It’s often difficult to resist the urge to let my eyes roll to the back of my head at peak Janet Jackson speed upon hearing the declaration that X issue is a distraction from Y, the bigger, more important matter at hand. Yes, in media, superficial stories can often be assigned more attention than their more substantive counterparts, but that sentiment is based on the unfortunate assumption that the brain cannot process multiple things at once. In the same way that many of us can walk and chew someone out at the same time, we are just as capable of juggling the ongoing horror show starring our president-elect.
When Donald Trump garnered media coverage over tweets aimed at the casts of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live last weekend, it was disappointing to see some smugly dismiss those antics as spectacle unworthy of concern. Although Trump has been known to court attention from the very New York tabloids he’s often battled with, certain truths remain: The man is thin skinned. The man is vengeful. The man has an issue with anyone he feels has wronged him—especially when done publicly.
Trump has long conflated any form of criticism or protest with persecution. There will be no pivot. There will be no miraculous arrival of maturation. It’s best to pay attention to what this could mean in the future.
Sure, Steve Bannon, a racist with a penchant for propaganda peddling, may enjoy Trump’s temper tantrums because they do steal focus from his more nefarious dealings, but that doesn’t make them any less noteworthy. Trump is an orgy of problems, and we ought to pay attention to every single one.
In this case, Trump’s pattern with criticism is overbearing in its clarity, and with the power of the presidency, soon there may be hell to pay for those who dare speak ill of him. While the casts of Hamilton or Saturday Night Live will be free from his reach, other artists may not be so lucky. Now more than ever, I worry about artists in public spaces who will be punished for displeasing President Trump.
Republicans have a long-standing history of attacking the rights of artists. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan immediately attempted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. In response to the substantial proposed cuts in arts and humanities, Rep. Frederick W. Richmond, the Democratic chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus, told the New York Times, “Arts are crucial to the well-being of America.”
Reagan was not completely successful in those efforts, but the agency spent much of the decade battling members of the religious right, like Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan, along with legislative bigots like Jesse Helms.
In 1994 Newt Gingrich took on the NEA, branding the independent federal agency “wasteful” and “elitist.” During this same period, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the Brooklyn Museum of Arts to wage a battle over public funding of the arts.
Just this year, select Georgia lawmakers took on the national exhibition “Art AIDS America” once it reached Kennesaw State University. I covered that exhibition for the Village Voice, and part of the exhibition spoke to the failure of the Reagan administration to handle the AIDS crisis, and the work of conservatives to silence awareness of it. They were bullied out of museums and barraged with threats of retribution. In response to such a hostile climate created by bullies with power, many artists had to covertly use their art to chronicle how their friends and, in many cases, themselves were dealing with the disease. Their art lent voice to those who did not garner enough attention from mainstream media.
With a demagogue en route to Inauguration Day, I’m rightfully concerned with what Sunkist Stalin will do to them. Just as I worry about what a president who campaigned on “law and order” will do to protesters. I fear what harm a nonbeliever of the First Amendment can enact on a media who may buckle under his power rather than rightfully challenge him every step of the way.
The same goes for his shady business dealings, promises of a Muslim registry and worsening an already bad precedent set by President Barack Obama with respect to deportations. Hell, I worry about the gaudiness he might beset the White House with while redecorating.
I don’t dismiss any of it because it will all be horrendous. It’s vital that we shout about every single looming danger as loudly as possible. The danger of Trump’s potential for distraction isn’t that we'll follow one purported shallow concern over something more serious; it’s that we'll lose count of each and every risk he poses to rights.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.