In an unusually ambitious, and not-totally-successful project, the great PBS series “Frontline” tackles the history of U.S. politics from the rise of Barack Obama to the rise of Donald Trump to the present moment over four hours on Tuesday night.
Yes, four hours. Technically, they’ve divided it into two two-hour documentaries, aired back-to-back, one starting at 7 and the other at 9.
That’s a lot. I previewed it all in one night and will summarize it below, but I can’t imagine a very large audience will stay to the end. As always, “Frontline” is smart and substantive. The first part, the Obama segment, was much stronger in my view, but maybe that’s because the news is all Trump these days.
Starting with Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention — a breakthrough moment before Obama was even a U.S. senator — the film presents Obama as the symbol of a generational change, the poet of “hope and change,” (although, as commentator Matt Bai says in the film, “hope and change is not an agenda.”)
As Obama rises to the presidency in 2008, against the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin, the film focuses on Palin, whom the filmmakers seems to think paved the path for Trump. “If you want to pinpoint a moment when the right completely rejected the left, it was the Sarah Palin moment,” says former McCain campaign chair Steve Schmidt.
New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb says that on Obama’s inauguration eve, Republicans gathered at a Washington steakhouse and wondered if they were facing a wholesale rejection of themselves by the country. But rather than trying to co-opt any of Obama’s issues or supporters, they resolved to block and defeat his agenda in every way, at every turn.
The Bush presidency was ending in a near financial collapse, and voices on the Democratic left wanted to punish the banks for causing it, which would have appealed to the party’s left base, but Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner convinced Obama that that approach would make things worse, advice that steered Obama away from some leftier impulses in the party.
But energy in the Republican Party was on the far right, epitomized by the Tea Party moment, perhaps an important moment in what would become the transition from Obama to Trump. The Tea Party was seemingly launched by a TV reporter, Rick Santelli, going on a crazy rant on TV against the alleged big government takeover of everything.
Obama decided to make health care reform his first term big project. But, although he had favored something much more like single-payer health care, he settled for the relatively moderate Affordable Care Act, which seeks to reduce the ranks of the uninsured by a collection of smaller measures, while preserving most of the features of private health care. (This is me, not the film talking. Considering that Obamacare barely passed by a single vote, I have always assumed that a more radical plan could not have passed. But Obamacare was always assailed as a crazy left plan by its righty critics.)
During the health care debate, Sarah Palin reappeared as one of the voices of various big lies, like the famous “death panels.” Schmidt identifies Palin, and this moment, as a symbol of the “post-truth” era, where you could say crazy stuff like “death panels,” and never back down, and sort of get away with it.
The film also focuses on the sudden meteoric rise of Glenn Beck, symbolizing the rise of Fox News and righty talk radio that (the film says) helped turn Fox into a “vast outrage machine.” Beck, for example, talks of Obama (whose mother was white) as having “a deep-seated hatred of white people.”
Another breakthrough moment occurred when an obscure House backbencher, Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelled out “you lie” while Obama was addressing the House.
Schmidt, who left the Republican Party in 2018, says that an outburst like that, in the past, would have led to immediate demands that the member apologize, maybe even resign, but “instead what happened is that he raised a couple of million dollars overnight. … What’s the lesson there: There is no longer a punishment for dishonesty or craziness. Instead, it’s rewarded.”
Obama, hoping to recruit bipartisan support for a health care expansion, avoided single-payer or anything that could be honestly called socialized medicine, but Republicans made the ACA the symbol of their resistance. It passed the House 219-212 with no Republican votes.
The birther movement, contending that Obama couldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in the United States, was racist and post-fact, and was led by Donald Trump, among others. That infuriated Obama, who singled Trump out for ridicule at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner with Trump in the audience, which so upset Trump that Roger Stone says that was the night Trump decided to run for president.
The whole approach of blocking and vilifying Obama was working for Republicans, who took control of the House in the 2010 midterms.
The Republican 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who wasn’t that kind of guy, felt he had to make a trip to Vegas to have his bid blessed by Donald Trump. (The footage of Romney trying to look as though he appreciated Trump is slightly painful.)
But the 2012 election was not about bringing the country together. Au contraire, both parties were in “stop the other guy” mode. Obama was, as you know, re-elected.
Six days after the election, Donald Trump filed an application to trademark the phrase “Make America Great Again.”
After the horrible Newtown school massacre, Obama tried to take on the gun control issue, but in the newly polarized Congress, progress on divisive issues was impossible. After a modest gun control proposal failed, Obama called it a “pretty shameful day for Washington.”
The famous police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement continued to divide the nation over guns and race, and Republicans surged to a big wave win in the 2014 midterms.
During his last two years, Obama all but gave up on legislating and did what he could with executive orders.
Not yet an announced candidate, Trump started talking about building a big border wall, and getting Mexico to pay for it. There’s footage of an appearance by Ann Coulter on the Bill Maher show (“Politically Incorrect”). Maher asked whom she predicted would be the Republican nominee. Coulter says Donald Trump, and the audience bursts into laughter.
Soon after Trump announced his candidacy, Palin endorsed him.
Obama urged us to resist the draw to tribalism: “We can’t afford to go down that path,” he says. ”It contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
I’ll stop there, for fear of going on forever. Part 2, which also airs tonight, at 9, is all about Trump.