Matt Stoller explores all the multiplicitous ironies of the chattering class’s embrace of the hip hop musical about the fellow John Adams described as “the bastard brat of a Scots peddler.”
Before it was even written, the play was nurtured at the highest levels of the political establishment. While working through its material, Miranda road-tested song lyrics at the White House with President Obama. When it was performed, Obama, naturally, loved it. Hamilton, he said, â€œreminds us of the vital, crazy, kinetic energy thatâ€™s at the heart of America.â€ Michelle Obama pronounced it the best art she had ever seen.
The first coupleâ€™s comments were just the leading edge of a cultural explosion of praise. Actress Kerry Washington called it â€œlife changing.â€ Lena Dunham said, â€œIf every kid in America could see Hamilton they would thirst for historical knowledge and then show up to vote.â€ Saturday Night Live featured a sketch wherein Lorne Michaels begged guest host Miranda for Hamilton tickets (â€œI can do a matinee!â€). Itâ€™s perhaps harder to list celebrities who havenâ€™t seen Hamilton than those who have. And in Washington, D.C., politicians who havenâ€™t seen the show are considered uncool.
Admiration for the play crossed the political spectrum. Conservative pop-historian Niall Ferguson opened up a book talk, according to one witness on Twitter, â€œwith a rap set to music inspired by Hamilton.â€ Former secretaries of the treasury praised it, from Tim Geithner to Jack Lew to Hank Paulson. So did Dick Cheney, prompting Obama to note that the wonder of the play was perhaps the only thing the two men agreed on. Trevor Noah asked if Bernie Sanders, who had just seen the play, ran for president just so he would be able to get tickets. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and former White House chief of staff, raised eyebrows by jetting off to New York City to see a performance of Hamilton the night after Chicago teachers went on strike.
Itâ€™s not just that Hamilton is about a founding father, and thus inherently making statements about who we are as a culture. Itâ€™s become a status symbol within the Democratic establishment, offering them the chastened consolation that they might still claim solidarity with the nascent American democracy of the eighteenth century thatâ€™s stubbornly eluded them in the present-day political scene. Hillary Clinton quoted the play in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination, and told a young voter, â€œIâ€™ve seen the show three times and Iâ€™ve cried every timeâ€”and danced hard in my seat.â€ The play has become a political football in the era of Trump. When Trumpâ€™s vice president, Mike Pence, saw the show, one of the cast members read him a special note, written by Miranda and several cast members, asking Pence to protect all of America. Hamilton cast members helped lead the Womenâ€™s March in Chicago to protest Trumpâ€™s inauguration. Right-wing website Breitbart has a hostile mini-Hamilton beat, noting that the playâ€™s producers specifically requested non-white actors to fill the cast.
And after Trump won, Hamilton became a refuge. Journalist Nancy Youssef tweeted she overheard someone at the Pentagon say, â€œI am reaffirming my belief in democracy by listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.â€
Whatâ€™s strange about all of this praise is how it presumes that Alexander Hamilton was a figure for whom social justice and democracy were key animating traits. Given how Democrats, in particular, embraced the show and Hamilton himself as a paragon of social justice, you would think that he had fought to enlarge the democratic rights of all Americans. But Alexander Hamilton simply didnâ€™t believe in democracy, which he labeled an American â€œdisease.â€ He foughtâ€”with military forceâ€”any model of organizing the American political economy that might promote egalitarian politics. He was an authoritarian, and proud of it. …
[I]tâ€™s useful to recognize that Hamilton the play is not the real story of Alexander Hamilton; rather, as historian Nancy Isenberg has noted, itâ€™s a revealing parable about the politics of the finance-friendly Obama era. The play is based on Ron Chernowâ€™s eight-hundred-page 2004 biography of Hamilton. Chernow argues that â€œHamilton was an abolitionist who opposed statesâ€™ rights, favored an activist central government, a very liberal interpretation of the Constitution and executive rather than legislative powers.â€ Hamilton, he notes, â€œsounds . . . like a modern Democrat.â€ The abolition arguments are laughably false; Hamilton married into a slaveholding family and traded slaves himself. But they are only part of a much broader obfuscation of Hamiltonâ€™s politics. …
Hamilton had tremendous courage, insight, and brilliance. He is an important Founder, and not just because he structured early American finance. His life sheds light on some deep-rooted anti-democratic forces that have always existed in America, and in particular, on Wall Street. Much of the far-reaching contemporary Hamilton PR offensive is connected to the Gilder Lehman Institute, which is financed by bankers who back the right-wing Club for Growth and American Enterprise Institute (and support Hamiltonâ€™s beloved gold standard). Robert Rubin in 2004 started the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, which laid out the framework for the Obama administrationâ€™s financial policies. Chernow has made millions on books fawning over J. P. Morgan, the Warburg financial family, and John D. Rockefeller. And thanks largely to the runaway success of Hamilton the musical, Chernow is now, bizarrely, regarded as a court historian of American democracy in the mold of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Tom Nichols argues quite persuasively, and on the basis of good precedent, for the unthinkable in the event that the election comes down to Trump versus Hillary.
