Early Saturday morning, President-elect Donald J. Trump took a break from the business of assembling the pieces of his incoming administration to excoriate the cast of the Broadway theater production Hamilton for “harassing” Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Boos and cheers from the audience greeted Pence upon his arrival at the theater Friday evening and, as Pence departed the theater following the performance, the cast made a brief statement expressing concern about the new administration’s purported lack of inclusivity.
In response to the previous evening’s events, Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton . . . This should not happen!” Moments later, he tweeted: “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!” Then, early the following morning, Trump launched another broadside, tweeting: “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”
In the wake of the Hamilton kerfuffle, political observers pondered whether Trump’s theater commentary was a tactic to distract attention from his $25 million settlement of the Trump University fraud cases or whether the media otherwise devoted too much attention to the episode. However, the reality is that the Hamilton controversy provides the public with crystal clear insights into Trump’s character.
The charge of hypocrisy is one of the most frequent types of political attacks made today. A hypocrite is “a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs.” The word “hypocrite” originally referred to the profession of stage acting. In ancient Athens, Demosthenes argued that his political opponent, Aeschines, could not be trusted due to his past profession as a hypocrite impersonating characters on stage.
I refuse to call Trump a hypocrite, because that would violate the tradition of providing incoming presidents with a honeymoon. Instead, I will only call him an actor. The question thus becomes: when is Trump acting and when is he making a cameo appearance? Or does he play multiple parts? Do we ever really see the @realDonaldTrump?
Let’s examine the Hamilton episode for clues. The cast thanked Pence for attending and then stated:
We, sir, 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 this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
The cast’s statement is slightly preachy and put Pence on the spot (he likely had hoped to escape his political identity for the evening). Reasonable people can disagree about whether it was inappropriate for the actors to call out a patron who had likely paid $800 for his ticket or merely an artful exercise of every citizen’s right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Was the Hamilton cast’s treatment of Pence “rude,” as Trump claimed? Perhaps it was rude under societal norms as they existed in 2014, but the world has changed. Candidate Trump proclaimed that America is too politically correct, that political correctness is dangerous, and that it is very important that people feel free to say whatever they want about other people. Candidate Trump proved Jeb Bush wrong; it turns out you really are “able to insult your way to the presidency.” The New York Times has compiled The 282 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter. The Hamilton cast didn’t even call Pence a single name. Clearly, if the cast intended to be rude to Pence, it was a totally lightweight (to use a favorite Trumpism) effort.
But was the Hamilton cast’s treatment of Pence “harassment”? No, not under the standard set by Candidate Trump. Recall that at the first Republican presidential primary debate, held on August 5, 2015, Fox News host Megyn Kelly dared to ask Trump about a series of statements he had made in the past that disparaged women’s appearance or sexuality. His initial response was to threaten her: “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be [nice] based on the way you have treated me.” Then, Trump was “not nice” to Kelly for eight months.
Candidate Trump’s harrassment of Kelly didn’t end with his insinuation during a television interview that Kelly’s menstrual cycle caused her to ask him unreasonable questions. The harassment didn’t end after Candidate Trump’s antics prompted his supporters to bombard her Twitter account with hostile, often misogynist tweets. Candidate Trump hinted in a January 2016 tweet that he thought Kelly was a bimbo. In March, he was still attacking Kelly on Twitter, calling her “crazy” and disparaging her television show. Candidate Trump’s feud against Kelly incited death threats against her and she feared for her family’s safety. Surely, President-elect Trump does not believe that Pence’s 60-second public lecture was on par with Candidate Trump’s magnificent Kelly feud.
So, what of Trump’s statement that the “Theater must always be a safe and special place.” Candidate Trump would mock President-elect Trump, would he not? After all, “safe places” are for snowflakes who can’t handle politically incorrect ideas.
During his tweet storm, President-elect Trump twice called upon the Hamilton cast to apologize to Pence for embarrassing him with a one-minute lecture. Recall, however, that Candidate Trump almost never truly apologized for bad behavior. He has never apologized for suggesting, during his campaign kickoff speech in June 2015, that the vast majority of people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border are rapists and drug dealers. He has never apologized to Kelly for his harassment of her. Nor did he apologize for disparaging model Heidi Klum’s looks (or Carly Fiorina’s or Heidi Cruz’s). He never apologized to Gold Star parent Ghazala Khan for suggesting that “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” When caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women (a potentially campaign-ending revelation), he briefly apologized and, then, dismissed the episode as “locker room talk.” No, President-elect Trump, who calls for heightened civility and apologizing, is nothing like Candidate Trump.
Candidate Trump set new lows for civility in public discourse. The latest addition to America’s political stage, President-elect Trump, chastises behavior infinitely milder than that displayed by Candidate Trump. Is President-elect Trump the genuine, civil human hidden during the campaign? Or is he, as the ghostwriter of Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, claims, a sociopath whose presidency could “lead to the end of civilization”? We’ll have to wait until Act III to find out.
Currently the principal of Everest Law Firm in Alexandria, Virginia, Kris Hammond has served as an attorney for a district court judge, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the U.S. Department of Justice in its Civil Rights Division. He has run for office twice and was an elected delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.