As Donald Trump settles into The White House, elites in the political class are beginning to recognize that democracy is not necessarily a permanent state of political organization. “Donald Trump’s candidacy is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid,” wrote Vox cofounder Ezra Klein just before the election. Andrew Sullivan argued in New York magazine that American democracy is susceptible, “in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.” Paul Krugman wrote an entire column on why republics end, citing Trump’s violations of political norms. But if you want to understand the politics of authoritarianism in America, the place to start is not with Trump, but with the cool-kid Founding Father of the Obama era, Alexander Hamilton.
I’m not just talking about the actual founder, though we’ll come back to him. I’m talking about the personage at the center of the Broadway musical, Hamilton.
I’m not going to dissect the show itself - the politics of it are what require reexamination in the wake of Trump. However, it should be granted one unqualified plaudit at the outset: Miranda’s play is one of the most brilliant propaganda pieces in theatrical history. And its construction and success tell us a lot about our current political moment. Before it was even written, the play was nurtured at the highest levels of the political establishment. While working through its material, Miranda road-tested song lyrics at the White House with President Obama. When it was performed, Obama, naturally, loved it. Hamilton, he said, “reminds us of the vital, crazy, kinetic energy that’s at the heart of America.” Michelle Obama pronounced it the best art she had ever seen.
The first couple’s comments were just the leading edge of a cultural explosion of praise. Actress Kerry Washington called it “life changing.” Lena Dunham said, “If every kid in America could see Hamilton they would thirst for historical knowledge and then show up to vote.” Saturday Night Live featured a sketch wherein Lorne Michaels begged guest host Miranda for Hamilton tickets (“I can do a matinee!”). It’s perhaps harder to list celebrities who haven’t seen Hamilton than those who have. And in Washington, D.C., politicians who haven’t seen the show are considered uncool.
And after Trump won, Hamilton became a refuge. Journalist Nancy Youssef tweeted she overheard someone at the Pentagon say, “I am reaffirming my belief in democracy by listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.”
What’s strange about all of this praise is how it presumes that Alexander Hamilton was a figure for whom social justice and democracy were key animating traits. Given how Democrats, in particular, embraced the show and Hamilton himself as a paragon of social justice, you would think that he had fought to enlarge the democratic rights of all Americans. But Alexander Hamilton simply didn’t believe in democracy, which he labeled an American “disease.” He fought—with military force—any model of organizing the American political economy that might promote egalitarian politics. He was an authoritarian, and proud of it.
To assert Hamilton disliked democracy is not controversial. The great historian Henry Adams described an evening at a New York dinner, when Hamilton replied to democratic sentiment by banging the table and saying, “Your people, sir—your people is a great beast!” Hamilton’s recommendation to the Constitutional Convention, for instance, was to have a president for life, and to explicitly make that president not subject to law.
Professional historians generally avoid emphasizing Hamilton’s disdain for the people, at least when they write for the broad public. Better to steer safely clear of the freight train of publicity and money behind the modern Hamilton myth. One exception is amateur historian William Hogeland, who noted in a recent Boston Review essay that Hamilton had strong authoritarian tendencies. Hamilton, he wrote, consistently emphasized “the essential relationship between the concentration of national wealth and the obstruction of democracy through military force.”
Indeed, most of Hamilton’s legacy is astonishingly counter-democratic. His central role in founding both the financial infrastructure of Wall Street and a nascent military establishment (which supplanted the colonial system of locally controlled democratic militias) was rooted in his self-appointed crusade to undermine the ability of ordinary Americans to govern themselves. We should be grateful not that Hamilton structured the essential institutions of America to fit his vision, but that he failed to do so. Had he succeeded, we would probably be living in a military dictatorship.
Viewers of the play Hamilton have a difficult time grasping this point. It just seems outlandish that an important American political official would argue that democracy was an actively bad system. Sure, America’s leadership caste has done plenty on its own to subvert the legal norms and folkways of self-rule, via voting restrictions, lobbying and corruption, and other appurtenances of access-driven self-dealing. But the idea of openly opposing the hallowed ideal of popular self-government is simply inconsistent with the past two hundred years of American political culture. And this is because, in the election of 1800, when Hamilton and his Federalist allies were finally crushed, America repudiated aristocracy and began the long journey toward establishing a democratic political culture and undoing some, though not all, of the damage wrought by Hamilton’s plutocratic-leaning Federalist Party.
Indeed, the shifting popular image of Hamilton is itself a gauge of the relative strength of democratic institutions at any given moment.
In the roaring 1920s, when Wall Street lorded it over all facets of our public life, treasury secretary Andrew Mellon put Hamilton’s face on the ten-dollar bill. Mellon was the third richest man in the country, famous for, among other things, having his brother and chairman of one of his coal mining subsidiaries extoll the virtues of using machine guns to enforce labor discipline. Mellon himself, who later presided over the Great Depression, was routinely lauded by big business interests as the “greatest secretary of the treasury since Alexander Hamilton.” Big business leaders in Pittsburgh, such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, worshipped Hamilton (as well as Napoleon).
During the next decade, as populists put constraints on big money, Hamilton fell into disrepute. In 1925, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then just a lawyer, recognized Hamilton as an authoritarian, saying that he had in his mind after reading a popular new book on Hamilton and Jefferson “a picture of escape after escape which this nation passed through in those first ten years; a picture of what might have been if the Republic had been finally organized as Alexander Hamilton sought.” By 1947, a post-war congressional report titled “Fascism in Action” listed Hamilton as one intellectual inspiration for the Nazi regime.
Hamilton’s name practically became an epithet among Democrats of the New Deal era, which makes it all the more surprising that he is the darling of the modern party.
Within this context, it’s useful to recognize that Hamilton the play is not the real story of Alexander Hamilton; rather, as historian Nancy Isenberg has noted, it’s a revealing parable about the politics of the finance-friendly Obama era. The play is based on Ron Chernow’s eight-hundred-page 2004 biography of Hamilton. Chernow argues that “Hamilton was an abolitionist who opposed states’ rights, favored an activist central government, a very liberal interpretation of the Constitution and executive rather than legislative powers.” Hamilton, he notes, “sounds . . . like a modern Democrat.” The abolition arguments are laughably false; Hamilton married into a slaveholding family and traded slaves himself. But they are only part of a much broader obfuscation of Hamilton’s politics.
We should be grateful for Hamilton’s failures. Had he succeeded, we would probably be living in a military dictatorship.
The Obama era looks like an echo of the Federalist power grabs of the 1780s and 1790s, both in its enrichment and glorification of financial elites and its open disdain for anything resembling true economic democracy. The Obama political elite, in other words, celebrates Hamilton not in spite of Hamilton’s anti-democratic tendencies, but because of them.
Set in contrast to the actual life and career of its subject, the play Hamilton is a feat of political alchemy - as is the stunningly successful marketing campaign surrounding it. But our generation’s version of Hamilton adulation isn’t all that different from the version that took hold in the 1920s: it’s designed to subvert democracy by helping the professional class to associate the rise of finance with the greatness of America, instead of seeing in that financial infrastructure the seeds of a dangerous authoritarian tradition.