A few years ago, The Federalistâ€™s publisher, Ben Domenech, suggested that conservatives consider dumping the â€œBuckley Rule,â€ the late William F. Buckleyâ€™s admonition always to choose the most conservative candidate who can win. As Ben pointed out, things have changed since Buckley first issued this advice, including that the elite determination of â€œwho can winâ€ is often flawed. The Buckley Rule, for example, might have led to supporting Charlie Cristâ€”you may shudder at willâ€”instead of Marco Rubio in the 2010 Florida Senate race.
In its place, Ben raised the possibility of a â€œHamilton Rule,â€ named after Alexander Hamilton. Although both were Federalists, Hamilton despised John Adams and his coterie among his own party to the point where he was willing to lose the election of 1800. â€œIf we must have an enemy at the head of government,â€ Hamilton said in exasperation, â€œlet it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible.â€
In other words: Better to lose to a true enemy whose policies you can fight and repudiate, rather than to a false friend whose schemes will drag you down with him. This is a painful choice, but it also embraces realism while protecting the possibility of recovery in the future. The need to live to fight another day is why conservatives should adopt a Hamilton Rule if, God forbid, the choice comes down to Hillary and Trump.
My hands almost could not type those words, because I think Hillary Clinton is one of the worst human beings in American politics. She has few principles that I can discern, other than her firm conviction that she deserves the Oval Office for enabling and then defending her sexually neurotic husband. She lies as easily as the rest of us breathe. She has compromised national security through sheer laziness at best, and corrupt intent at worst. If elected, she will enrich Wall Street and raid the public coffers while preaching hateful doctrines of identity politics to distract Americaâ€™s poor and working classes.
But Trump will be worse. Morally unmoored, emotionally unstable, a crony capitalist of the worst kind, Trump will be every bit as liberal as Hillaryâ€”perhaps more so, given his statements over the years. He is by reflex and instinct a New York Democrat whose formal party affiliation is negotiable, as is everything about him. He has little commitment to anything but himself and his â€œdeals,â€ none of which will work in favor of conservatives or their priorities.
His judicial appointments will likely be liberal friends from New York. His Great Wall of Mexico will never be built, and employers will go right on hiring cheap labor and outsourcing jobs, just as Trump does with his made-in-Mexico suits. His China Smoot-Hawley Tariff will never be implemented. His administration, led by a vulgar, aging man-child who is firmly pro-abortion, who jokes about having sex with his daughter, and brags about his wealth, will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable among usâ€”including the unborn.
Trump, of course, will dissemble and whine about all these eventual failures. His fans will excuse him, as they do now, but they have short attention spans and will vanish in later midterm elections and future presidential contests. His white nationalist supporters, clinging to him like lice in the fur of an angry chimp, will shake their fists along with him for a time, until they too eventually slink away. By 2020, his core constituency will be a tiny sliver of whatâ€™s left of the white working class, pathetically standing at the gates of empty factories they thought Trump would re-open.
