Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hamilton for President

I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

This spring, our house has been pulsing to lines like the one above, from the smash-hit musical Hamilton. The show tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop, dance and brilliant modern-day storytelling. Anyone who has seen the sold-out musical or listened to the bestselling album has probably been hooked on the songs just as my wife, daughters and I have been. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, lyrics and dynamic method of bringing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography to life are captivating in ways that call to mind other groundbreaking musicals such as Rent and Book of Mormon – shows that dared to be different and offered a new direction for Broadway.
            Part of what makes Hamilton so impressive is the degree to which it speaks to our modern-day world. In Miranda’s hands, we see a show that addresses many of our hot-button issues of 2016, from immigration to race to financial policies to foreign affairs to electoral politics. Hamilton also makes it clear that heated debate – yes, even heated fighting – has long been a part of American politics.
            But despite the musical’s indisputable relevance, I’d guess that even the subject of this show would be surprised at the level of absurdity present in the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s all been very well documented, so I’m not going to review it with you again. But suffice it to say that no matter how much Alexander Hamilton might be intrigued by the idea of attack ads, Twitter posts and sound bites, he would be disappointed in the tone of this election. After all, this was a man who much preferred taking on his opponents face to face instead of letting others fight his battles for him.
            And that’s where things get most frustrating for me as I follow the current presidential campaign (from a distance, as I can’t bring myself to get too close to something this ugly). When I hear candidates raise ideas that they clearly don’t plan to follow through on, but that serve to rile up an angry base, I am reminded of a memorable line from The Great Gatsby.
By the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (which, like Hamilton, speaks to the 21st century throughout every page), narrator Nick Carraway can no longer refrain from judging two of the characters he’s been describing for us. The husband and wife due of Daisy and Tom Buchanan have left a disaster in their wake as they leave town, and Nick knows that they will not be the ones to suffer from this. He says, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
This, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump. He raises ideas and proposals that he will never bring to pass, even if he were to be elected president. He will not actually build a giant wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, nor will he arrest women seeking abortions. But because he says these things, Trump brings out emotions in those who take him at his word. And the mess that someone like this can make overshadows any positive steps he could conceivably take as a leader. But he’s a smart man, and he knows that if he says there might be riots if he’s not his party’s nominee, he is both planting an idea and recusing himself of any blame for such violence. He won’t be the one committing any violent acts, so he’ll just shrug his shoulders and say he’s disappointed at what happened.
This kind of behavior is not just a political thing, of course. It’s human nature. We see it when Kim Kardashian posts a nude selfie, knowing that her influence will lead young teenagers to try the same. We see it when Roger Goodell says that if he had a son he’d love to see the boy play football, when in fact the NFL commissioner doesn’t have a son and knows that many youngsters who play will sustain concussions unless the game is made safer. We see it when Ted Cruz promotes Christianity on the campaign stump, knowing that this is being read by some as code for “no Muslims.” So long as you imply your point instead of directly stating it, you’re as safe as Tom and Daisy.
Humans can be sneaky communicators, and they also know how to use their power, wealth and social status to make a tremendous mess of society. They know that their words and actions can hold incredible weight, and they are willing to use that leverage to watch others start a fire after they’ve left the lighter fluid on the floor.
Alexander Hamilton had plenty of flaws, for sure. But he acted on his beliefs, said what he thought, and made his own mess – even the one that led to his own death. “Every action’s an act of creation,” Miranda sings in the song “My Shot.” It’s not uncommon for works of art to speak to our needs better than the leaders we’re considering for elected office. This year, that is particularly true. Miranda’s miraculous work of art is worth every moment we give it, for through his words we might just find a way out of this electoral mess we’re in, and into the light of engagement, collaboration and hope.
It’s time to take a shot.