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PBS ‘Frontline’ documentary examines former President Donald Trump’s lies

Columnist Eric Black writes that the film “is as honest and accurate and chilling as you can imagine. If possible, we should all save a copy and rerun it in future presidential election years…”

Former President Donald Trump gesturing during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on January 29.
Former President Donald Trump gesturing during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on January 29.
REUTERS/Go Nakamura

The newest documentary by the great PBS “Frontline” outfit premieres Tuesday night at 9 p.m. It’s titled “Lies, Politics and Democracy.” 

As you may have guessed from the title, it’s about Donald Trump, the biggest liar in recent (and perhaps in all of ) U.S. political history. It’s especially about his attempted despoliation of U.S. democracy in the aftermath of Joe Biden’s SOLID victory over Trump in the 2020 presidential election and Trump’s efforts to overturn it (which are still going on – he’s recently called for the election to be rerun – ??? – but going nowhere).

I’ll just put this right out there. The documentary is two hours long, and a lot of it is stuff you already know, although there’s likely to be some facts or ideas in there that will be new to you. 

But the film is as honest and accurate and chilling as you can imagine. If possible, we should all save a copy and rerun it in future presidential election years to make sure we remember what happened in 2020 and take measures to prevent any recurrence of this epic shit-show from threatening our little experiment in democratic self-governance again.

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The film, directed by Michael Kirk, opens with footage of a long string of losing presidential candidates since the dawn of the TV age graciously conceding and congratulating their opponents, until it comes to Trump declaring of the election he had just lost that:

“This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly we did win this election…” until the narrator clarifies what you really already know, thus:

“It was the lie that sparked an insurrection. An existential threat to American Democracy.”

As recently as last week (and I don’t doubt Trump will extend his love affair with this particular pile of horse manure into next week, next month and next year) Trump still claimed to have won the 2020 election. What are the odds he’ll claim it on his deathbed?

I dunno. Maybe “existential threat” from the quote above is a bit much, but maybe not. I’m a septuagenarian, born in the second-to-last last year of Harry S Truman’s presidency, so Trump was my 13th president. I sort of thought I’d seen it all. But no. 

In case you don’t recall (but “Lies, Politics and Democracy” will refresh your memory), Trump lost the first contest in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the Iowa caucuses. But he immediately tweeted that it had been stolen, telling interviewers: “Everything about it was disgraceful. It was a fraud as far as I’m concerned.” 

But then (the film reminds you), before his ambition turned to the presidency, when his reality TV show “The Apprentice” lost an Emmy (in the stupid show category, I assume) to “The Amazing Race,” he claimed that the Emmy vote was “rigged.” I don’t think the term “poor loser” captures this guy. We need something stronger. 

But wait, still more: In 2012 (this is all in the Frontline film), when Democrat-turned-Republican Trump backed Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, and although Romney graciously conceded, Trump tweeted: “This election is a total sham and travesty. We are not a democracy” (and specified, without evidence, that voting machines were programmed to switch Romney votes to Obama. Still waiting for that evidence.)

As the runner-up for the 2016 Republican nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was entitled to a speaking slot at the convention. But he told people that he would refuse to endorse the nominee, Trump, who had insulted Cruz’s wife as, let’s say, unattractive. Referring to his unwillingness to get on board, Cruz told aides, “History isn’t kind to the man who holds Mussolini’s jacket.” I’m not sure if that was original to Cruz, but I like it.

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In the end, Cruz pulled his punches, saying publicly only that “we deserve leaders who stand for principle…” without specifying to whom he was referring. But even that was enough to get the Trump crowd booing and calling for him to get off the stage. And Cruz, to his eternal disgrace, later joined the campaign to elect Trump, as a surrogate speaker (but not to hold Trump’s jacket).

According to the film, Trump had been prepared (and talked about doing so) to declare in 2016, if he had lost, that the election had been rigged. But, as you know, even though he lost the popular vote (which he never acknowledged in any way) Trump won the electoral vote in 2016 and became president.

