Each president, no matter how able or inept, no matter how noble or nefarious, is given a bully pulpit from which to unite or divide the American people. This is something that Donald Trump must learn, as he prepares to lead a nation where only 46 percent of voters favored his election.
Last week, Trump chose to use his pulpit—a Twitter account —to rip the cast of Hamilton for daring to address a statement to Mike Pence following a performance of the musical that was attended by the vice president. After graciously expressing appreciation for Pence’s attendance, Brandon Victor Dixon (the actor who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president), announced: “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, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”
Trump took offense, griping that “our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton,” and demanding that the cast members “Apologize!”
No apology is owed. In their association of American diversity and American values, the Hamilton cast echoed the enlightened language of the presidents who have at their best spoken of, by, and for a genuinely United States.
In a moment of ugly politics and harsh pronouncements—when refugees and immigrants are demonized and the harsh disregard for religious and cultural diversity that warps our politics–there are those who choose to forget that America is a nation of immigrants whose survival was made possible by those who welcomed strangers. Many of those immigrants came seeking religious freedom. We remember this at Thanksgiving because we have been taught that the Pilgrims were migrants seeking refuge from intolerance and threats, from hardship and violence. We are taught, as well, that the survival of the newcomers was made possible by the kindness of indigenous people. The full story is, of course, more complex and contradictory, as is every story from our history.
But the Thanksgiving story as it has been taught has shaped an American narrative that, President Obama suggests, might inspire us toward “inherent selflessness and common goodness.”
Presidents, at their best, have sought to draw lessons from this narrative—as the cast of Hamilton and others have from the equally complicated story of the founding of the republic.