“I’ve never agreed with Jefferson once / we’ve fought on like 75 different fronts / but when all is said and all is done / Jefferson has beliefs / Burr has none.”
So raps America’s first treasury secretary at a critical moment toward the end of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sublime remix of U.S. history that has taken Broadway (and my iTunes library) by storm. The moment occurs in the heat of the presidential election of 1800—a campaign that is still considered the ugliest and most over-the-top in history—which saw an Electoral College tie between the top two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, meaning the presidency would ultimately be decided by the House of Representatives.
As congressmen remained deadlocked after 35 rounds of voting, it fell to Alexander Hamilton to act as unofficial kingmaker. And what a nauseating choice it was: Jefferson, as leader of the rival Democratic-Republicans, had long served as Hamilton’s singular political nemesis. Burr, meanwhile, had once been a fellow Federalist but abruptly switched parties in 1790 to run—successfully—for the U.S. Senate against Philip Schuyler, a respected Federalist who also happened to be Hamilton’s father-in-law.
In short, the choice in 1800 was between a man who embodied everything Hamilton hated and a man who embodied nothing at all except sheer, naked ambition. In the end, Hamilton sided with Jefferson, the House followed suit and the rest…well, you know the rest.
(Prior to the vote, Hamilton had effectively killed off incumbent President John Adams with a 54-page pamphlet attacking his administration.)
I recount this pivotal episode in American electoral history partly as a rebuttal to the longstanding myth that the Founding Fathers were essentially perfect. That in addition to being uncommonly learned and intelligent, they were also uncommonly virtuous and civil and refreshingly devoid of any pettiness or ego. That they sacrificed everything—their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor—for the noble cause of American independence, wholly unencumbered by personal agendas or other selfish interests. That, in short, they were totally unlike the lowly political leaders we’re stuck with today.
Deep down, of course, we know that most of the above is complete nonsense. We have read first-hand accounts of the founding era for eons and understand how personally and tragically flawed the authors of America truly were.
With Hamilton—arguably the richest and most historically accurate depiction of the founding ever created (in spirit, if not in verse)—we have been given a singularly visceral insight into how those flaws actually played themselves out. How, for instance, a certain orphan immigrant had his life cut short—likely by several decades—because he dared to question the honor of another man and, when challenged, couldn’t summon the nerve to take it back.
The rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is the stuff of legend, although until recently the intrigue had been confined to their famous duel on July 11, 1804—a face-off that ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career. In fact, their relationship ran more or less continuously from 1776 onward, and in Miranda’s play, Burr is both the narrator and co-protagonist.
In a show that aims to narrow the gulf between yesterday and today—and thus make the past more accessible to us in the present—the decision to grant Burr such narrative primacy has proved eerily prescient to our contemporary political climate.
After all, we are right now engaged in a sustained national debate about whether the likely Republican presidential nominee is—to quote Maureen Dowd—“more like Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin, George Wallace or a Marvel villain.” Donald Trump, in any case, is widely recognized as a man with no core convictions except to become the most powerful man on Earth and, to that end, a man willing to alter his views at the drop of his dopey red hat.
In this way, Donald Trump is Aaron Burr.
What is more, should the GOP contest lead to an open convention in July—an increasingly plausible scenario—Republican delegates will be confronted with a strikingly similar prospect to that faced by Hamilton in 1800: Should they allow the party—and possibly the country—to be ruled by someone whose only objective is the acquisition of unlimited power?
The party’s dilemma, of course, is that there is no Jeffersonian figure to save them from themselves. There is, instead, Senator Ted Cruz—a candidate who is nominally an across-the-board conservative but is also, alas, a smarmy, cynical narcissist with no friends or accomplishments to speak of. (Jefferson, however ambitious, was at least capable of feigning humility.)
In fact, it is America’s non-Republicans who now gaze upon the GOP primary with the same horror as when Hamilton was forced to choose between Jefferson and Burr. It’s been a nagging question for us liberals: Assuming no other alternatives, do you go for the guy who is decent enough to believe in something—albeit the opposite of everything you believe in—or is it preferable to roll the dice with someone who only believes in himself and, thus, could possibly be dealt with under certain conditions?
For a good long while, I leaned ever-so-slightly toward the latter, figuring that in a country whose major global enemies are apocalyptic religious fundamentalists, the last thing we need is to elect a fundamentalist of our own. (Say what you will about Trump, but I find his rank indifference to religion among his more reassuring qualities.)
But now I’m not so sure. While I foresee no universe in which the politics of Ted Cruz suddenly become tolerable—to say nothing of Cruz himself—there is an equally compelling argument that someone like Cruz would at least bring a certain predictability to the presidency that a reckless barbarian like Trump—by his own boastful admission—would not.
In 1800, Hamilton and others viewed Burr as not just unprincipled but as outright dangerous to the continued health of the nascent republic—not least because of his inherent unknowability and bottomless opportunism. Indeed, isn’t it more or less tautological that men with no firm concept of good are the most liable to commit evil? As Hamilton asks early in the play, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”
That, in a sense, points to the arguments both for and against Donald Trump. By standing for nothing in particular, he becomes capable of pretty much anything, good and bad. By choreographing a willingness to hedge, hem and haw as circumstances require, he suggests a capacity to be all things to all people—or, conversely, nothing to no one. By steadfastly refusing to box himself into a consistent and coherent set of political views, he conjures the image of a man existing outside the box entirely, for better and for worse.
Among those who are so exasperated by Washington, D.C., that they want to blow the whole damn place to smithereens, Trump’s pitch may well make perfect, if perverse, sense. In this moment, maybe a human wrecking ball is just what the doctor ordered.
Or maybe—just maybe—Trump is exactly what he looks like: A clueless, shameless charlatan who will be utterly in over his head in the Oval Office and will realize—however belatedly—that however much he wanted the job at first, he never really had a plan for following through.
And yet—as farcical as it seems now—it’s still possible that November’s election will see the final victory of Aaron Burr. Wait for it: History is happening in Manhattan, and the world will never be the same.