Trumping Hamilton: A Tale of Two Bastards

By  Craig Hatkoff

Last week two great American spectacles, one featuring Alexander Hamilton and the other Donald Trump, had their opening nights. Both shows made great theater, each starring a slightly flawed, unconventional anti-hero i.e. a character with “non-traditional” heroic attributes. Anti-heroes tend to be real bastards but we kind of like them anyway. Anti-hero? Just think Walter White in Breaking Bad. A very lovable bastard.

On August 7th, the Broadway debut of Hamilton literally rocked the theater world. Moving from the highly prestigious off-Broadway Public Theater to the Great White Way, the red-hot Hamilton opened to unimaginable rave reviews. Even the New York Times couldn’t control their enthusiasm. Based on and inspired by Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tour de force has completely upended the world of theater not to mention how we think about history. 

“For all his superlative mental gifts, he was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative.” 

 – Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton

The GOP Presidential Debates also debuted on August 7th kicking off the 2016 presidential race. Starring real estate magnate, beauty pageant impresario, and spectacle-maker-in-chief Donald Trump, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was cast as lead gladiator. Kelly went right for the jugular from the get-go turning the usually staid and rather boring presidential debates from a politician’s bake-off  into a legitimate blood sport. Kelly and co-moderators Chris Wallace and Brett Baier targeted Trump looking for a knock out punch which never quite happened; blood was drawn but there were no fatalites as the troika of moderators demonstrated their facility as equal opportunity offenders with hard hitting questions across the board to the other nine GOP “A-team”candidates.  In spite of it all even Trump’s post-debate insults to Kelly seem to boost him even further in the polls. Teflon in action.

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The debate fireworks had been widely anticipated by viewers across the nation—Republicans and Democrats alike—but the results for Fox News was nothing short of spectacular turning them  into a formidable, less biased news organization right before our eyes: the Roger Ailes attack machine known for its relentless attack on Democrats versus its consistent right-leaning “we-don’t-eat–our own” softball morphed into a Texas Death Match for the Republican candidates. The result was a record viewership of 24 million people—almost inconceivable by modern political standards. But make no mistake, the viewership numbers were all Trump.

NBC had fired Trump, canceling his Apprentice franchise right after his shockingly inartful, politically incorrect comments at his presidential campaign announcement regarding Mexicans crossing the border (“criminals, drug dealers and rapists”). But in the same breath, Donald did state that he loves Mexicans and employs thousands of them. By the way our leaders are stupid. They’re a bunch of incompetent idiots! Whether you agree or not, you have to admit it is damn refreshing to hear someone in politics who really speaks their mind. Pure unadulterated candor. That’s just part of the bizarre Trump effect. No handler, no filters. Authentic to a point of nausea.

The more outrageous and unfiltered Donald’s comments become, the higher his ratings in the polls seem to go. Donald has a simple message: Make America great again. We have become a bunch of losers and he knows how to fix it.

As Trump scolded Kelly, neither he nor the country  have time for political correctness, tone or niceness. My God! What if he’s right? Given how low politics has sunk maybe what it takes is a real bastard, that anti-hero—but one we want to have a beer (or champagne and caviar) with and that we somehow relate to for some incomprehensible reason. Walter White without the criminality.

Like most anti-heroes maybe Donald Trump is likely a real bastard to in the opinion of many Americans. But could he be just the bastard we are looking for? Not likely enough Americans could ever accept this kind of leadership– but quite likely Trump does have enough  lerage to change the outcome of the primaries and possibly the election if he goes rogue.   Prime time politics-as-entertainment  with promise of enormous ratings is one thing but Donald as Kingmaker  (or Queenmaker)  is a pretty serious proposition.  And there’s the rub.  As Donald unabashedly pronouced: “I have leverage.” If it’s one thing real estate guys understand it’s leverage.  And he intends to use it!

 There is certainly historical precedence for a bastards making an enduring impact on American politics: just consider the original Federalist and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Born a literal bastard—a fact that would torment him his entire life—this fatherless Caribbean native would never have met the Donald Trump birther litmus test for President. Yet Hamilton made an enormous intellectual and political contribution to the very core of what America is today.  However  compared to the other Founding Fathers he has been somewhat under-appreciated   The new Broadway hit show will undoubtedly  recast  the Hamilton legacy for good. Never underestimate the power of a great story  to change traditional narratives

Hamilton rose from humble beginnings to the highest reaches of American politics. As General George Washington’s aide-de-camp he went on became a war hero then our first Secretary of the Treasury. But he was intensely disliked by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and most notably, the rather complex Aaron Burr who as Vice President mortally wounded Hamilton in a fateful duel ostensibly over personal honor. Hamilton, it seems, was considered by many, like Donald, to be a real showman and a real bastard.

Hamilton was a prolific writer, a thinker and a doer. But hasn’t Trump written a dozen or so books and built several empires? And anyone who has spent time with Donald would have a hard time denying he is a financial genius.  According to Ron Chernow, Hamilton “was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative.” Sound familiar? Hamilton endured the country’s first very public political sex scandal that he freely and almost shamelessly admitted to. Who can forget Donald, Ivana and Marla Maples on the slopes of Aspen in the early ’90s?

Whether Americans like or truly revile Donald, he has in his own special way already made a serious if not strange “contribution” to American politics that would be dangerous to dismiss outright:

  • He has turned politics into a spectator sport with a viewership that outstripped the World Series. Hard to see how that’s bad.
  • While the citizenry might not yet be enlightened at least they are engaged.
  • He shared his megaphone with the nine other GOP “A-list” candidates who, with only a couple of exceptions, would otherwise be remain unknown to or unexamined by the American public.
  • He has demonstrated that if you are truly authentic, you can say just about anything (no matter how outrageous) in politics.  A real life verison of SNL or the Daily Show.
  • He has shown that when things are bad enough, maybe even political correctness and tone can become subordinated to getting things done. It’s not about being nice.

The Trump phenomenon could result in burning down the house or could turn out– whether from anger or from delight — to be just the right spark to ignite the nation’s moribund spirit. We will have to wait and see. He does seem to have awakened the sleeping dogs whose sheer indifference and complete ignorance is perhaps the most dangerous and insidious part of American politcs today. Too many people just don’t care or have simply given up.  Maybe it takes a real bastard. It worked once before.


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