Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a theater critic for The Times of London and regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics. She is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. Her website is www.katemaltby.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Kate Maltby: To distract from his negative media coverage, Trump created a Twitter storm over Mike Pence at "Hamilton"
But Trump threatened freedom of expression; his tweets need a strong response from editors nationwide, writes Maltby
There is a story, popular among British politicians and attributed to the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, known as “The Dead Cat.” A CEO is confronted with poor statistics at a board meeting, and to divert attention from this unpleasant news, he suddenly pulls out a dead cat and throws it onto the middle of the table.
In the words of Boris Johnson, now the UK foreign secretary: “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point… is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump unveiled a particularly malodorous dead cat. In the past week, he had agreed to settle the Trump University lawsuits for $25 million, with a potential additional $1 million in penalties forthcoming. The suits alleged Trump defrauded people who enrolled in real estate seminars he started in 2005.
Meanwhile, his new DC hotel was marketing its services to diplomats keen to please the new President. As one diplomat told The Washington Post: “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new President, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’” The link between presidency and personal profit was laid bare for all to see.
After all this, Trump’s dead cat strike should have been predictable. On Friday night, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the Broadway musical “Hamilton;” by Saturday, Trump had taken to Twitter to denounce the musical’s performers for being “very rude” to his future Vice President.
In fact, as video evidence shows, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon had read out a scrupulously polite statement of the inclusive values celebrated in the performance; it gave the impression of having been filtered through so many Broadway PR flacks as to be rendered entirely uncontentious.
Some audience members seemed to boo either Pence or the performers – it’s hard to tell on video – but Dixon insisted: “There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo. We’re all here sharing a story of love.”
Reframed by Trump on Twitter hours later, this became an act of harassment against Pence. By Sunday morning, the President-elect was on back on social media demanding an apology from the actors who, he said, had offended the Vice President-elect (Pence himself later indicated he was not offended). Trump has a history of reframing civic criticism as harassment. One is reminded of his vicious misrepresentation of President Obama’s own approach to protestors.
Sadly, few controversies could have served Trump so well. Liberal Twitter may not like it, but Trump has won every battle he’s picked in the ongoing culture wars. “Hamilton,” with its hit soundtrack and vision of an America founded by immigrants, has inspired people of color across the United States who may never see the stage show. Even a photograph of a black actor embodying George Washington has impact.
But it has nonetheless come to epitomize the elitism of a New York City subculture in which patrons can afford to spend upwards of $1,000 on secondary market tickets. While its celebration of racial diversity is received wisdom in NYC, (“immigrants – we get the job done!” runs one of its most famous chants), perhaps it is more alien to some white voters in, say, Maricopa County, Arizona.
And though theater lovers were quick to mock the Trumpistas who threatened to “Boycott Hamilton” (the play is sold out until August 2017), snarky promises to hoover up any unwanted tickets are unlikely to heal America’s gaping social divides.
In the spirit of furthering this divide, both Trump supporters and opponents have suggested that Mike Pence could have expected nothing less than an evening of left-wing politics in choosing to attend “Hamilton.” It is a show about political protest, yes (“I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” raps Hamilton.) Yet it is not quite so simple.
“Hamilton” is ultimately all about meritocracy, a hip hop celebration of “winner” culture. Had Trump chosen to attend himself, he might have found it spoke to him. After all, his daughter Ivanka tweeted in March that she had finally seen the musical and loved it. Presumably she is not one of those who, as her father insisted in yet another tweet on Sunday morning, have let him know that “Hamilton” “is highly overrated.”
Indeed, it was brave of Dixon and his colleagues to engage at all with a presidential team which has shown a consistent fear of open criticism. It is easy to mock New York actors for grandstanding; harder to accept that Trump’s bullying now carries with it the threat of a future President’s retaliation.
Press reporters write of intimidation by supporters at his campaign rallies. The same spirit now threatens the theater. At a Chicago performance of “Hamilton” on Saturday night, a protester interrupted the performance to shout profanities in support of Trump: the producers are concerned that the next Trump fan in the audience will be violent.
Freedom of expression is suddenly a hot-button American issue. The problem for those who oppose Trump is that by turning the attention of the Twittering classes to a spat with a theater, the President-elect has diverted attention away from his other egregious headlines.
In this climate, it is the responsibility of editors, reporters and Twitter to ensure that those headlines about such things as potential violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which states that no politician accept any kind of gift from a foreign dignitary, remain the top story.
As John Stuart Mill argued in “On Liberty,” freedom of expression is the freedom on which all other civic rights are based. Allow a US president to censor the language of actors by intimidation, and he’ll soon be giving newspapers the same treatment.
We may prefer our newspapers to cover corruption allegations than to waste space defending a few mouthy actors. But if we don’t defend the right of actors to criticize a president, the next generation of journalists will have a harder time campaigning against corruption themselves.
Donald Trump has thrown a dead cat onto a table to divert attention from allegations of corruption. But when a dead cat is a threat to freedom of expression, we should still be shouting about it.