Way back in November 2016, shortly after Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton, Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to Broadway to see Hamilton. One of the most successful Broadway productions of the modern era, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical combines a historical grounding in Ron Chernow’s biography of the titular Founding Father with songs that draw from modern music. It also has a diverse cast — the only white performer plays King George III — to help make the story of America’s origins accessible to new generations.
After the performance Pence attended had finished (and after he had already been booed by some in the audience), the cast assembled on stage, and Brandon Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, addressed him. “We, sir — we 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,” Dixon said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Pence took the experience in stride, stressing the right of people to speak their minds in this way. Unsurprisingly, President-elect Trump was less conciliatory, demanding an apology.
It has become something of a cliché to characterize the events of the five years since as “the Trump show,” and for good reason: It is undeniable that Trump has been the main character of American political life for the past five years. But if we are to speak of real life in terms of fiction, then it is worth noting that shows, movies, and plays typically involve bookends, with something at the beginning of the work being invoked, resolved, or otherwise referenced at its end. So it was somehow fitting that on Sunday night, Jonathan Groff, the original Hamilton cast’s King George III, headlined a livestream fundraiser with other castmates in support of the Georgia’s two Democratic Senate candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who are competing in runoff elections against Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively.
The progressive desire to marry dominance of culture with dominance of politics should by now come as a shock to no one. One consequence of the Trump years has been the abandonment of any pretense that much of mainstream media, culture, and academia is anything other than liberal, and the radicalization of many already openly liberal institutions. In response to what they identified as the unique threats President Trump posed to the American political system, many on the left adopted a decidedly antagonistic pose toward him. In some cases they were right to find Trump’s words or actions abhorrent; in many others, they treated a more typical, if almost always clumsily advanced, conservatism as fascism, or indulged outright lies about him and other Republicans. Trump, of course, often invited such treatment and seemed to relish the scorched-earth political combat.
So the Trump years dragged on, until an election outcome that represented the American political system at its frustrating best: Trump lost, but not in the landslide for which his opponents had hoped; down-ballot Republicans did far better than expected, making gains in the House and giving themselves a good chance to hold the Senate. Which is why now, more than a month after the election, all eyes in the American political universe are fixed on Georgia. If Republicans win the January runoffs there, they’ll be able to impose a kind of moderation on President-elect Joe Biden; if Democrats win, they’ll control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2009, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Here it should be pointed out that Obama took office with commanding House and Senate majorities, while the best Biden can hope for is tenuous control. But Groff and his castmates clearly prefer even tenuous Democratic control to the alternative, and have thrown their considerable profile and resources behind the effort to secure it. To them and others on the left who seek a return to the seeming progressive cultural and political hegemony of the Obama years, one can only say: Be careful what you wish for.
It was not the case that President Obama was a perfect figure, impossible to mock. Conservatives spent those years frustrated by the media’s willful blindness to Obama’s obvious defects. But Obama was undeniably a more inspiring and competent political talent than his former vice president, who wallowed in mediocrity for nearly a half-century until he was elevated to prominence and a succession of incredible fortune sufficed to place him in the White House. The same progressive cultural mainstream that could find no fault in Obama while it simultaneously covered for him will surely attempt the same for Biden, but it will have a much harder time. After four years (or maybe less), the propping up of Biden could end up far more noticeable because the Biden edifice might end up mostly scaffolding.
And having noticed the effort that’s gone into propping Biden up, people could dislike it, and reject it. In an environment in which liberal preferences seem to win out in almost every institution of note, people who, for whatever reason, do not share these preferences can grow frustrated. As Ross Douthat put it in a somewhat prescient September 2016 New York Times column:
Outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government. . . .
. . . It remains an advantage for the G.O.P., and a liability for the Democratic Party, that the new cultural orthodoxy is sufficiently stifling to leave many Americans looking to the voting booth as a way to register dissent.
I say “somewhat prescient” only because Douthat’s observations were qualified with a then-reasonable belief that Trump’s unique flaws would make it hard for him to capitalize on the latent sentiment Douthat identified. As it turned out, Trump went farther despite his flaws than anyone had thought possible, even if in the end they just barely did catch up to him. In the aftermath of Biden’s victory, progressives would do well to ask themselves why that is — why the 2020 election was not the decisive despoliation of the Republican Party that they’d hoped for.
One answer is that the insulated bubble of elite liberal opinion within the institutions of our would-be hegemons makes those inside of it both less willing and less able to gauge whether their views remain outside of the cultural mainstream. Calling Latinos “Latinx,” a term popularized by academics and used by a vanishingly small number of actual Latinos, did not enable Democrats to win Florida. Talk of socialism and defunding the police may excite Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fans, but it angered swing-district Democrats struggling to hold their seats, and the party’s House majority shrank when it had been expected to grow. Even Hamilton itself has come under criticism from the far left as an attempt to honor the legacy and extend the appeal of a history that many progressives have come to see as fundamentally problematic. If left-wingers continue to push leftward while castigating those who won’t come along for the ride, then their power could fade even as their control over many institutions lingers.
This is all worth keeping in mind as a man best known for playing King George III tries to tell Americans for whom they should vote. Georgia voters have a chance to deny our would-be hegemons the joint political-cultural control they seem to crave. Perhaps they’ll get it; perhaps they won’t. But whether they do or not, if they continue to brandish their power incompetently and without regard for the country as whole, then they are unlikely to brandish it for very long. Five years ago, voters found it intolerable enough that they elected Donald Trump as “the only middle finger available.” Trump himself may now deserve to be a spent political force. But the sentiment that propelled him to the White House in the first place is likely to remain a potent political force waiting to be tapped by others.
One thing almost as common to stories as bookends is sequels.