I never thought I would be quoting Ronald Reagan to make an argument for the centrality of the arts in American life — but his phrase struck me, during the bizarre cultural moment we are living through: “Our nation has crowned her greatness with grace.” Mr. Trump wants “to make America great again” without dissent and without the arts; but can one truly have greatness without grace?
When President George W. Bush presided over the Kennedy Center awards for the final time, in 2008, one of the honorees was Barbra Streisand, a vocal critic of his policies. After Mr. Bush read her biography, he added, “She’s also been known to speak her mind.” The audience laughed, then applauded. Ms. Streisand later wrote: “President Bush gave me his signature wink and mouthed, ‘We showed ’em.’ I guess in some small way, he and I proved that we could agree to disagree, and, for that weekend, art transcended politics.” The wink and the joke were actually profound — they signaled a functional democracy.
During his eight years in office, President Barack Obama could be seen one minute on Broadway with Michelle Obama, at August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” or at “Hamilton,” and the cast of “Hamilton” could also be seen at the White House.
I remember the Obamas appearing on a video feed at the Tony Awards to introduce and exalt “Hamilton,” and thinking: We are living in the golden age of theater. An age in which a poet-politician was at home with the great Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was himself at home with the sonnet form in an acceptance speech. This cultural flowering and embrace of an artist by a ruler made me think of the synergy between Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. If “Hamilton” represented a national renaissance and a broadening of our democracy, where are we now?
Shortly after the election, Mike Pence went to see “Hamilton.” Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, addressed the vice president-elect after the show: “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”
Does it get more Shakespearean than this? The actors speaking an epilogue directly to a ruler? Mr. Trump wanted the cast to apologize. Because, he tweeted, the theater must be a “safe and special place.”
“Safe and special?” For whom? In an “us” versus “them” culture — when most artists have become a “them” to the ruler, what hope is there for gentleness in civil discourse, a welcome difference of opinions, multiplicity, empathy and grace?
In dictatorships, the artists are often the first to go. Or maybe they are the third to go, after the press and the intellectuals. The refusal of the president to celebrate them is a chilling and clear departure from American values. Perhaps the Trumps didn’t want to compete with the Obamas, who at the 2016 Kennedy Center awards received the longest standing ovation of the evening.
Mr. Obama met with Marilynne Robinson, a writer he admired, to interview her for The New York Review of Books in the fall of 2015. I think of a president with enough humility and curiosity to interview her — a politician-writer meeting a fellow writer on equal ground, discussing the virtues of the yellow notepad — and I want to weep.