January 29, 2021

This will serve as my review of the PBS Frontline Trump documentary, "Trumps' American Carnage", which dropped yesterday.

It is a typical example of the Frontline genre. In this case, they've created a well-produced, workmanlike account of Donald Trump's escalating assaults on democratic norms and institutions and his tightening grip on the Republican Party. Since Trump's atrocities and the GOP's capitulations are far too numerous to capture in a single hour, Frontline moves swiftly through the years, touching in the worst of the worst -- basically an hour-long timeline of key events of the Trump presidency from escalator to insurrection, narrated by William Lyman, who is both the longtime voice of the Frontline series and (fun fact) the voice of Dos Equis beer.

Since the thrust of the documentary is the accelerating pace and recklessness of Trump's authoritarianism, emphasis is placed on those examples along the way which most clearly illuminate that trajectory. For example, two hours during which Trump ordered the teargassing and clubbing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so that he could stage a photo-op is given more air time than Trump's year-long catastrophic refusal to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. Instead, Frontline focuses on Trump's use of state lockdowns in response to the pandemic as an opportunity to whip his followers into a statehouse-storming, "Liberate Virginia! Liberate Michigan! Liberate Minnesota!" frenzy.

I'm not faulting the Frontline producers for putting the emphasis where they did in order to tell the story they wanted to tell. This was, after all, a one-hour documentary on Trump's steady progression towards open tyranny and violent insurrection, and not a 20 hour disquisition on Everything Horrible Trump Did, so no beef from me on that score.

From the Frontline website:

From his first days as president to his last, how Trump stoked division, violence and insurrection. FRONTLINE investigates Trump’s siege on his enemies, the media and even the leaders of his own party, who for years ignored the warning signs of what was to come.

Like pretty much every other Frontline documentary you've ever seen, the story is advanced by a combination Mr. Lyman's disembodied Third Party Omniscient voice, a variety of People Seated in Chairs and various other narrative devices familiar to documentary enthusiasts such as photographs, video footage, audio recordings, Tweets, documents with highlighted text, etc.

And it's the People Seated in Chairs that gives me serious pause.

There are the Reporters -- Yamiche Alcindor, Peter Baker, Darlene Superville, Robert Costa, Susan Glasser and I'm probably forgetting someone -- who talk about the relevant stories that they have reported on.

There are the Villains like Corey Lewandowski, Roger Stone, Sean Spicer and Frank Luntz trying to look rueful, because it's only fair that we hear from bad guys.

Then there are the Republican Political Eunuchs: current office-holding potted ferns like Susan Collins, and those driven from office like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who now shake their head, dazed that St. Reagan did not come down from Republican Heaven to intercede.

But what of the most important Person Seated in a Chair of all? The Everyman? The avatar for the PBS audience's outrage? Who could Frontline get to look into the middle-distance and say "They were warned over and over and over, but did they listen? Noooooo they did not and now they're fcked!" seven different ways?

Why ,The Bulwark's Conservative podcaster Charlie Sykes of course!

In fact, other than William Lyman and Donald Trump himself, by my rough estimate, no one is heard more often in this documentary than Mr. Sykes, to whom the documentary's literal last word is given. And he is there as the representative of the only people in America who, so far as Frontline tells us, were wise enough and insightfully enough to be out there warning the country early on that they needed to take the threat of Donald Trump seriously: Republican Never Trumpers.

And that's a problem for me.

Another problem is that, in this story of one of America's major political parties rapidly succumbing to madness and barbarism, there is almost no sign of America's other major political party. There is some audio of a woman not identified as Nancy Pelosi calling for a voice vote on impeachment in the House a year ago, and file footage of Adam Schiff warning during Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate that if the Senate lets him off the hook this time he will absolutely do it again and worse.

But other than those two brief cameos, the Democratic Party does not seem to exist at all.

Also missing from this first rough draft of history is the Women's March, the rise of the Resistance, the massive Democratic voter registration drive, and the unprecedented Democratic voter turnout that made it possible for the Democrats to take the House in 2018, which is the only reason there was an impeachment trial at all.

Instead, unless you were already very familiar with American politics, you could very likely come away from this documentary believing the following:

  • All the scary shit going on with the Republican Party -- the racism, the lies, the violence, the conspiracy-mongering, the zeal for strong-man fascism -- all of it began with Donald Trump running for president. There is no need to look for any pre-existing conditions any further back than that.
  • This entire period of American politics is defined by an internecine struggle between Conservative factions. Nothing of any real importance to the story of the rise of Donald Trump exists outside of that context.
  • The only real opposition Donald Trump ever faced came from a small group of plucky, sagacious Never Trumpers who warned their fellow Republicans "...over and over and over again about Donald Trump. Who he was. What he was capable of doing. And they looked the other way. "

And that's a real problem for me.

The full episode of "Trump's American Carnage" is now on Youtube.

Republished with permission from Driftglass under the title, "The First Rough Draft of History."

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