Weapons of Mass Distraction: Why so much about Hamilton and so little about Trump University?
Much cleverer people than me have noticed it before me (that’s why they’re cleverer people than me). My old friend Dan Rebellato noticed it immediately. This is one thing that Trump is good at. It may be THE thing that Trump is good at. Trump manages to shift attention from what’s important to what really isn’t by ensuring that the trivial issue is utterly bizarre enough to focus attention away from the substantive concern.
The Trump University settlement ought to have been massive news. Trump boasted (falsely) that he never settles lawsuits and made a very loud (and repeated) commitment to fight this case all the way down the line. He lied. The $25,000,000 will go some way to offer practical compensation to those who feel defrauded by Trump. But the Hamilton-Pence affair has overwhelmed the Trump University settlement in all new media.
Part of the issue is that Trump himself seems so prickly and humorless, as are his supporters. Trump continually sets himself up as the irresistible butt of so many punchlines. Unfortunately, the better (or quicker) jokes involve ludicrous trivia such as the Hamilton affair rather than the massive out of court fraud settlement. It is the sheer petulance and wrongheadedness of the Hamilton affair, the fact that he turns on the cast for “attacking” Pence when all they did was make a very dignified appeal to the very best of American values that can’t help but make you gawp at it all. (Pence, of course, as a fan of “conversion therapy” which involves torturing gay teenagers until they scream out that they’re straight really, was being treated with far more courtesy by that cast than he deserved.) When Trump is being this ludicrous, it’s hard, oh so very hard, not to jump on board. My personal fave tweet was “Yes, we’re gonna build that fourth wall and we’re gonna make the Brechtians pay for it.”
But of course, Trump can afford to offend the world of Broadway theatre. Who can be more representative of the so called “elites” he’s supposedly railing against than an expensive New York theatre full of cosmopolitans? Now the Trump University case was different. The victims of Trump University were Trump’s own supporters – by definition. Those who paid for courses there did so in the belief that Trump was a deal-making genius and that something of his business acumen (and, more importantly, reputation for deal-making genius) would be communicated to them. And the Trump University was not some arm-length franchise of a kind which fails so often without Trump being in any way liable. The Trump University was something that made specific promises about Trump’s specific level of commitment and involvement. Trump made promises. Trump lied.
Trump is claiming, of course, that he’s only settling because he needs to focus on other more important business. Important business like tweeting about Broadway shows? Does anybody really think that Trump is capable of putting some “national” interest ahead of a personal vendetta? A “national interest” is just a notional interest as far as Trump is concerned. In a few weeks, he will have all the resources of the world’s greatest superpower at his disposal in order to pursue petty retributive grievances and, as someone who boasts about never apologising and never forgiving, he’ll certainly use federal sledgehammers to smash tiny personal nuts.
The Trump University settlement case reinforces (as if it needed any more reinforcing) the fact that Trump is a liar. He lies because he has no concept of objective truth whatsoever, and because he despises nobody more than his own loyal supporters. He believes that if people put their trust in you, then you should abuse that trust and fleece them. He regards this as good business practice. Cave emptor, perhaps… I mean, there is a sort of elegant logic attached to the idea that an expensive degree programme in which you learn Trump’s business practices ends up being a complete scam. Without doubt, those who have lost their money have indeed “learned a valuable lesson”.
Trump is an expert at getting people to attack him for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. The Hamilton baiting Trump is such an easy and delicious target that it overwhelms the lying, cheating, exploitative fake university Trump.
Perhaps we spent too much time listening to political scientists and psychologists on Trump and not enough time listening to Penn and Teller (OK, just Penn). Penn not only had to work closely with Trump and saw him at chillingly close quarters, but he (and Teller) are supreme communicators of the arts of misdirection. As de-mystifying illusionists, they understand how hierarchies of significance are reversed, how audiences are misled, and how a successful manipulator always knows how to prevent us seeing what’s sometimes in plain sight.