In the wake of the celebration of Vice President–Elect Mike Pence being confronted by the cast of Hamilton—and tweets from Donald Trump confirming that the message had been received—came a backlash: This theater stuff was distracting us from serious issues.
“Don’t Let Donald Trump’s Antics Distract You From What’s Really Important” was the headline of Matthew Yglesias’ scolding in Vox (11/19/16). “The truth is that nothing about the Hamilton story,” wrote Yglesias, “is in any way important to how [Trump] runs the country.” What we should be paying attention to, he suggested, were reports that “foreign diplomats are booking rooms at Donald Trump’s hotel in Washington, DC,” and that “Donald Trump paid $21 million to former students of his fake university who he allegedly defrauded.”
“Donald Trump’s Hamilton Tweets Are His Pathetic Way of Distracting You From What Really Matters,” was Morgan Brinlee’s post in Bustle (11/19/16). “Trump might act like he cares that Pence was booed by some audience members at Hamilton, but he really cares about distracting people from the things that matter most,” Brinlee declared—things like the diplomats staying at Trump’s hotel and the settlement of Trump University’s fraud charges, as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka sitting in at a meeting with the Japanese prime minister.
Buzzfeed‘s Julia Reinstein, in “People Think Trump’s Feuding With Hamilton to Distract You From This Other Stuff” (11/19/16) reported on concerns that
the entire feud was a classic Trump move to distract people from bigger concerns, such as the $25 million settlement of the Trump University case and Ivanka Trump, who may soon be running his businesses, sitting in on a meeting with the Japanese prime minister.
In Politico, Jack Shafer warned us to “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool” (11/19/16), imagining the president-elect’s glee as we fall for his “deliberately provocative tweet” like “Pavlov’s dog”:
In the villainous golden lair he maintains in Trump Tower, Baby Donald laughed his best Dr. Evil laugh. Got ’em again, he thought. Yesterday’s settlement of the Trump University lawsuit is the real news, but my Twitter incitement will dominate all else for at least 12 hours.
Asa Bennett of the London Daily Telegraph brought data to the issue, tweeting a graph comparing Google searches for “Trump University” (the red line) with searches for “Trump Hamilton” (blue):
You may notice that the “Trump Hamilton” searches do not, in fact, seem to have altered the trajectory of interest in the Trump University story—and, indeed, that initial searches for “Trump University” were considerably higher than “Trump Hamilton” searches (though, to be fair, there are many more ways to search for the Hamilton story). Still, the fact remained that people were searching for Trump trivia when they could have been learning about more important stories.
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Or were they?
I would argue that the most important undercovered story of the Trump transition period is the fact that Trump is the least popular president-elect in modern history (Daily News, 11/17/16). This information has tremendous import both for the strength of Trump’s brand of far-right politics and for the potential for public mobilization to block his most damaging policies—if the public is aware of it, that is.
The Hamilton audience booing Pence—though far from a random sample—is, in fact, a manifestation of the majority opinion in the United States. Coverage of the controversy would have done well to make that clear.
The scandals that the blogosphere scolds think we should have been paying more attention to are indeed important—but not because Trump will ever be held directly accountable for them, or even because they will have a direct impact on the lives of people. Instead, they’re important because they illustrate the unprecedented corruption of the Trump regime, and this should lead to even greater unpopularity for Trump. In other words, stories like the Trump University settlement are important because they may lead to more stories like the Hamilton confrontation.
Further, the laundry list of stories that bloggers offered as more worthy than the Hamilton story points to something that is already clear about the Trump era: We are all of us—journalists and news consumers alike—going to have to get used to paying attention to more than one scandal at a time. They are not going to politely wait their turn.
It’s also worth looking at the racial element here: One of the reasons offered by a mostly white blogosphere for paying less attention to the Hamilton controversy is that, in the words of the Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan (11/20/16), “a stage full of empowered and talented black and brown people openly questioning the ability of a conservative white man to effectively lead them” would not play well with “the aggrieved red state populist.” The message delivered by Brandon Victor Dixon—Hamilton‘s Aaron Burr—to the real-life vice president–elect 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. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.
That’s a critique that gets to the heart of what’s wrong with Trumpism more clearly than any number of stories about hotel bribery and fake universities. The suggestion that “talented black and brown people” should refrain from making such criticisms—or that, when made, the rest of us should try to ignore them—in order to avoid offending white racists, to my mind, is an even bigger scandal than Ivanka Trump sitting in on meetings with the Japanese prime minister.