Why every progressive needs to watch Hamilton on Disney Plus

Why every progressive needs to watch ‘Hamilton’ now that it’s on Disney Plus

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ crashes Broadway’s billion-dollar club

Flickr / Nathan Hughes Hamilton

“… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” — Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, #1

Every progressive needs to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterful hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton now that it is on Disney Plus. And not just because Hamilton himself warned against demagogues like Donald Trump.

Indeed, the power of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play’s language is so great every progressive should memorize the entire score—as I argue in my book, How to Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump.

That was just one of the many remarkable things I learned in the spring of 2016 when I took my mother to see the retelling of the life, loves, and losses of Alexander Hamilton—entirely in rap and song.

Here’s why watching Hamilton on Disney Plus is a must.

The viral storytelling trick progressives can learn from Trump 2
Hamilton is the quintessence of virality—it’s literally the epitome of the five rules of going viral I discuss in my book—and anyone who is serious about mastering these skills should memorize the whole work.

Miranda’s masterpiece is the closest any writer has come to replicating one of the classic epic rhythmic stories about one of the sung heroes of yore, like Homer’s Odyssey. It’s as close as any writer has come to recreating a work of rhetoric as masterful as Shakespeare, but set to music and using modern, accessible language.

What particularly fascinating to me is that Alexander Hamilton himself might never have come to this country if it were not for a horrific hurricane and his precocious mastery of rhetoric as a teenager!

 

Photo of the Grand Canyon

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Buy the soundtrack — if you are someone who cares about words, who cares about politics, or who just wants to know how unimaginably far one can push the boundaries of the human imagination. Your kids will fall in love with it, as my daughter did—she memorized the entire score 3 weeks after I downloaded it—and actually want to know more about the early history of this nation.

Hearing and seeing Hamilton is one of those rare ‘aha’ moments in life — like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time — that actually exceeds the ridiculously-high expectations you have for it. The musical, like the Canyon, beggars all description, as Shakespeare might say.

Hamilton is probably as close as we can get to an original work by the Bard of Avon — and not just because the story of Alexander Hamilton’s rise and fall is in many respects Shakespearian in its scope and tragedy, as well as in its discourse on power. The language of song, and rap, in particular, is like Shakespeare’s language in his plays, relying as they both do on mastery of the many, many figures of speech—such as rhyme, alliteration, foreshadowing, irony, and metaphor.

And that makes sense since the figures of speech (aka “rhetoric”) were themselves derived from the memory tricks used by the great bards, like Homer, to remember their long epic poems and to make those poems memorable and emotionally compelling to the audience — as I discuss in my book.

descriptive image of hurricane matthew

NASA

Not coincidentally, we might never have heard of Alexander Hamilton were it not for his mastery of rhetoric — and for the “most dreadful hurricane known in the memory of man,” as the Royal Danish American Gazette described the storm that devastated St. Croix the evening of August 31, 1772.

The Gazette wrote that the devastation wrought by the storm “would beggar all description.” But in fact, there was one young man on the island, the illegitimate son of a father who abandoned him and whose mother died soon after, whose facility with words belied that claim.

“The roaring of the sea and wind — fiery meteors flying about in the air — the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning — the crash of the falling houses — and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.” So wrote Hamilton in a letter to his father that masterfully combined the literal and the figurative.

Hamilton was only 17 years old! The letter ended up being published by the Gazette. Ron Chernow, whose authoritative 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton was the source material for the musical, explains what happened next:

Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty. This natural calamity was to prove his salvation. His hurricane letter generated such a sensation — even the island’s governor inquired after the young author’s identity — that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send this promising youth to North America to be educated. This generosity was all the more remarkable given the island’s dismal state.

Such is the power of rhetoric and the figures of speech to alter the course of a life that in turn altered the course of a nation.

The Dark Side Of Rhetoric

The greatest speech-makers of all time from Jesus and Cicero to Shakespeare to Lincoln and Churchill used the figures of speech and fully understood their power. For instance, while a soldier in India, a prescient 22-year-old Winston Churchill wrote an unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” that explains:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king…. The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to a very few…. the student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.”

At the same time, the masters of rhetoric understood how easily it could be misused for demagoguery — something we’ve seen Donald Trump do.

Trump at one of his campaign events

Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

Aristotle, in “Rhetoric,” the first in-depth study of the subject, wrote, “An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” Plato warned that a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor.

“But when a certain agreeableness of manner — a depraved imitation of virtue — acquired the power of eloquence unaccompanied by any consideration of moral duty,” wrote a 21-year-old Cicero in a handbook for orators, “then low cunning supported by talent grew accustomed to corrupt cities and undermine the lives of men.”

Sound like anyone we know today?

Black and white photo of Churchill sitting at a desk

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Churchill explained in the opening paragraph of his 1897 essay on the kind of person who abuses the power of rhetoric:

He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable…. A meeting of grave citizens, protected by all the cynicism of these prosaic days, is unable to resist its influence. From unresponsive silence they advance to grudging approval and thence to complete agreement with the speaker. The cheers become louder and more frequent; the enthusiasm momentarily increases; until they are convulsed by emotions they are unable to control and shaken by passions of which they have resigned the direction.

Sound familiar?

President Trump wearing a crown

Screenshot / YouTube

This abuse of power is a key reason founding fathers like Hamilton feared men “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” as he wrote in the “The Federalist #1” the first of the 85 “Federalist Papers” that promoted ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Papers were Hamilton’s idea, and he wrote most of them. He recruited John Jay who wrote a handful, and James Madison who wrote the rest (a few jointly with Hamilton).

In a March 2016 Washington Post op-ed headlined, “Trump is the demagogue that our Founding Fathers feared,” Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, quotes Federalist 10:

“Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”

A demagogue who betrays the interests of the people poses a considerably graver risk today than two centuries ago because the threats we face, including nuclear war and human-caused climate change, are more existential in nature.

Indeed, we’ve seen in the case of the coronavirus pandemic that Trump’s betrayal of our interests and his blinkered narcissism has literally cost tens of thousands of American lives.

So enjoy Hamilton on Disney Plus as soon as you can—but then set about the task of learning its lessons. That’s the best way to defeat our current demagogue—and minimize the chances we ever elect another.

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