Sunday, March 06, 2016

Trump vs Hamilton

A brash loudmouth from New York City has been taking America by storm lately, to the consternation of the traditional political elite. I'm talking, of course, about Alexander Hamilton, and about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's monstrous, Grammy-winning Broadway hit. A rap-driven Broadway musical with a racially diverse cast has managed to delight many conservatives with its joyful, reverent embrace of the Revolution and of the American Experiment. It's sold out a year in advance, and legions of fans, including me, bide time listening to the original soundtrack album over and over. (To quote Miranda's lyrics: his poor wife.) Hamilton isn't just a ground-breaking piece of theater; it's also a vision of America.

It's very different from the idea of America being peddled by that other phenomenal loudmouth from New York City, Donald Trump. Both Hamilton and Trump are enjoying unexpected, unprecedented success right now. So it's worth thinking about the competing national visions they're promoting.

Trump's vision is deeply anti-intellectual. There's a deep streak of know-nothingism in our history; Richard Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life makes the case so convincingly it breaks your heart. But Trump represents a new low point. His "speeches," which aren't really speeches but grab-bags of unrelated remarks, are pitched at something like a third-grade reading level, completely empty of anything like a policy, a plan, or an idea. (One of the secrets of Trump's success on Twitter is that he never has a thought too complicated for 140 characters. In fact, most of his tweets include three distinct sentences, with three Trump-sized thoughts.) And he is openly hostile to thinking, to expertise, to knowledge. Remember, this is a guy who believes every dumbass thing he sees on the internet. Trump appeals to a "poorly educated" voter base (Trump's words, not mine) by appealing to their resentment of education, and he's good at channeling that resentment because he shares it.

Hamilton, on the other hand, openly celebrates the Founders' intellectual achievements. America has a long anti-intellectual tradition, but it was founded by some serious thinkers and writers. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Hamilton: that's a serious murderers' row of brainpower. The biggest exception, Washington, was a man of action with little formal education, but Washington wasn't bragging about that. He was part of a rich intellectual culture and he valued others for their intellectual attainments. (Compare even a random letter of Washington's with a Trump speech sometime and ask yourself which of them went to college.) The first sentence of Miranda's musical introduces Hamilton as "a hero and a scholar" and there is a constant focus on Hamilton's ferocious intelligence, his "top-notch brain" and his incredible gifts as a writer. ("Hamilton's a host unto himself. As long as he can hold a pen/ He's a threat.") You can watch Miranda pitching the idea of the show to an initially skeptical White House audience a few years ago, saying that Hamilton's success was "all on the strength of his writing; I think he embodies the word's ability to make a difference."

That emphasis on Hamilton's literary power is part of Miranda's surprising but effective case that Hamilton is like a rapper; verbal facility is the key (as is coming up from nowhere and getting in endless beefs). Hamilton recreates a sense of the Founders' intimidating brilliance through the most intricate and dazzlingly complicated raps that Broadway has ever seen. The result is that Hamilton clocks in at a staggering twenty thousand words, performed at a lightning-fast clip: faster than Sondheim, four times the speed of Gilbert & Sullivan, faster even than the famous "Model of a Major-General" song. You come away from Hamilton with the sense that the Revolution and hip-hop are part of a single, larger American conversation. But you also come away with the sense that nothing is more American than being smart. After all, America's inventors were so smart it was scary.

Hamilton is the story of an intellectual, but also of an immigrant. While Trump and bashes immigrants on the campaign trail, Hamilton celebrates its Caribbean-born hero as "another immigrant/ Comin' up from the bottom." Hamilton gets called an "immigrant" over and over, by nearly everyone in the show. (At Yorktown, Hamilton and Lafayette cheer each other with the phrase "Immigrants! We get the job done!") And Hamilton itself is deliberately cast across color lines, with African-American, Latino, and Asian performers playing various white historical figures; that's both a radical move, because casting a black Jefferson is nowhere close to a neutral choice, but also a completely legible move, growing out of decades of color-blind casting in classical theater. (If you can cast a black Juliet on Broadway without the audience getting too literal, a black George Washington is just one more step.) Hamilton is celebrating America as a glorious melting pot and casting a Hispanic writer-performer in the lead while Republicans are seething with xenophobia on the campaign trail and ranting about a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants (because no human smuggler has ever thought of using tunnels. Loser of a plan. Sad!). Hamilton's America looks like America; Trump's America is nativist and whites-only.

So one vision of America is pro-immigrant and pro-intellectual; the other is anti-minority and anti-intellectual. Those combinations are not accidental. They're not inevitable either; Jefferson was both an intellectual and a racist. But anti-intellectualism and either nativism or outright racism have gone tightly together for a long time. One early anti-immigrant party was literally called the Know-Nothings. It comes down to the question of how we define America.

America was created in recent history, as countries go, and that makes it all too obvious that we don't really have to be here. Older nations have grown up over much, much longer periods of time (and went through some long, difficult pains to develop national identities). Being French is pretty straightforward. But being American ... what even is that?

One answer is that America is defined by a set of ideas (and ideals): America is the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the belief in liberty. We're an invented country, and the thing that holds us together is our shared democratic beliefs. That's an appealing story, on a lot of levels, and it's at least partly the truth. That story also has the virtue of providing a relatively clear test that gets around the murkiness that ethnic or racial definitions of America fall into: there are these documents and principles, and if you embrace them you're one of us. That vision lends itself to immigration, because you can be one of us, in the most important way of all, the second you step off the boat. And that's inevitably an intellectual definition of being American; it's about philosophical ideas. Hamilton reflects this time-honored vision.

But that intellectual definition isn't very welcoming to people who dislike abstract thought or who actively resent it. It's all pretty airy-fairy, and not really about concrete facts. So there's always been another answer to the question "What is America?" that gives an answer based in race and ethnicity. Being American is being white, speaking English, being culturally and ethnically like the other "real" Americans. This idea never dies. And it allows people to justify taking things (land, money, labor) from groups who get defined as "not American," so it can, uh, whitewash things like land grabs as noble and virtuous rather than, you know, criminal. It's always had that base economic appeal. Of course, because the question of who a "real American" is, or who counts as white, is never straightforward and has constantly changed throughout our history, this vision of America is always, at best, intellectually incoherent and usually flat-out stupid. (I mean, the main thing that makes us American is ... being like the English? What?) But this is the Trump vision.

This is the vision of America that allows some people to say, matter-of-factly, that New York City is not American. Note that one of Ted Cruz's counterattacks on Trump is that he has "New York City values" which means not being really American. From any sane perspective, New York City is as American as America gets. Is London not English? Is Paris not French? Don't be a jerk.

It would be nice to say that one of these visions is the real answer, and the other is not. Clearly, I prefer America-as-idea to America-as-ethnic-tribe. The truth is that both answers are partial truths, and both have been operating throughout America's history. But that doesn't mean that one vision isn't better than the other. The Hamilton vision is better than the Trump vision in every way, morally and pragmatically. It is worth fighting for. It is worth winning for. And it's no accident that Hamilton is joyous and forward-looking while Trumpism is pessimistic and aggrieved, endlessly talking about past grievances and lost greatness. The politics of ethnic resentment demand that you claim to have been robbed, which is pretty hilarious coming from white Americans, so that it always looks back to the lost good old days and treats modernity as awful. But Hamilton's vision is American in its optimism. The vision of America as ideal can always look forward. Our ideas, our beliefs, will always have a future. We can always build America. We can always make America better. And new Americans will flock to that banner every day. Those of us who embrace America, the idea, have not yet begun to fight.

I'll let George Washington sing us to the chorus:

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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