s far from the only thing I could or should do in the months and years ahead; in fact, we all need to be ready to do a lot more to oppose what this Presidency might attempt. But whatever else happens, I know I need to write day and night like I’m running out of time. And I will.
For many-to-all of the people that might be reading this, I suspect that last night was the longest and most upsetting night you’ve lived through in some time. I know that was the case for me and mine. This seems incomprehensible and mind-numbing on so many levels, and yet this is the reality that’s been delivered unto us, and now we need to figure out exactly what to do next.
But before we reckon with that, there’s some moral housekeeping to be done. While third-party votes may have exceeded the difference in votes between… him and Clinton in some incredibly important states, I’m not prepared to implicitly throw all third-party voters under the bus as scapegoats (although it is sooooooooo fucking tempting to do so, and this very true fact frustrates me to no end). And while the media certainly made things far easier for him than they should have been by normalizing his behavior and blowing the wrong things out of proportion, I’m not sure that was what really decided things for people. The fact is, none of that would be relevant if millions upon millions of people were not perfectly happy to vote for a man who could very accurately be described as racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, authoritarian, vindictive, childish and unstable.
And they did it because they were white.
Let’s be fucking clear about this. White people made an active effort to hold this country back and reject any potential progress for the sake of their own senselessly-fragile cultural identities. If you don’t believe me, there are charts out there (I am so not in the mood to post them here, I’m not a journalist so I don’t have to) illustrating that counties that had the lowest levels of unemployment actually voted for him hardest, that the people with the lowest incomes supported Hillary, and that the only racial demographic he won were white people. White people did this, out of some nonsense perspective about their place in this country, and now we all have to live in the aftermath of their entitlement and anger and fear.
And if you’re a white person and you didn’t vote for him, that’s great! I’m glad some of us aren’t self-involved shits. But that means you know most criticisms of white Americans being leveled today probably don’t apply to you so you don’t need to act defensive and say “well we aren’t ALL racist” or whatever. The burden of us as (straight) white people is that we need to own this fact, that our people made this choice for the nation, and whether we personally contributed to that fact shouldn’t lead to us dismissing the very real concern and suspicion of every non-white, non-straight person in this country that now get to grapple with an existential fear we can’t understand.
So, here we are. And I don’t know what to do next.
People have said that we need to organize, be proactive, be bulwarks against the potentially deadly social tide that will wash in after this storm. That sounds right, it sounds good, but for me that’s hard to wrap my head around. I live in New York, a liberal bastion that safely supports the values that just took a big hit last night. Do I need to move to a swing state, or actively work with a campaign? How can I know the acceptable level of action to take, how do I know the best way to help?
Some people (in web-page-crashing numbers) have wondered about moving to Canada, trying to get out from under this looming shadow before it’s too late. And I honestly can’t judge anyone for making that choice if they feel unsafe. Sure, I don’t want to surrender America to people like him but you never know when too late is too late, and it would be inhuman to romantically cling to the ideal of America at the expense of real lives that might be lost in the meanwhile.
I saw someone I can’t remember write the other day that America has never really been great, but has always pursued greatness. I think that’s true, and to say otherwise is to ignore a great deal of awfulness in American history. But I’ve always believed in that pursuit, in the inherent idealism of the American Experiment that was always in contrast with our compromises and contradictions. And that idealism has been captured in some wonderful art that it pains me to think about now. I believed in the idealism of Superman and Captain America, of Lincoln and Hamilton and West Wing and Parks and Recreation… and it feels like this is the farthest we’ve been from that idealism in a long time.
I really don’t know what I’m saying. Maybe because what’s there to say? I just woke up to the need to write something, anything, about this shitshow. To accept this reality through the one definitive talent God gave me. And now I, we, have to forge ahead into this cowardly new world.
There is one other thing to say. Being a straight white dude of Christian background living in a major metropolitan area, I am unlikely to be directly affected by any of what’s happened in my day-to-day life. Sure, there’s always the worry that this presidency could result in a cataclysm far beyond what’s imaginable (and I have a first rate imagination) but I’m not going to have to worry about my identity being under siege at any given moment, regardless of what my fellow white people seem to think. But to all the women, minorities, immigrants, LGBT, and disabled people that feel even more out of place than before in this country, who feel fear and uncertainty I can’t imagine: you aren’t alone. And no matter what happens next, you never will be. I hope that means something.
Now lets hold hands and step into the reality where Donald Trump is President of the United States. Together.