Hamilton’s Message to Pence: Was It Harassment?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Ben, the reader who sparked our long and evolving discussion thread on the best ways for Trump voters and other Americans to engage, emails about a new flashpoint: the cast of Hamilton delivering a short speech to VP-elect Mike Pence, who attended a performance of the musical on Broadway last night. Here’s how CNN covered it:

Here’s Ben (followed by a ton of reader pushback)

I’m seeing an awful lot of social media commentary looking at Trump’s tweets regarding the cast’s message to Pence, and nearly all of it follows a certain pattern of “Boo Hoo, Trump doesn’t like it when actors exercise their first amendment rights? Cry me a river.” On one hand, they are completely right: The note-reading by cast member Brandon Dixon was protected speech, and political speech. It’s very, very important that people are able to do what the Hamilton cast did, and I think very few people will disagree with that.

On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to be the least bit objective and not acknowledge that what happened was harassment, or at least something pretty close. The story is being presented near universally as “Trump is whining because Pence received a note!,” but let’s break down the evening in dry terms and see if that holds up:

  1. The VP-elect went to the theater to see a show. He went as a public figure, but he didn’t attend in his capacity as a public figure. He asked for no attention.
  2. The cast, learning that he was going to be attending, wrote a note to Pence that implied heavily that he was a racist and that they expected him to help enact racist policies.
  3. The cast then picked him out of the audience at the end of the show and read the statement that heavily implied that Pence was a racist planning to enact racist policies in front of a crowd who cheered every time a well-worded jab hit.

To say Dixon’s speech “heavily implied that Pence was a racist planning to enact racist policies” seems like a stretch, but decide for yourself by reading the note’s contents here (as read aloud to the audience):

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. 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, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf all of us. All of us.

This next part from Dixon seems improvised: “Again we truly thank you for [attending our] show—this wonderful American story told be a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.” (He also told the audience not to boo Pence.) That’s a strong but polite defense of pluralism. And it was objectively a very divisive election, with Trump’s campaign especially divisive, and his transition is already divisive, so defenses of pluralism can’t be made enough right now. It was probably in poor taste for Dixon to encourage “everybody to pull out your phones, tweet and post, because this message needs to be spread far and wide” (besides, that speech was bound to go viral anyway). But it doesn’t seem like harassment when it’s done politely at the end of the show—a show about American history that’s inherently political and known precisely for its diverse cast; there was no ambush here.

But back to Ben, who insists “it isn’t really a question whether this is harassment or not”:

If it were a just-elected President Obama in the audience being grilled by people who were “worried he would strip the right to bear arms from law-abiding Americans” and who “hoped he would protect all the rights of all the Americans, not just the ones he felt were convenient to protect,” there would be a national uproar in the media at large. It would be universally decried, and that’s without calling implying anything half so personally negative as the Hamilton cast did to Pence.

It’s possible and perhaps reasonable to say “well, it’s harassment, but he’s a very good target for it,” but that’s not the same thing as pretending this was a quiet note slipped into his hand for his consideration at a later date. Whether you think it justified or not, this was a pointed insulting message delivered to a captive audience in a hostile room.

If the only thing that justifies it as acceptable (not just legal) behavior is that it’s OK to do it to “them” as it seems to be, then I’m not sure I can sign on. We just tried the “demonize everyone who disagrees with us and try to make it impossible for anyone with different views to exist in public society” tactic for six years, and I’m not sure the election indicates that it’s working out very well for us.

What do you think? Disagree with Ben, as I do, or was it unfair to spring that speech on Pence the way it happened? If so, what should have been the best approach? Email your thoughts. Update from an anonymous reader:

As a history teacher, I applaud the Hamilton cast and the way they took the opportunity to deepen the lessons of their show in a deliberate and direct way to Pence, our newly elected VP. It’s the epitome of speaking truth to power and it is our right as Americans.

Kate would agree:

I don’t see this as harassment. To speak in a civil tone, requesting  consideration of your concerns, after the completion of the performance seems like a good use of the “bully pulpit” you have as a performer, especially as a performer in a play about the complex tensions in creating our country. Harassment might include calling Pence names, interrupting the performance to say things like “But we won’t have freedom if Pence has his way,” inciting the audience to yell or boo Pence, or orchestrating a scheme so that Pence couldn’t leave until the cast had their say. None of these things happened.

