On November 18, soon-to-be VP Mike Pence went to a showing of Hamilton in New York City. For those unaware, Hamilton is a box office-breaking hip-hop musical about the life of one of the United States’ Founders, Alexander Hamilton. At the show, Pence was criticized sharply by both the cast and audience, prompting a surprisingly brash response from Donald Trump. Some of the media coverage may have been overblown, but it speaks to wider questions many are asking in the current political climate.
Without relitigating every last detail of the evening, here is the rundown; Mike Pence was booed as he entered the theater to watch Hamilton after some in the audience realized who he was. After the musical had finished, Pence was about to leave, but was asked to stay. An actor gave a short speech on behalf of the cast, which was relatively gentle: it encouraged Mike Pence to keep an open mind about how the upcoming presidential administration will treat minorities in the United States.
Mike Pence simply walked out of the theater, saying nothing; he would later handle it relatively gracefully and say that he was not offended by the message. The same, however, cannot be said for Donald Trump. He reacted swiftly on Twitter, with this tweet going viral: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
There is a certain irony about Trump, the anti-“political correctness” candidate, advocating for “safe spaces” from criticism. Of course, art has never really been a safe space free of political discourse. The response of the president-elect set off a firestorm in the media.
Some people overreacted: it seems like a bit of a stretch to say that Trump’s tweet foreshadowed the abolition of the First Amendment, as was suggested. Nevertheless, the ensuing controversy from the tweet fall into three broad aspects of the Trumpian political scene.
First, many journalists across the political spectrum have been on-edge since Election Day. For a plethora of reasons, Trump is viewed as a threat to a functioning free press. His war with the media is well known, and his refusal to adhere to president-elect-media relations has been a hot issue as of late. Perhaps more damning are some of his policy proposals, which have included expanding libel laws against the press and “closing down parts of the Internet.”
As I mentioned before, there is no way to know for certain what policies Trump will or will not enact when he assumes the office early next year. However, to already concerned journalists, Trump’s hotheadedness is hardly reassuring.
Second, U.S. presidents generally do not involve themselves in such petty drama. Many consider doing so to be sinking below the dignity of the office of president. But more importantly, presidents typically do not want to even slightly suggest that they would be trying to intimidate people into not speaking.
For example, there was a controversy in mid-2001 when George W. Bush’s Press Secretary Ari Fleischer made inappropriate remarks about Bill Maher, a comedian who had made controversial comments about 9/11.
Maher questioned whether the 9/11 attackers should be classified as “cowards”, a statement that would later prompt the suspension of his show and its eventual cancellation.
While the Bush administration had no direct role in this, at a press meeting Fleischer commented that the Maher incident was a reminder “to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that.” Fleischer’s words shocked many and were initially scrubbed from the White House transcript, as well. Even if the White House played no role in Maher losing his show, Fleischer’s comments were harshly criticized. Fleischer ended up apologizing.
Third, this event provides us a window into Trump’s demeanor as president. Will the president himself comment on every little political squabble? Reports are already coming in that Trump is refusing to give up his Android smartphone. Does this mean that the thin-skinned, insecure, petty Twitter user that comprised candidate Donald Trump’s campaign persona will continue while he holds public office?
It is impossible to see into the future. But there is good reason to be concerned that Trump as president will have little or no filter. It is one thing to be a candidate who speaks freely and “tells it like it is!”, but it is another to have the most powerful person in the world doing so. It might not lead to the worst case, free-speech abolishing scenario – but it certainly could be a tremendous complication of foreign relations.
In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.