The PBS program Frontline has released an excellent 53-minute documentary titled Trump’s American Carnage that is a review of the Trump presidency. It starts with how he whipped the Republican party establishment to gain the nomination in 2016, in the process making his harshest critics such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham become shameless groveling sycophants. Trump also took aim early at Mitch McConnell, with withering criticisms of his failure to repeal Obamacare, that resulted in McConnell deciding to try and get into his good graces by doing his bidding and never saying anything critical, however terrible Trump’s actions were.
The defining event was the white nationalist, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that Trump refused to condemn and where he spoke about them being ‘fine people’ and suffered no blowback from the party. Trump correctly took that acquiescence as the sign that he could do and say any damn thing he wanted and the Republican party would meekly back him. His success in driving out any Republicans who even mildly criticized him in the 2018 mid-term elections further strengthened his control of the party.
He was clearly aiming to run for re-election in 2020 by whipping up racist and nativist sentiments by targeting immigrants and touting the wall, energizing his angry conservative base with his inflammatory rhetoric. The documentary goes all the way up to the January 6th insurrection and after, and there is some shocking footage of the riot that I had not seen before, including the moment when the woman was shot dead by the Capitol security when she tried to break in.
The one weakness in the documentary is that it spends little time on the pandemic. I think that that played a central role in his defeat. Trump may well have succeeded in his divisive re-election strategy except that the pandemic threw everything out of whack. One can understand why Trump was so anxious to minimize the pandemic because it was distracting from his message. But his mistake was in treating the virus like a political enemy that could be belittled, dismissed, and ignored and thus made to go away, a strategy that had worked with his political opponents. He could not drive the virus out of the news and the story just kept getting bigger and bigger and ultimately doomed him. He seemed to think that the pandemic was really an artificial creation of the media to discredit him, as can be seen by his statements at rallies that once the election was over, the media would stop talking about it. That was patently absurd. A death toll of 400,000 that may well reach over 600,000 before the pandemic is brought under control was always going to be a big story and it is only a narcissist like Trump who would see it purely in terms of how it affected him.
I found the documentary to be well worth watching.