Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 13, 2018 1:56 pm 
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Why Trump won: a personal documentary

This documentary is a little late. The recent "Frontline" one, Frontline: Trump’s Takeover (Tuesday, 10 Apr. 2018 PBS, 10 p.m.) beat it to the punch and also contains more up to date consideration of how power has shifted around since Donald Trump has been the US President: his takeover of the Republican party (watch it online here). Stern only takes us up to the election results. But it is still worth going back, because Trump's victory was a surprise to so many liberal-left or progressive people and to so much of the media. Why? Stern gives answers. A movie producer, sometime director, and dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, he dropped everything six months before the General Election - "Something felt very wrong, and I needed to find out why" - and went around the country examining the Trump phenomenon and trying to understand it, then following election predictions and the election results themselves, when he walks around on camera "trying not to cry."

One trouble however is that this focus is on why people voted for Trump. There are other questions that get less attention, such as the more technical and statistical question of why he won, which has to do not with individual voters' mindsets but with Electoral College advantages and manipulation; and - apart from why he won, what Trump intended to do if he won and what he is doing since he did win.

Stern goes out to listen to, not argue with, Trump supporters. In this he mostly succeeds. Sometimes he can't help himself and does argue, off camera. In his focus on listening, he avoids commenting on perhaps the key element in Trump's victory: that Americans are breathtakingly naive about politics. He is not - or is he? We on the left all were, even many of the shrewdest and most cynical among us. Many of us disliked Hilary Clinton, but we held our noses and voted for her, confident that Trump could not win. He was too extreme, to uninformed, too inexperienced (and, though left politely unmentioned here, just plain stupid), to win, we thought. That didn't matter. He gave rabble-rousing speeches. And we didn't reckon on how politically polarized, how divided the country has become. That division, threatening democracy - which requires cooperation and compromise to function effectively - is the "chaos" Stern refers to.

We would be undervaluing and ignoring the best elements of Stern's documentary, however, if we dwelt only on his treatment of Trump, the campaign, and the election. This is also a passionate personal journey, very much in the first person. Stern tells all abut himself and politics. "We grew up in a political family," he begins. His father marched in Martin Luther King's funeral procession. And photos show how much he and his brothers and his father look alike, lean, upright, tall Jewish men in Chicago who loved JFK. He tells us his first (live) political ideal was Bobby Kennedy. This is the warm and touching story of a demographic utterly left out by Trump's presidency - as, he learns, another demographic, the other half of America, had felt left out of Obama's (and associated Hilary with Obama).

What Stern finds is that, though it didn't show in Chicago or New York or California, a lot of Americans felt left out by Obama, because of his race, because of his sophistication, his grace and elegance - qualities that didn't suit the common man out in the boonies. And winning the boonies, given the Electoral College system, is the key to beating the liberal numerical majorities of the big cities. Stern ends with an interesting, perhaps wise wish. He hopes the next Democratic president can make Republican voters feel included in what's going on in Washington. (Trump's Electoral College win made the map of the United States seem almost entirely Red States, which it isn't, but this is an issue, like other fine electoral analyses, that Stern doesn't go into.)

The most notable part of this film is Stern's visit to Appalachia, where he spends substantial time, getting to know people in West Virginia. He hears of their pain and the collapse of the coal mining industry. They blame Obama for this and and for the sweeping job losses and poverty in their region, which, he asserts at the end of this segment, in fact would have happened anyway. Stern finds out the extent to which Appalachia and other disenfranchised, borderline - or full-on - crazy voters are all for Trump. Along the Tex-Mex border, which he visits and is surprised to find much more undermanned than he'd anticipated, with Mexican drug cartel armed drones carrying drugs in, he encounters strong support for Trump, too.

But (though this, in the film, is little more than an afterthought) he finds that some right-minded, moral Republicans, such as the editors of the hitherto perpetually Republican newspaper The Arizona Republic , whom Stern meets with, have condemned Trump and endorsed Hilary. They reject Trump for despicable acts that reveal immoral character unworthy of a President - his condoning of a violent attack on a black man in his campaign audience, his mocking of an immigrant and of a disabled journalist during campaign speeches, and the leaked recording of his pussy-grabbing boast. But this film is not strong on nuance. It shows us the Trump faithful, not the Republican dissenters.

Stern also meets with various academic experts whose comments are sprinkled throughout the film, as if for a leavening of sanity - on psychology, information, sociology, and such - explain why people would like what Trump says, believe his narratives and his claims. Important among these is his "Crooked Hilary" line - that his opponent is not the best qualified candidate we're ever seen in experience, but a criminal, even a traitor. She should be locked up, not running for President: they really believe this. And they are going to vote.

Stern deserves credit for sitting down with "the enemy," having breakfast with people whose politics he abhors, and trying to understand them. Eventually he realizes Trump has a good chance of winning, even though when the election comes he's still horrified, and therefore in some sense caught by surprise, despite his six months of research.

How do those who voted for Trump feel now, after - by Google at this moment of writing - he has been President 1 year, 213 days, 12 hours, 49 minutes and 55 seconds? Do they feel empowered now? Does the strong Stock Market hearten them? Does the current employment rate satisfy those who voted for Trump because they were out of work and blamed the Democrats? What is the mood in Appalachia today? These are questions that Stern doesn't answer in this film. For that, look to other reports such as the "Frontline" film, to the much more rigorous coverage that is needed and could be crucial to the next election.

American Chaos, 90 mins., debuted at Montclair 6 May 2018 (Montclair Film Festival), and opens in NYC and LA 14 Sept. 2018. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Metascore: 45%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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