. . . just not in the way Donald Trump thinks. Theatre needs to be safe from encroachment on our freedom of speech.
Vice President Elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton on Friday and was booed by the audience. At the end of the show, the actor playing Aaron Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, gave a very polite speech from the stage urging the audience to stop booing and telling Pence that they were grateful for his presence and that the diverse cast and crew were understandably anxious about whether they would be protected under a Trump/Pence administration, urging Pence to support “all Americans.”
For being asked to support all Americans in accordance with the campaign’s own promises, Trump has referred to this exercise of free speech as “harassment” and demanded an apology from the cast in several of his trademark childishly-worded tweets, some of which have been deleted by the time of this writing. (Pence, on the other hand, responded yesterday with something that basically might have been, “Of course I wasn’t offended. I’m an adult. So I’m going to do the adult thing and lie. The concerns of the Hamilton cast were heard, and we in the Trump administration will protect all Americans, not just straight white men.”)
Anyone could have predicted what it would be like for Pence to show up at Hamilton, a show that openly celebrates diversity (and is sold out until the end of time, which also means Pence, who sits at the head of a dangerously bigoted administration, used his celebrity to score some rare VIP house seats to watch a show created by the very people he and his administration openly seek to harm).
Trump’s response is alarming because theatre should be a safe space– safe from Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and their administration’s potential assault on American free speech.
As the President-Elect, Trump should not be demanding apologies from Americans speaking to their incoming government about their concerns. It’s a terrifying act when taken as a whole with Trump’s other actions.
Trump has vowed to “open up” libel laws as president in order to make it easier for him to sue news organizations and journalists for criticizing him. The fact that he has no idea what he’s talking about and can’t act on this vow means nothing, because there are plenty of ways his administration can use its power to curtail free speech. Trump already routinely sues people who criticize him, to the degree that First Amendment expert Susan Seager, writing in the newsletter of the American Bar Association, labeled him a “libel bully,” a charge proven by the fact that the ABA initially balked at publishing it for fear that Trump would sue them while President-Elect.
When Trump was a private citizen, his propensity to sue over every little thing was silly and laughable, but as President of the United States, it becomes a danger to our democracy. It’s one thing to be sued for criticizing a reality TV buffoon; it’s entirely another to be sued for criticizing our President.
Trump routinely threatens anyone who criticizes him, and this is a remarkable, particular danger for cherished American freedoms.
Trump blamed terrorist bombings on “freedom of the press.”
He threatened to sue Ted Cruz for running negative ads against him during the primaries.
He threatened to sue The Daily Beast for reporting on Ivana Trump’s deposition in their divorce case.
He threatened to sue the National Hispanic Media Coalition for calling his statement that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” “racist.”
He personally phoned writer David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump, and told him he would sue if he didn’t “like” what Johnston wrote.
He threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting about his taxes.
He threatened to sue Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal, for discussing his personal opinion of the candidate.
He threatened to sue the Washington Post for running a story detailing the failure and bankruptcy of his Atlantic City casino.
He threatened Amazon with antitrust and tax investigations over his coverage in the Washington Post because Jeff Bezos founded Amazon and now owns the Post. Amazon stock dropped 6% when Trump was elected, as investors wonder whether the President-Elect will sink a business over news stories he deems unflattering, in direct violation of our constitutional protections.
The above list is so short and incomplete it barely deserves to be called a “partial list.” Trump has repeatedly, relentlessly attacked “the media” in general and many journalists in particular for daring to write criticisms of him– even mild criticisms, even just, as was the case with Megyn Kelly, reading out his own words. His vicious attacks on journalists at his campaign rallies caused many of his supporters to menace, threaten, and verbally abuse journalists there to cover the event. It became so acute the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling Trump a “threat to press freedom.” MSNBC reporter Katy Tur, a favorite target for Trump, had to be given Secret Service protection at one of his rallies, as his vitriol from the stage against her personally for her journalism– he literally pointed at her from the stage, called her a “liar,” and demanded an apology– resulted in the crowd of thousands turning on her “like a large animal, angry and unchained.”
When Trump famously mocked a disabled reporter (Serge Kovaleski) from the stage, it was over his journalism— specifically, his factual statement that during his coverage of 9/11, he did not recall anything that supported Trump’s outrageously false claims that “thousands” of Muslims were “celebrating in the streets.” Trump supporters have deluged Jewish journalists with antisemitic death threats.
During the campaign, Trump denied access to media outlets he deemed “unfair” because they did not violate journalistic ethics to portray him solely in a favorable light, only lifting the ban two months before the election. He has already begun denying access during this transition period.
Trump’s multiple threats to both freedom of speech and freedom of the press are gravely concerning. This is a direct attack on American free speech when it comes from the incoming government. Squelching free speech is always the first step in establishing a dictatorship, and his lawsuit antics are already having a chilling effect on coverage.
Trump’s demand for an apology from the Hamilton cast is a small thing, but it’s just one tiny sliver of his ongoing attacks against our First Amendment protections.