We haven’t heard that Pence was offended in any way. I’m sure it was unpleasant to be booed, but the cast didn’t do that; the audience did. The cast asked for the booing to stop.

Trump, who wasn’t there, seems like an inappropriate person to lecture others on the standards of harassment. Because if he believes that’s harassment, what about the things he’s said about Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Alicia Machado, Rosie O'Donnell, Megyn Kelly, the Khan family, and the women who say he’s physically harassed them? Clearly they are all far beyond  respectful rebuke the cast made.

Another reader adds, “I appreciate the nuanced debate, but I’m surprised that the litany of examples of Trump’s harassing people left out his multiple, actual incitements to physical violence against protesters at his rallies!”

Stephen has the only solid dissent I’ve seen thus far, among the scores of emails streaming in:

The question is not whether talking to Pence was harassment, but whether Pence and his supporters will perceive it as harassment—the answer to which is rather obviously “yes.” It simply reinforces their narrative: the snobs are out to get us, and nothing we can do will make them stop calling us names.

So the question becomes: What are you trying to do? Have a real political impact, or just engage in emotional self-therapy and tribal bonding with people who already agree with you? Or to put it another way: Will this help flip Iowa? If it will, it’s politics. If it won’t, it’s narcissism and self-regard.

Here’s another reader, Lee-on, who sees things much differently than Stephen:

Mike Pence made the conscious decision to run for VP with Trump in a campaign filled with divisive language and rude remarks. He made the conscious decision to go to a show on Broadway where it is no secret that the LGBTQ community is strongly represented. He put himself in the public eye, pushed anti-LGBTQ legislation and policies [including conversion therapy], and then put himself in one of most famous places in the world that embraces fully the LGBTQ community. Getting asked by the cast to remember that they are people too, and that he should consider their rights when assuming office, is not only not harassment; it’s the only tool they have to voice their concern.

Louise looks back at some legit examples of harassment:

Donald Trump demanding President Obama’s long-form birth certificate for several years was harassment. Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie” to Obama during a State of the Union address was harassment. I don’t recall Rep. Pence castigating his colleague Rep. Wilson at the time. [Pence actually did say he was “disappointed” with Wilson’s outburst at the time.] He Nor do I recall Mr. Pence—either while serving in the House or as governor of Indiana—suggesting that Donald Trump refrain from casting absurd aspersions about President Obama’s place of birth. [Though Pence in early September did put pressure on Trump regarding birtherism by affirming Obama’s Hawaiian roots.]

Along those lines, Shelley adds:

Here’s a story about Michelle Obama and Jill Biden being booed at a NASCAR event. (Pay attention to the statement after the event.) I know Ben is complaining about the cast letter, but I offer this example as evidence of the way the Obama administration routinely met with boos and often still managed to make the message that seeing America united for shared causes—in the NASCAR case, supporting veterans—is more important than personal insult or affront.

And good thing, because I can think of no single bigger affront against a President than the birther movement, with Trump at its helm, which implies that a black citizen is always suspect and is seen as less than legitimate, with no form of proof being ample enough to discount the accusation of illegitimate power grab.

Ryan tackles the comparison that Ben makes with Obama:

The problem with Ben’s logic is that then-Senator Obama never campaigned on a platform of “strip[ping] the right to bear arms from law-abiding Americans.” Gun fanatics may believe he did just because there is a (D) next to Obama’s name, but there is nothing that Obama ever said that can be remotely equated with wanting to “strip the right to bear arms from law-abiding Americans.”

On the other hand, Pence’s boss has campaigned on stripping away freedoms. Trump has said he wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Trump has said he intends to “open up the libel laws” to go after journalists. Trump seems very willing to use his newly acquired power to quell dissent and punish detractors. This is a dangerous man to have in the White House and it is imperative to stand up and call it out.