Longtime Republican and conservative pundit Bill Kristol, who ended up campaigning against Trump, says in the film that Republicans in Congress told him that they would be able to manipulate Trump so he wouldn’t do anything too weird, then adding: “But it turned out he would be the one doing the manipulating.”

The film calls the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia – where racists and anti-Semites chanted filthy, violent slogans and ended up causing three deaths, after which Trump refused to criticize them (“very fine people on both sides”) – “a moment that would foreshadow what was to come.”

Ku Klux Klan Leader David Duke, who participated in the rally/riot, later specified that Trump had told the participants to take their country back and that’s what they were doing.

According to the film, Paul Ryan, then the Republican Speaker of the House and U.S. representative from Wisconsin, told Trump he had to disavow at least the members of the crowd who were violent. 

But Trump told him: “You don’t get it, Paul. These are my people.”

Journalist Jelani Cobb (who recently became Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism) appears at that point in the film to say that “Ryan was unwilling to accept that racists were now the core of the Republican Party under Trump.”

So Ryan retired from Congress. 

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A Ryan adviser, Brendan Buck, says on camera that one of Ryan’s big problems with the nominee was that Trump welcomed anyone who supports him, even racists, were “OK with him in his book, no matter what they believed,” as long as they were Trumpers.

Oher commentators identified the deadly Charlottesville riots as an inflection point, where party leaders realized they could not remain relevant in the Trump-led Republican Party and continue to stand against its racist elements. Some of them left over it.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, for example, was unwilling to stand silent about Trump’s authoritarianism. He wrote a book about it, “Conscience of a Conservative.” But, the film’s narrator says, Flake “became an example of the danger of speaking out.” Realizing that Trump now spoke for the Republican base, and being unwilling to go along with what Trump and the base wanted, Flake chose not to run for another term. 

Republican Congressman Mark Sanford decided to stay but not stay quiet about his opposition to Trump. Trump denounced him, and he lost in the next primary in 2018. On camera, Sanford says: “It’s not good when you’re a lowly member of Congress and a president of your own party comes out against you. It’s just not a good movie. It doesn’t work out well.”

Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican pollster, said of those who stood up to Trump: “He made fun of them, he embarrassed them, and he destroyed them.” More than three dozen Republican members of Congress chose to retire rather than sacrifice their consciences, or face the same fate as Sanford. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell chose a more complicated path to go with a more complicated agenda, the film suggests. McConnell needed Trump to sign tax cuts and nominate conservative judges, causes dear to McConnell’s heart. So he worked out a truce agreement with Trump which Susan Glasser, of the New Yorker, says went like this: “Mitch McConnell gets judges. Donald Trump gets the party. Donald Trump is now the owner, lock stock and barrel, of the Republican Party. It is under new management.”

McConnell, at a public event celebrating Trump’s victories, says in the film: “We’ve cemented the Supreme Court, right of center, for a generation.”

The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, impeached Trump in early 2016 over his effort to extort political help from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for U.S. military aid Zelensky needed to defend Ukraine against Russia. At the impeachment trial, McConnell used his power over the Senate to refuse to allow any witnesses. On a nearly total party line vote and without hearing from witnesses, the Senate acquitted Trump.

John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser says, on camera, that after the acquittal Trump “thought he was bulletproof,” adding that “it had an effect on (Trump’s) future conduct and not a good one.”

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The film covers the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and riots that followed. The narrator says, “Trump turned a moment that was about race into an opportunity to project his power,” announcing that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” by which Trump meant armed force against rioters. 

Trump lost his 2020 reelection bid to Joe Biden, a fact he has never acknowledged but which everyone interviewed, including many Republicans, knows.

But U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, on camera, says McConnell has told senators not to acknowledge Biden’s victory. “Stay silent,” was his command. But, Kinzinger says silence is complicity, so he didn’t remain silent and has been active in the current House hearings. But he also announced he wouldn’t seek another term.

Lies, Politics and Democracy,” directed by Michael Kirk,  premiers Tuesday night at 8 p.m. central time on KTCA Channel 2 and other PBS stations.