At various times throughout the day yesterday, everyone in my family found the time to take in some part of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinary musical, Hamilton, made available this weekend for streaming on a well-known corporate platform which needs no particular promotion on my part. Everybody seemed to pick a different part of the day to watch it, or parts of it, culminating in me personally basking in its three full hours last night.
Part of the joy in watching this now-legendary 2016 production was no doubt related to the bittersweet fact that none of us are too likely to see a live performance of Hamilton or any other play, for that matter, in the near future. Broadway is closed down and all of the theaters in most major cities are shuttered until we somehow manage to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. But even that sad realization couldn’t detract from the sheer joy of watching something so spectacularly written, acted and portrayed.
And nothing could detract from the boundless spirit of the thing, a rapid-fire, astute, heartfelt, sometimes irreverent and thoroughly contemporary exploration of our country’s earliest fits and starts as seen through the eyes and experience of our Founding Fathers. Produced during the waning days of the Obama administration, full of hope, humor and musically and visually dazzling, it was impossible not to compare the emotional rush it evokes with the bleak moonscape of American life many of us are currently experiencing due to the pandemic. The fact that it was released to coincide with the July 4th holiday makes that contrast all the more stark in its effect.
But the most visible aspect of Hamilton, what made it more than just an extraordinary musical production, was that its cast are overwhelmingly people of color, its themes exploring—sometimes directly, sometimes only by casual allusion– uniquely American issues that the country continues to grapple with four years later, albeit with a far, far different presence in the Oval Office. Weaving through the play we see themes explored such as inequality, social position, immigration and race. All are touched on in some respect, leading to a foregone conclusion that while tragic on its face still manages to convey a resolute sense of hope. In that sense it was a product of the positive attitude still present in the White House in 2016, an attitude that warmly embraced America’s diversity and inclusion.
But that was 2016, and this is 2020. How far we have fallen, it seems, from the bright and hopeful world of just four years ago. Instead of a president giving speeches about such weighty issues as civil rights, speeches that inspired people around the world and provided us with an inward glow of pride for just being Americans, we are now reduced to bitterly watching a small, stupid, petulant excuse of a man conjuring up racial bogeymen for the cynical purpose of turning Americans against each other.
The fact that Donald Trump would travel to Mt. Rushmore for yet another opportunity to fan the flames of racism to an audience of white supporters frothing at the mouth at his culture-war catcalls is more than simply dispiriting—it’s pathetic. The fact that he and yet another of his stupid Republican lackeys—this one occupying the South Dakota Governor’s Residence—would make a point of pride out of the fact that this audience would not be burdened with taking any health precaution, in the midst of a pandemic that has already erased 130,000 American lives isn’t just perverse—it’s pitiable.
The fact that Trump barely mentioned the worst public health crisis to strike this country in over a century to an audience crammed together on zip-tied folding chairs, breathing, coughing and shouting in each other’s faces isn’t just sick—it’s malignant. The fact that he twisted a nation, riven for weeks by protests against police injustice, into an argument for white supremacy and more violence isn’t just disgusting—it’s revolting.
The fact that this handpicked, lily-white audience of narrow-minded, uneducated bigots who don’t remotely represent the country’s makeup would sit and howl with approval at his dark imprecations of “fascist leftists” seemingly hellbent on destroying American culture by advocating the removal of a few statues lionizing Confederate war veterans is more than a little embarrassing—it’s mortifying.
And the fact that he did all of these things on the date when we commemorate our nation’s independence isn’t just cynical and opportunistic, it’s un-American in every sense of the word.
Remember when Trump sneered about admitting immigrants from those so-called “shithole” countries? Historian Anne Applebaum, writing for The Atlantic, says that Trump’s singular failure to address the COVID-19 pandemic has, in the eyes of the rest of the world, turned this country into one of those same “shithole countries” that he was talking about.
[W]e can see how other countries are dealing with the pandemic. Some are doing well, especially those that have decent bureaucrats, respect for science, and high levels of trust: South Korea and Taiwan, Germany and Slovakia, much of Scandinavia, New Zealand. Some countries are not doing well, especially those run by divisive populists on both the left and the right: Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and, of course, the United States. But even within this latter group, we stand out. Out of all these countries—out of all the countries in the world—the U.S. has the largest number of cases and the highest death toll. The U.S. isn’t merely suffering; the U.S. is suffering more than anybody else.
The numbers of American sick and dead are a source of wonder and marvel all over the world. They also inspire fear and anxiety. The European Union has decided to allow some foreigners to cross its borders now, but not Americans. Uruguayans and Rwandans can go to Italy and Spain, but not Americans. Moroccans and Tunisians can go to Germany and Greece, but not Americans. For the first time in living memory, Canada has kept its border closed with the United States. On July 3, the governor of the Mexican state of Sonora delivered the coup de grace: She announced the temporary closure of the border with Arizona and banned Americans from Sonoran beaches.
That’s the real legacy Donald Trump has brought to America on this July 4th: We’re now merely a pariah nation, looked upon with sadness by the rest of the world; a nation incapable of taking care of its own people, with a sad, pathetic, pitiable man desperately waving his arms in the air, hoping to distract Americans from his own monumental failures. The contrast with the vibrant, promising world in Hamilton, the contrast with the hopeful spirit and optimism that infused the country just four years ago, could not be more stark or revealing.
There is really only one thing worth celebrating on this, one of the most dismal of Independence Days in memory: the fact that we still have a right to vote this man out of office.