On Friday night, Vice President-elect Mike Pence made his way to the Theater District for a showing of the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton. His reception at the Richard Rodgers Theater, two blocks west and 10 blocks south of Trump Tower, was chilly. The audience booed him. The cast read him a thinly-veiled admonishment from stage. Trump reacted with typical restraint, lashing out on Twitter and demanding the cast apologize (he also took some time out of his busy schedule to get into a Twitter argument with Alec Baldwin over Saturday Night Live). By the end of the weekend, debate about Trump’s impulse control and the irony of a reality star-cum-elected official complaining about things like Broadway musicals and televised improv comedy-based variety shows dominated the news cycle. And it couldn’t have been more perfect for the president-elect if it was wearing a sash over a bikini and speaking vaguely about world peace.
Donald Trump is facing a barrage of serious questions about his fitness to serve as president. His business entanglements are cause for ethical and legal concern. His choices for advisors are, to liberals, basically Suicide Squad if all of Suicide Squad consisted of Jared Leto’s Joker; from Jeff Sessions, deemed too racist to serve as a federal judge in the 1980s to Steve Bannon, who has been dreaming of a white Christmas for years, if you catch my drift. Trump seems ill-prepared to fulfill the demands of the presidency as news reports detail his disregard for protocol and manners, desires to return to New York City on the weekends, and his jockeying to outsource all of the thinking the office requires to his unelected children. He just paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit alleging his university was a fraud. The best thing Trump could hope for now is for the public to talk about anything but those things.
Trump must be thanking his lucky stars for Hamilton and Alec Baldwin today.
Hamilton represents to the aggrieved red state populist what a Trump campaign rally represents to the concerned despite being largely insulated from harm urban blue state liberal; both represent the epitome of what the other side expects of their adversaries. Liberals who read about the bullying of Katy Tur or the Jew-S-A chanting guy or the Lock Her Up! chants or the many instances of protesters being roughed up or thrown out had their biases confirmed: Trumpland was violent, xenophobic, racist, sexist, and savage. Adult men who were not professional baseball players were wearing baseball caps in public. Signs containing misspelled racial slurs were proudly held aloft (spelling is for elites!). Reports from the campaign trail allowed those living in liberal urban areas to conclude that Trump was elevating to legitimacy a culture bereft of class.
Likewise, what happened at the Pence-booing Hamilton show represents what the sort of angry Trump-ian populist would find repulsive about the coastal elite: Thousand dollar ticket-holders showing their open disdain for a tourist from Indiana, the unsettling cultural and sexual greyness of New York City, a stage full of empowered and talented black and brown people openly questioning the ability of a conservative white man to effectively lead them.
Saturday Night Live’s attacks on Trump, while cathartic to viewers at around the same point on the political spectrum as the most of the show’s cast and writers, prove something else Trump voters likely suspected: Smart-assed creatives have no respect for them. (Whether or not the aggrieved have actually earned respect is immaterial; to them, respect is owed, and is not being paid.) The entertainment industry, fat with political comedy shows, has spent years laughing at the expense of people like them, and spent the last year and a half pointing and laughing. Well, Trump sure showed them.
Throughout the campaign, Trump presented himself like the guy wearing a wire to the black tie event, dutifully reporting out the snobbishness that occurred within. He was MAGA nation’s inside man, the guy who would be honest with them about what was really going on at those snooty New York City parties to which they’d never be invited. Trump’s message was this: The elite find you ridiculous, but I don’t. The elite find you laughable, but I don’t. The elite will boo you, but I will put them in their place. They elite will make fun of you, and they’ll make fun of me, but I will not change and neither should you.
To a voter motivated to support Trump by a disdain for elites, that the people in the cities were laughing at them, booing them, looking down on them just confirms their suspicions. It provides justification for their recent electoral Fuck You, and excites them about future Trump administration Fuck Yous. They’ll revel when their president governs by the principle of schadenfreude, basking in the dissatisfaction and unhappiness of the elites they just know are laughing at them.
Hamilton and Alec Baldwin lashing out at the Trump administration is the sum of all aggrieved populist fears. No wonder Donald can’t shut up about it.
While not much about the last year has been predictable, here’s a prediction that will almost certainly bear out:
Trump will continue to harp on SNL and Hamilton for as long as people are paying attention. Trump will seize on dispatches from the culture wars that further the notion that this country consists of a salt of the earth cheated white us versus a snotty, wealthy, coddled urban dwelling them. The source of Trump’s faux-populist smokescreen rage won’t be Hamilton next time; maybe it will be the Oscars, or the Emmys, or the Tony awards. Maybe it will be a thousand dollar a plate fundraiser, or the White House correspondents’ dinner, or the Met ball. And it will serve the same function then as it does now: a way to keep the public focused on issues that froth up Trump’s base, and a way to keep what’s really concerning about Trump’s leadership buried beneath a layer of petty bullshit.
If we on the coasts are so smart, we should know better than to keep falling for it.