More to the point, after four years of thrashing around in the Oval Office like the ignorant boor he is, voters will no longer be able distinguish between the words â€œTrump,â€ â€œRepublican,â€ â€œconservative,â€ and â€œbuffoon.â€ He will obliterate Republicans further down the ticket in 2016 and 2020, smear conservatism as nothing more than his own brand of narcissism, and destroy decades of hard work, including Ronald Reaganâ€™s legacy.
The normal operations of American two-party politics fail to protect the country from crooks, scoundrels, liars, and complete shits. In 2004, the democrats nominated a traitor for the presidency. In 2008, they elected a totally-unqualified community organizer, i.e. a professional agitator. We have had worthless playboys (JFK), vulgarian shit-kicker crooks (LBJ), a lachrymose neurotic (Nixon), a wholly incompetent prig (Carter), and an amusing scoundrel (Clinton) as presidents in my lifetime. We have elected plenty of egotists, but we have never elected to the chief magistracy any spoiled and unhinged egomaniacs not reliably connected to reality. The system at least saw to that.
In the case of Donald Trump, we are dealing with a completely unprecedented phenomenon. Every past president, however unethical, deluded, or malevolent, could be relied upon to operate within certain broad bounds of conventionality. None of them, for instance, was ever going to cancel the next election and remain in office.
Hillary is a crook and a liar, to be sure, but Hillary in the final analysis is just a corrupt, left-wing democrat. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is something out of the nation’s Hollywood nightmares. Donald Trump is Willie Stark from “All the King’s Men” (1949). Donald Trump is “Lonesome” Rhodes from “A Face in the Crowd” (1957). Donald Trump is the barbarian outsider swept into power by popular emotion, operating completely outside conventional norms, mores, and expectations. Donald Trump talks happily of forcibly deporting 12 million people. No normal American politician would try to do something like that. Trump might. And there isn’t really any telling what else someone like Donald Trump might do.
Obama Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced on Tuesday that in order “to honor our past and express our values” in 2020 in the course of celebrating the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote) the Treasury Department is planning to demote Alexander Hamilton to a bit part on the ten dollar bill he has occupied for many years, replacing his central portrait with the image of some woman.
Well, if Jack Lew really wants to know exactly which values Americans really desire to express, Twitter makes it perfectly clear that Irony and Sarcasm come at the top of the list. The winner is none other than Caitlyn Jenner.
Whole Foods produce section, Reno, Nevada
Venkatesh Rao (as is becoming ever more frequent these days, we Americans get our explanations about ourselves from Indians) describes a longstanding American cultural pattern of concealing out Hamiltonian realities behind more pleasing Jeffersonian facades.
Every time you set foot in a Whole Foods store, you are stepping into one of the most carefully designed consumer experiences on the planet. Produce is stacked into black bins in order to accentuate its colour and freshness. Sale items peek out from custom-made crates, distressed to look as though theyâ€™ve just fallen off a farmerâ€™s truck. Every detail in the store, from the font on a sign to a countertopâ€™s wood finish, is designed to make you feel like youâ€™re in a country market. Most of us take these faux-bucolic flourishes for granted, but shopping wasnâ€™t always this way.
George Gilmanâ€™s early A&P stores are the spiritual ancestors of the Whole Foods experience. If you were a native of small-town America in the 1860s, walking into one of Gilmanâ€™s A&P stores was a serious culture shock. You would have stared agog at gaslit signage, advertising, tea in branded packages, and a cashier’s station shaped like a Chinese pagoda. You would have been forced to wrap your head around the idea of mail-order purchases.
Before Gilman, pre-industrial consumption was largely the unscripted consequence of localised, small-scale patterns of production. With the advent of A&P stores, consumerism began its 150-year journey from real farmersâ€™ markets in small towns to fake farmersâ€™ markets inside metropolitan grocery stores. Through the course of that journey, retailing would discover its natural psychological purpose: transforming the output of industrial-scale production into the human-scale experience we call shopping.
