If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that we’re hungry.
This hunger was most dramatically illustrated in the presidential election. Rejecting the status quo, America chose Donald Trump. An appetite for something beyond the Beltway menu had taken over America. But is Trump what we’re really looking for, or does he embody only some aspects of what we’re missing? And what are we missing?
Trump’s election was clearly a vote for political change. Yet the longing for change goes deeper than the rift between Republicans and Democrats, or between the government elites and the working class. Like all deep, human longings, it has manifested itself not only in politics, but in the arts and in broader social trends. Because it inhabits so many realms, this hunger is hard to define, but it is easy to sense.
What we’re missing, what we hunger for, is tradition, heroism, and strength. Our post-truth, valueless, politically correct culture topples all, leaving us only relativism, autonomy, and tolerance. We are left psychologically homeless. Our spirits are starved. And when people are starving, they’ll grab at anything that relieves their appetite.
Pro-Choice Dog Parades
I worked at a pro-life pregnancy center in New York City this past winter. We offered free pregnancy tests, STI screening, and sonograms, and we referred clients to free housing and employment opportunities. Part of my job was sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics. I usually worked outside a Planned Parenthood in a very wealthy and mostly white community in Manhattan. I noticed two things about the locals. First, I noticed most people walked alone in both the morning and the afternoon. Rarely did I see couples, and even more rarely did I see couples with children. I saw quite a few models and even a celebrity now and then, always on their own. The second thing I noticed was their obvious contempt for my pro-life presence. Every morning, I’d receive at least one sneer and witness an ostentatious “good morning” to Planned Parenthood’s security guard.
By a long shot, my most frequently encountered demographic was the single dog owner. Every morning, these well-dressed men and women would walk their equally well-dressed dogs around the block. Master and pet were always clothed in brand-name apparel. In colder weather, each wore a coat with collar. Both were portraits of style and dignity. The dogs were mostly purebred and undoubtedly dog school graduates, judging from their obedient and confident gaits. They never barked or jumped on strangers. Like their masters, they were calm, cool, and collected as they strolled along and, like their masters, they would hold their heads up high and their noses upturned.
Unwittingly, the pro-choice dog owners of Manhattan betrayed their true hearts’ desire when they lavished their love and wealth on cute canines. Their affection was a classic misdirection; what they really wanted, though they were perhaps too intimidated, progressive, or selfish to admit, was children. They couldn’t fathom people like my colleagues and me, who would endure their scrutiny and social condemnation for the sake of preborn children—fetuses, for God’s sake—but if their own puppy walked out of the house without boots on a rainy day, the world would undoubtedly end. They were hungry for family, but their secular culture deprived them of the inward vision to know that.
It’s often not until we see nonsense in its element that we can articulate truth. Contrast brings clarity. We shouldn’t be outraged by absurdities; we should be grateful for their pushing us toward a life of common sense. If we value the triumph of the human person, if we believe humans orient themselves toward good, if we respect and have faith in the tradition of the human family, then this dog-parade phenomenon, in all its ridiculousness and snobbery, can tell us something hopeful and true about humanity. It shows how even the deepest hypocrisies can’t change the fact that we are designed for love. Parental, human love is obviously not meant for dogs, but that doesn’t stop it from existing, and continuing to appear in absurd places, until it’s directed where it’s meant to go.
Trump and Hamilton
Absurdities, as everyone knows, also run wild in politics. One such absurdity occurred only months ago: Donald J. Trump won the 2016 presidential election, shocking Americans and people around the world. Reports on his campaign were relentlessly disparaging in almost every major news outlet. He received countless condemnations from Hollywood’s elite; Robert De Niro recorded a two-minute long, black-and-white video of insults. “[Trump]’s so blatantly stupid. . . . He’s a punk, he’s a dog, he’s a pig, he’s a con, a bullshit artist, a mutt who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But even with all of America’s media and Hollywood against him, Trump won the election.
In a matter of hours, the reign of Trump moved from the realm of the absurd to the realm of reality. That move told the American people truths they hadn’t heard in a while: radical change is possible. Heroes come in unlikely shapes and sizes. Ordinary folks—despite what elite, intellectual, politically correct liberals might like to think—do have power. As First Things associate editor Julia Yost said in a “Post-Election Roundtable” podcast, a Trump presidency offers “existential refreshment”; “something unpredictable, finally . . . it makes one feel that there are possibilities again.” Something politically absurd had happened; it was clear that the people were starving for change, and while many still won’t describe Trump as their ideal pick, he was the candidate that best satiated the appetite for anything but the status quo.
