Ecologists like to keep tabs on what they call “indicator species": those species whose relative health substitutes for larger, murkier health measurements. The northern spotted owl, synonymous with environmentalism in the 1980s, was an indicator species. Its ecological contribution was debatable, but because its biome remains poorly understood, the owl represented ecology overall. The indicator represents a concept too vast to comprehend directly.Tonight, VP-Elect Mike Pence attended #HamiltonBway. After the show, @BrandonVDixon delivered the following statement on behalf of the show. pic.twitter.com/Jsg9Q1pMZs— Hamilton (@HamiltonMusical) November 19, 2016
When the cast of Hamilton on Broadway interrupted a curtain call on Friday to read a prepared statement for Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience, it initially received a mild response. Though a nice piece of citizen activism, it's unlikely to change current politics. Eight hours later, President-elect Donald Trump posted his first tweet of pants-wetting outrage, the first of several on Saturday. He clearly considers the theater a place of bland, non-confrontational entertainment, and demanded the cast apologize for violating his prejudices.
According to pundits who track web activities, as interest in Trump's Hamilton tweets skyrocketed, other Trump-related stories cratered. Google searches for presumptive Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the out-of-court settlement in the Trump University fraud case, and white nationalist consultant Steve Bannon, all went through the floor. Critics charged that liberals and progressives has gotten distracted from the real story. We need to maintain focus, they warned us.
But I suggest the Hamilton story isn't a distraction, it's an indicator. Many of the Trump stories to emerge in the nearly two weeks since he won the presidency, on a technicality, have been very abstruse. Even committed news followers like me have difficulty understanding the intricate details of these accusations. The Hamilton story, however, seems very close. It's a one-stop survey of everything wrong with how Donald Trump is likely to use presidential authority.
Many charges against Trump seem distant: Jeff Sessions, whom President Reagan nominated for a federal bench, was rejected by the Senate nearly thirty years ago. For some young voters, that's practically the Triassic Age. Understanding why this demonstrated racist is a bad pick for Attorney General requires unpacking a career in public affairs over forty years long. Attaching Sessions' lingering odor to Trump requires even more effort. Young people with jobs can't spare the time.
As for the Trump University accusations, even I don't fully understand the charges. Okay, he misrepresented his contribution to the “school." He collected tuition from aspiring millionaires and returned them diplomas worth less than the paper they were printed on. How is that worse than the unaccredited “Bible colleges" that proliferated in America during the 1970s and 1980s? How is that worse than ITT, Strayer, and other private, unaccredited, for-profit technical colleges that advertise aggressively on basic cable? Beats me.
So if even motivated news junkies find the bigger stories tough to follow, how do Trump's opponents explain the situation to less dedicated citizens? Through indicator stories. As awful as the “grab 'em by the pussy" tape sounds, it provides a meaningful indicator of Trump's attitudes toward women, law, class status, and anyone he considers beneath himself. That tape, and the coverage it spawned, conveyed a shorthand glimpse into Trump's inner workings that some data-heavy exposé would've missed.
This story also indicates how Trump will likely treat, well, you. Jeff Sessions might eventually prosecute Black Lives Matter leaders, anti-war protesters, and other dissidents, someday. Steve Bannon might move the weight of government against his personal opponents. But those are large, slow-moving instruments that might reach you, eventually. If your criticism catches air, Donald Trump could use his widely-read Twitter feed to turn partisan outrage against you. And Twitter shaming can be a powerful weapon today.
So no, I disagree altogether that Trump's Hamilton tweets are a distraction from the real story. In the grand scheme, they're probably a less important story, a mere footnote future historians will find amusing and illustrative. But right now, at ground level, these tweets are a prime indicator of the challenges America will face under Trump's leadership. In the ecology of contemporary America, these tweets indicate just how critically endangered the rest of us really are.