Such is the rapidity of current events that a stable perspective seems always out of reach. Ten days or so into 2020 and there is tumult here, there and everywhere.
This is an election year in the United States, obviously, and it is ether a pivotal tipping point or it represents the furtherance of the past four years, with tumult evolving into a torrential storm of discord.
At least PBS, alone among U.S. broadcasters, is trying to reach for stable perspective. Its series Frontline begins its 2020 election-year coverage with a two-part, two-night, four-hour documentary series investigating America’s increasingly bitter, divided and toxic politics.
America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump (starts Monday, PBS, 9 p.m., continues Tuesday, 9 p.m.) is sobering, at times unnerving and often startling.
It presents two overlapping narratives. One tracks how Barack Obama’s promise of unity collapsed; the second inspects how Donald Trump’s campaign thrived on and manipulated the country’s divisions.
If there is an underlying theme, it’s that a strange confluence of events led to the victory of a high-status bully.
The central threads, all compellingly presented, are there in the first 20 minutes of the four-hour study. It opens with Obama’s keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. His message of “unity” and “hope and change” is underlined. But a suggestion emerges that Obama did not really represent progress in U.S. history. He was, it’s suggested, a centrist, and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton beore him had also promised “unity.” They all do that.
What Obama couldn’t actually do was deliver unity. A vital theme of this doc is the appalling economic mess of 2008 that Obama inherited from Day 1 and how his handling of it ignited the disunity that Trump would recognize and exploit. A rueful Timothy Geithner, Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury from 2009 to 2013, is interviewed now. He says, “We’d thrown trillions of dollars at it, and it was a existential crisis.” He explains that while Obama and others wanted the big banks punished, he warned against the “political theatre” of chastising large financial institutions.
Sequences follow in which figures from the right, including pundit Ann Coulter, explain that “the banks got off easily,” and thus, the Tea Party movement was inevitably formed. By being cautious, Obama had delivered the seeding of great and epic disunity, not the togetherness he promised. Instead of “hope and change,” what was unfolding was a presidency siding with the rich and powerful, as usual.
An interesting thread is built on the impact of Sarah Palin, who was, tonally and in messaging, foreshadowing the arrival and triumph of Trump. Steve Schmidt, a familiar pundit now on MSNBC who worked as a strategist for Senator John McCain, is lacerating. He calls Palin “a serial liar” and says she was interested in “the obliteration of facts.” There is more ominous foreshadowing in the examination of how Palin’s fact-free attacks on Obama’s health-care plan contributed to the rise of Glenn Beck at Fox News and the propagation of strange conspiracy theories.
It is unnerving now to see the first Obama administration under a microscope and how seething resentment grew and grew until Trump took advantage of the divisions. Obama’s handling of racial issues around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is highlighted as another turning point. Former Obama strategist David Axelrod says the administration just didn’t appreciate how much the President symbolized a change that some Americans simply didn’t want.
It’s 40 minutes in before Trump appears, first like the ghost in Hamlet and then a cunning disruptor moving astutely from the sidelines to the field of battle. There is lengthy commentary from Megyn Kelly – her most substantial interview in years – in which she explains how her tough questioning of Trump made her deeply hated. Fox News abandoned her, and Steve Bannon appears in the program to confirm with glee how he and Breitbart News arranged for her to be “culled” from Fox and “hammered.”
The second instalment, airing Tuesday, opens with footage of Donald Trump, age 34, declaring he’s not interested in politics. Examination of the 2016 campaign is chilling to see now – the white supremacists at Trump rallies, the misogyny aimed at women in the media, the hatred of immigrants. It’s deeply unnerving because so little has changed or been resolved since then.
There’s an ominous quality to the four hours of inspecting the “great divide,” and for all the self-examination by some players and the hindsight analysis of experts, there’s a sense that the United States approaches late-period Trumpism, not change. It’s hard to unseat a high-status bully who is less a manipulator than a manifestation of divisiveness that has long existed and seethed. It’s four hours well-spent and so, so sobering.
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