Meanwhile, America’s theater scene was in for a similarly surprising smash hit. On January 20, 2015, about six months before Trump announced he’d run for president, Hamilton premiered at the Public Theater in New York City. Like Trump, its popularity was unpredictably wild. It had multimillion-dollar advance ticket sales, was the second-highest-grossing show on Broadway that week, and within a year and a half since its opening, it had produced the number one most downloaded album. A musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s great founding fathers, was sweeping the nation; everyone wanted to see the show about Hamilton’s life, his successes, his shortcomings, and his passions. “You’d be crazy to miss it,” read Leah Greenblatt’s review in Entertainment Weekly; the show “makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born,” declared Ben Brantley in the New York Times; and Chris Jones, critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote “the truly thrilling story of ‘Hamilton’ deserves to—and surely will be—told on Broadway for many years to come. Who even thought such a thing might be possible?”
Indeed, who? It’s important to notice the kind of question Jones is asking. What reason had anyone to think that Hamilton wouldn’t have done well, and why is it the same question we all asked after Trump’s victory? What did Hamilton have that so satiated the public’s aesthetic appetite? Is it just a fantastic show, or is there a deeper hunger it is satisfying that accounts for its wild rise in popularity?
Well, it is a fantastic show. But I’d like to suggest it’s more than that.
Trump and Hamilton have several important things in common. First, the wild success of both has been absurd. During his campaign, Trump exhibited a charisma and strength that, though entertaining and effective, had been out of fashion for a long while in politics. He had an unapologetic spirit of victory from the get-go. His confidence, exuberance, and boyish conviction of his own greatness were refreshing to a public that was tired of political correctness. The apologies of Obama were boring; his beating around the bush and his self-conscious pandering were discouraging. Even though every other politician was doing it, Trump refused to play the game of guilt and privilege, refused to exchange niceties with identity politicians and pander to social justice warriors. When Megyn Kelly asked him about his attitude toward women, he could have apologized for his comments about Rosie O’Donnell—an apology that we would all have known was totally bogus. Instead, he said, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” And the crowd went wild. Finally, someone said something satisfying; finally, the longing for someone solid, for someone who wouldn’t bend to the whims of mandated niceties, was met.
Hamilton also won the hearts of Americans precisely because it is not a politically correct show. Despite Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own left-leaning politics and “politically correct” casting of black actors as white characters, his show is an artistic affirmation of transcendent morality, the desire to fight for what’s right rather than apologize for what’s wrong. Hamilton’s heroism is irresistible because he’s a man pursuing greatness. It’s a simple story, but again, it’s a simplicity that the public has been starving for. One could even argue that it promotes traditional gender roles, with female characters singing sweet, feminine ballads and male characters rapping. It’s been years since a musical with such a traditional aesthetic has topped the charts the way Hamilton has.
Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival and eventual killer, is the show’s antagonist largely because he has no integrity or fighting spirit. When he tells Hamilton to “talk less, smile more / Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for,” he’s essentially advising Hamilton to be politically correct. You’ll win if you’re likable, normal, and steady, he says. Go with the flow, don’t take risks, prioritize pleasantry over conviction, and wait for other people to announce uncomfortable truths. Hamilton, like Trump, is disgusted with this mindset. “You can’t be serious,” Hamilton replies. He leaves Burr and befriends a band of loud, drunken revolutionaries rapping controversial opinions at high volume across the stage. Burr rolls his eyes, but Hamilton, his friends, and clearly, the audience prefer the joys of conviction to passionless games of strategy.
Hamilton is able to rise to glory because his character is so contrary to Burr’s. His gumption, his brash outspokenness, and his fast and fighting spirit win him the confidence of the nation, despite his lack of polish. Even Burr eventually comes to admire him. The fact that Hamilton is hailed by Broadway writers, actors, and audiences—most of whom probably voted for Clinton—is absurd, because President Trump embodies the very same ethic of the show’s protagonist. But the popularity of both bears witness to the universal hunger in America today for strength, conviction, and courage.
A Broadway show with a politically incorrect, brash protagonist becomes a national hit; the politically incorrect, rude Donald Trump becomes president; pro-choicers who care nothing for tiny humans buy their pugs wool coats and slippers so they won’t catch cold. What the magnitude of these absurdities—in individuals, in arts, and in politics—tells us is that we’re starving. Deep needs are unmet, so we latch on to weird, bizarre objects, creating splashes and hypocrisies in culture that seem absurd.
Let “progressive,” left-leaning Broadway writers take note: stories about life, love, tradition, and truth are shows that sell big. Let liberal political camps take similar note: Trump’s spirit of confidence and hard work, along with the joy and pride he found in his country, is the spirit that moved and won a nation. And let us take heart: a pug in a sweater is proof that we are designed to love—and love we shall, in whatever absurd ways we will.