A few weeks ago I stood on a treadmill at my gym and saw Donald Trump’s face in brilliant HD on three different TV screens. I didn’t watch. Instead, I disentangled my headphones so that I could march to the beat of another unlikely American politician: Alexander Hamilton, who owes his recent surge in popularity to the hip-hop musical that bears his name. Hamilton’s beats and rhetorical flourishes soon drowned out Trump’s—but juxtaposed like this, they seemed to have more in common than I’d first considered, not least because of each’s surprising popularity. It wouldn’t shock me if fans of one were not fans of the other, but it strikes me that, at their core, both Trump and Hamilton are catering to the same American desire.
The lie that we can save ourselves—and that we must deny or forget or harm others in order to enact our own salvation—is tempting to believe, especially against the backdrop of American individualism.Donald Trump and Hamilton, these two wildly popular and unconventional American voices, both gratify Americans’ desire for a better America. Though they do it with varying levels of skill and artistry, they both feed on our desires not for America, but for our America, for an America where our dreams can be fulfilled.
Hearing these desires voiced—loudly—is heady, hard to step away from and examine. But both Trump and Hamilton should make us think, too, about the pitfalls of our American dreams: where they fail us because they focus on us, to the detriment—intentional or otherwise—of other people and even of ourselves. And American Christians should pay particularly close attention to these dreams and the desires for self-fulfillment they kindle within us, because we recognize that our purpose is not to glorify and fulfill ourselves, but to glorify God and to serve others.
Trump’s better America finds voice in his slogan, the first thing visitors to his website see, emblazoned on everything from signs to T-shirts to the baseball cap he’s often seen wearing: “Make America Great Again!” This claim resonates so deeply with his followers that he’s not only kept but gained popularity over the last few months, despite the protests and to the chagrin of the GOP establishment, many conservative voters, and most Americans. And the force behind that wind, the combined breath that blows Trump onward, is the same breath that voices his followers’ nostalgia for an America that never was: an America built of (white, at least nominally Christian) people achieving their American dreams without impediments from government, from minority voices, or from the pressure to be politically correct.
Trump’s rhetoric fulfills a wish for his followers. Trump’s slogan promises them that they are the rightful protagonists of the American story, just as they’ve always believed. It also confirms that they’ve been robbed of that role and that he can help them reclaim their place.
This wish-fulfilling rhetoric permeates Trump’s campaign, from his baseball cap to the positions outlined on his campaign website to his words to voters. For example, one of Trump’s attempts to appeal to Christian voters at Liberty University a few months ago involved not just quoting from the Bible but also the promise that if elected, he would make sure that shoppers would “see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores.” This promise, and the issue it responds to, appeals to voters who believe in an America they used to have and want to have again: an America where the government and media never forced Christ out of Christmas, where political correctness never sank its teeth into marketing and politics and holiday calendars, where our identity as a Christian nation was made known in every department store. But that America is not something we can get back to because it never really existed. We might wish it had, and our desires for it might be so fervent that they create an image tangible enough that we might reach out and touch it. But our wishes can’t create it any more than hearing “Merry Christmas” from a sales representative at Macy’s can reassure us that Christians control the country as well as the sales floor.
Trump’s promise of true Christmas greetings might seem like a small moment from a larger-than-life campaign full of other, better examples. But even this thread is woven into his larger “Make America Great Again” theme, which he repeated in his victory speech in New Hampshire on February 9. Christians, in Trump’s mythos, are one example of a group of Americans who used to be winners but aren’t anymore. In the last lines of his speech, Trump promised not just victory, but a return to victory that used to be but has been lost:
We are going to make our country so strong. We are going to start winning again. As a country we don’t win on trade; we don’t win with the military, we can’t beat ISIS. We don’t win with anything. We are going to start winning again and we’re going to win so much, you are going to be so happy, we are going to make America so great again, maybe greater than ever before.
Trump’s words here paint in broad strokes what his words at Liberty University did in small ones: they promise to bring about Americans’ desires for an America in which they are not just winners, but winners again. They harken back to an America that never really was in order to promise a return to it, and the self-fulfillment and power that come along with it.
Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinarily popular—and just downright excellent—hip-hop musical about the life and death of Alexander Hamilton, is set during a time when a great America was a dream for the future rather than a memory of the past. It tells the story of America as it was first being freed and formed, but it uses African-American voices and music styles to tell it. This America, like Trump’s, is a wish, not a reality—a wish that the dreams for acceptance, diversity, and freedom that we so associate with America were actually present in its society from its inception.
At first glace, Hamilton’s dream for an America could not be more different from Trump’s. Hamilton envisions an America based on inclusion rather than exclusion, of voices lifted together instead of walls built to keep people apart. It affirms human dignity and confronts human brokenness; Trump’s campaign only affirms the dignity of members of certain branches of American humanity, and promises violence to those it claims are the broken ones.
But Hamilton’s similarities with Trump’s campaign slogan strike me, despite these significant differences. It’s the character of Alexander Hamilton that really drives the similarities home. Hamilton, despite being a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” claws his way to greatness and pulls America along behind him. And the person he credits with his rise is himself, and only himself, to an absolute fault.
Two songs in the second act of the musical clearly illustrate Hamilton’s belief that he is responsible for his own advancement and salvation—“Hurricane” and, immediately after it, “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” In “Hurricane,” Hamilton remembers surviving a hurricane while still living as a poor orphan in the Caribbean. The townspeople gave him money to travel to New York, but only in response to Hamilton’s own actions, because he “wrote [his] way out.” He attributes everything he’s gained to his work and his words: “I wrote my way out of hell, I wrote my way to revolution,” he continues. “I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell. I wrote about The Constitution and defended it,” he writes about his wife and the Federalist Papers. After taking credit for his earthly gains, Hamilton goes further: “And when my prayers to God were met with indifference, I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.” He writes that deliverance again, “overwhelm[ing] them with honesty” by releasing the Reynolds Pamphlet, confessing his own infidelity before others can reveal it for him and use it against him.
Throughout all these instances of self-deliverance, Hamilton shows that he is absolutely convinced both of the powers of his own pen and of how little he needs to rely on or care about those to whom he relates—politically or romantically. Hamilton’s insistence that he can and must save himself echoes, in a slightly altered key, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. Both, at their core, have nothing to do with America as a community. Instead, both urge us to seek our own greatness, to save ourselves, without a care for how it affects others.
This is, I think, the greatest and most terrible lie human beings tell themselves—a lie that festers in the hearts of those who attend, euphoric and bright-eyed, both Trump rallies and performances of Hamilton. The lie that we can save ourselves—and, further, that we must deny or forget or harm others in order to enact our own salvation—is tempting to believe, especially against the backdrop of American individualism.
I haven’t seen evidence of a counter-narrative to this lie in Trump’s speeches or actions to date, and I don’t expect to. But Hamilton does offer one.
Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, might be the true hero of the musical. Her story is the one we hear last, and it brings me to tears every time I listen to it. She hasn’t been popularly remembered, even less than her husband has. Unlike her husband, though, her memory’s absence from American memory is not in spite of her efforts to be remembered. Instead, Eliza modeled a life—fifty years of it after her husband’s death—of self-sacrifice and advocacy for others. She not only devoted herself to preserving her husband’s memory but spoke out against slavery and established the first private orphanage in New York City. It’s the orphanage that gets me every time. Hamilton himself was an orphan—an orphan whose talent at writing got him out of poverty but also made it easier for him to convince himself that he didn’t need anyone’s help, that he could “write [his] own deliverance.” What Hamilton saw as an opportunity for self-advancement, Eliza sees as an occasion for service, preserving her husband’s memory not by showing children how they can save themselves, but by building a community for them, showing them care, support, and love.
We like to hear that we can save ourselves and that our stories are the important ones. But we need Eliza’s message of grace and care for others far more than we need both Trump’s and Hamilton’s messages of self-making and self-promoting. Very few of us get to tell our own stories. Someday, we will all be dust, our stories told by the few who remember us—and probably told wrong or not told at all. But there is a greater story, one of redemption through sacrifice and love rather than power and prowess. And we tell it not because we’ve earned it or because we’ve pushed enough others out of the way. We tell it because, by grace, we were grafted into it and given a role to play in the narrative its community shapes.