Gilman anticipated, by some 30 years, the fundamental contours of industrial-age selling. Both the high-end faux-naturalism of Whole Foods and the budget industrial starkness of Costco have their origins in the original A&P retail experience. The modern system of retail pioneered by Gilman â€” distant large-scale production facilities coupled with local human-scale consumption environments â€” was the first piece of what Iâ€™ve come to think of as the â€˜American cloudâ€™: the vast industrial back end of our lives that we access via a theatre of manufactured experiences. If distant tea and coffee plantations were the first modern clouds, A&P stores and mail-order catalogues were the first browsers and apps. …
The American cloud is the product of a national makeover that started in 1791 with Alexander Hamiltonâ€™s American School of economics â€” a developmental vision of strong national institutions and protectionist policies designed to shelter a young, industrialising nation from British dominance. Hamiltonâ€™s vision was diametrically opposed to Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s competing vision based on small-town, small-scale agrarian economics. Indeed, the story of America is, in many ways, the story of how Hamiltonâ€™s vision came to prevail over Jeffersonâ€™s.
By the early 19th century, Hamiltonâ€™s ideas had crystallised into two complementary doctrines, both known as the â€˜American systemâ€™. The first was senator Henry Clayâ€™s economic doctrine, based on protectionist tariffs, a national bank, and ongoing internal infrastructure improvements. The second was the technological doctrine of precision manufacturing based on interchangeable parts, which emerged around Springfield and Harpers Ferry national armouries. Together, the two systems would catalyse the emergence of an industrial back end in the countryâ€™s heartland, and the establishment of a consumer middle class on the urbanising coasts. But it would take another century, and the development of the internet, for the American cloud to retreat almost entirely from view.
By the 1880s, the two American systems had given rise to a virtuous cycle of accelerating development, with emerging corporations and developing national infrastructure feeding off each other. The result was the first large-scale industrial base: a world of ambitious infrastructure projects, giant corporations and arcane political structures. Small farms gave way to transcontinental railroads, giant dams, Standard Oil and US Steel. The most consequential political activity retreated into complex new governance institutions that few ordinary citizens understood, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Reserve, and the War Industries Board. Politics began to acquire its surreal modern focus on broadly comprehensible sideshows.
Over the course of two centuries, the Hamiltonian makeover turned the isolationist, small-farmer America of Jeffersonâ€™s dreams into the epicentre of the technology-driven, planet-hacking project that we call globalisation. The visible signs of the makeover â€” I call them Hamiltonian cathedrals â€” are unprepossessing. Viewed from planes or interstate highways, grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards cannot compete visually with big sky and vast prairie. Nevertheless, the Hamiltonian makeover emptied out and transformed the interior of America into a technology-dominated space that still deserves the name heartland. Except that now the heart is an artificial one.
The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of Americaâ€™s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions. These constitute a theatre of pre-industrial community life primarily inspired, ironically enough, by Jeffersonâ€™s small-town visions. This theatre, which forms the backdrop of consumer lifestyles, can be found today inside every Whole Foods, Starbucks and mall in America. I call it the Jeffersonian bazaar.
The founding era figure dismissed contemptuously by John Adams as “the bastard brat of a Scots pedlar” has in recent years been adopted as a particular hero by the same Neocons who are typically currently supporting Rudolph Giuliani for many of the same reasons.
Hamilton’s championship of the interests of the financial community has a natural appeal to New Yorkers, and Hamilton’s enthusiasm for centralization and the activism and expansion of federal power accords comfortably with many of the basic views of former New Deal liberals, ousted from their once-comfortable home in the democrat party by the radical left.
William Hogeland, in Boston Review, discusses the Hamilton revival, reviews its literature in detail, and notes Hamilton’s Janet Reno-ish eagerness to resort to armed federal force as a key factor disqualifying the Nevis Creole from serving as an appropriate icon for American conservatism.