Another reader joins Ryan:

Let’s look at Ben’s straw-man example of Obama. Say Obama went to take in a Loretta Lynn concert in Nashville. If he ever took during his national campaign a similarly maximalist position on guns as Trump and Pence took (and have continued to take since the election in their appointments and lack of conciliation) on race and religion, then it would be within both Loretta Lynn’s and the crowd’s right to confront him (confront, not harass). Then in what objective observation of Obama’s behavior before or since his election would anyone think Obama demands an apology?

This goes back to this respect that Ben and Trumpers seem to want. They do not get to dictate the manner, method, and location of being confronted by the real concerns of fellow citizens. They seem to forget respect goes both ways. They demand respect but seem to want unyielding deference. Demands of apology and fealty from their defeated opponents is no way to get respect.

Elaine makes another good distinction between Obama and Trump:

When Obama gets booed, he addresses it and engages. Trump and Pence won’t engage with people who disagree with them except on Twitter, so they are making us do desperate things in order to be heard.

Here’s Beth on Trump’s lack of magnanimity:

The bottom line is that this was a missed opportunity for the incoming Trump/Pence administration. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Trump to tweet “Thank you for your voices! We love all Americans!” The fact that he can’t ignore it or pretend that he really cares about all Americans is horrifying. To recycle an old theme from his campaign: If he can’t handle his VP being potentially offended by people exercising their First Amendment rights, what will happen when he’s offended by someone like Kim Jong-un?

I hate to say I agree with George:

My first reaction to hearing Trump’s reaction to the Hamilton cast’s message was outrage. This is the man who apologizes for nothing, and he expects the cast of Hamilton to apologize of this!?

My second reaction was a slow realization that he's just played us again. Trump is not really asking for an apology by asking for an apology. He knows full well the media reaction to such tweets. The blogosphere will erupt, it will get TV coverage, print coverage, radio coverage, water cooler coverage. And while those of us who cannot stand his hateful rhetoric will be talking about the double standard he is using, and assorted injustices, his real audience will be laughing and sharing memes on Facebook about this.

My final reaction is sadness. This is how it’s going to be. Trump knows the system, and every time we argue with reasons and facts and specifics, careful pleas to sanity and American values, we are going to get burned. Our current media landscape is not set up to deal with this man. All we can really do is watch him shape his wings and wonder if he will, at some point, fly too close to the sun.

It’s one thing to ignore a troll in the comments section or Twitter, but incredibly hard when we just elected one to be President of the United States. This is a genuinely depressing time.

Update: In stark contrast to Trump:

Okay one more email, for the sake of open discourse. Here’s a reader who prefers the anonymous attribution “had enough from both sides now”:

Of course the cast of Hamilton had every right to reach out to Pence and exercise their First Amendment rights after the performance. Was it harassment? No. But was it the right thing to do?

Pence was not there as a public servant, but was confronted and accused in an unfair arrangement in a public space. One held the stage and the microphone; one did not. One had present a group of like-minded supporters; one did not. One had the element of surprise; one did not.

Perhaps the cast should have let their powerful piece of work and its message stand for itself. The fact that Pence even attended such a performance is interesting. Perhaps just a friendly acknowledgment from the cast, “Hey Mike, glad you could come, hope you liked the show” would have been a MUCH more powerful message. Such a friendly callout puts a bit of onus on Pence: “We see you here; you are now a witness and accountable.” Perhaps an open public letter the next day seeking Pence’s review of the performance, forcing him to air his views? Put him on the spot for respectful public discourse.

That would have been much more effective and persuasive than what they actually said, what they accused. And it certainly would not have given any more ammo to the Man Behind the Tweet, who uses these digressions to fuel his rabid fans.

Have we not yet learned that SHOUTING at someone or groups of people is wrong and counterproductive? That it actually has the exact opposite effect that we desire and causes people to retrench and hold tighter to their beliefs, even if misguided? It certainly doesn’t force the person to look at their views from a different perspective.

We recently learned this hard lesson with the Black Lives Matter protest. What should have been a very powerful and important movement became polarizing and divisive and was used to fuel the horrible rhetoric of the Republican campaign.

No one should be treated like this, even if the claims are true and they are made with just intentions. Until we can stop shouting AT each other and really start listening to each other’s differing points of view, we will be doomed to this endless spiral of pointed accusations with no end in sight.