A Review of America’s Great Divide (PBS Frontline) by STEVEN TRAVERS –
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored 30 books. A USC graduate, he played professional baseball, attended law school, worked in politics, served in the Army, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra and Gentry magazine.
. . . while nailing why Obama failed; informative but biased
Frontline is a staple of the Public Broadcasting System. Heading into the 2020 Presidential campaign, they have produced a new two-part documentary (PBS, YouTube), America’s Great Divide, which focuses on the failure of Barack Obama’s Presidency, how that gave rise to the election of Donald Trump, and with broad strokes that are careful not to include any exculpatory facts favorable to Trump, to chastise the American public into hating themselves for voting for him. It will not work.
It starts in the 2000s with the ascendance of Obama, with much laudatory talk, including from Republicans, extolling his virtues. Perhaps Fox News personality Megyn Kelly nailed it on the head best by describing how much hope and love was invested in Obama, only to have it wasted by partisan politics, mostly the fault of Obama himself.
Obama was actually described by one of his handlers as “conservative” for not criminalizing the 2008-09 sub-prime mortgage crisis. What the narrator totally failed to state was that the crisis was not caused by Republicans, was not a failure of capitalism, and most pointedly, that the big Wall Street money is no longer a GOP spigot. As often as not, it goes to Democrats, as it did in 2008.
Ann Coulter, a conservative pundit, did an excellent job explaining why Obama failed to capitalize on this issue beyond his election. He was seen as paying off his financial support, while average middle class people were enraged at the double standards. They would have been thrown in jail.
This led to the Tea Party, which was indicated from the beginning would lead to Trump. Before that, however, the race issue under Obama was brought to bear mainly through several incidents: the “beer summit” between Obama’s pal Henry Gates and the Cambridge cop who arrested him; the Trayvon Martin killing; the Ferguson shooting; and Black Lives Matter. PBS effectively demonstrated Obama’s failure to get ahead of any or all of these events, pinpointing how he allowed himself to be seen as a divisive race extortionist.
This led to great resentment in the nation, but of course PBS’ narrative was that the resentment had no basis in legitimate grievance, and returned to the old, old trope that all disagreement with Obama had to be racist. Various black Democrats were interviewed to prop up this point, and selected messages from talk radio and social media were used to make this even more one-sided.
Frontline presented Obamacare as an issue that presented more “grievances” of the Right, without making any attempt to demonstrate the actual faults of socialized medicine. Sarah Palin’s warning of “death panels” was presented as an outright lie. At the time she said it, the issue was a legitimate concern. Anybody with an elderly parent faces a meeting with a doctor or doctors, who determine the family support and even the “importance” of the old person in determining whether an expensive surgery is worth the effort. Call it a “death panel” if you like.
It was not invented out of whole cloth. On the other hand, Obama’s declaration, “If you like your doctor you can keep him,” was a lie. Everybody knew it was a lie when they saw it dripping from his mouth. Frontline never touched it.
Then came Trump and the birther issue. The fact that Obama’s original birth certificate was not legitimate was never discussed, and the question of his legal eligibility to be President, which would be the same question if his place of birth was Norway or Kenya, was instead framed again as purely racist, nativist and hate-filled. Donald Trump picked up this issue as a way to get into the national conversation. Also, it was only after Trump forced the issue that Obama provided the legitimate certificate. The next day countless Americans gathered around the water cooler discussing how easily the CIA can create such documents. Again, what PBS left out was telling.
To the Right, the birth certificate was just cover for their real concerns. Conspiracy theories about his father, a Kenyan and likely Communist, who married his white mother, also essentially a Communist. The Muslim madrassa where Obama lived for five years. Then most notably the incredible fact that the leading Communist in America, Frank Marshall Davis, was brought in to tutor young Barack from age nine to age 18. Add to that his political mentor, Bill Ayers, was a member of the radical Weather Underground. His pastor, Jeremiah Wright publicly sermonized “Goddamn America.” As conservative talk host Michael Savage said, stories of “plants” and “moles” found in programs like Homeland and The Americans appeared chillingly close to real life.
But PBS wanted nothing to do with any of this. They only wanted to paint white Obama detractors as racist. They also failed to understand that in so doing PBS was part of why Obama failed and Trump won. PBS did not shy away from Obama’s failures, why the promise of his “post-racial Presidency” was such a dud. They showed Obama aging, looking more and more haggard, defeated, all he stood for repudiated by America. Neither he nor the Left had the slightest understanding why the country, which had embraced him in 2008, so totally rejected him in succeeding years. The 2014 midterms were even more disastrous to Obama and his party than 2010. His famed quote that he had been “shellacked” was played, and various Democrats wrung their hands, each more clueless than the next. Democrats, however, simply were unable to understand that millions of people do not like being painted as “deplorable” and racist, and will do something about it . . . like voting.
Which of course they did, and this was where Frontline also did an excellent job. They interviewed many top Trump supporters and conservative voices (Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, Roger Stone). It is telling, because these people, using plainspoken English, described the appeal of Trump, the Trump strategy, and why he won. No Frontline narrator or scriptwriter could have done it, because they do not and never will understand it. Therein lies the documentaries’ title, America’s Great Divide. This is like Francis Ford Coppola writing Patton or Aaron Sorkin writing A Few Good Men. In both instances, liberal writers painted a portrait of Right-wing militarists, but made the fatal error of being too truthful. Both George Scott and Jack Nicholson layered their characters with charisma that plays at West Point and Quantico to cheering audiences to this day.
Megyn Kelly, the subject of much Trump fury, could barely control her admiration, if not for Trump, his ability to win and succeed. Bannon, as much a Trump strategy guru as anybody, effectively described the sentiments of Middle America and how Trump channeled it. But Bannon got to the heart of it when he described Trump’s strategy after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, an obvious “October surprise” just before the 2016 election.
Advisors around the room solemnly described how Trump needed to apologize, bowing to the gods of political correctness. Bannon, on the other hands, brazenly told Trump to take the offensive, which was to gather a cadre of women raped and sexually assaulted by Hillary Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, parading them into the next debate. This as much as anything won the election. Why?
Again, Frontline did not understand America well enough to explain it, but the general Trump supporters understood it. The media and the Democrats are hypocrites. Trump’s indiscretions pale in comparison to Clinton’s, and this is the kind of thing that happens over and over. The Left always gets away with it, the Right always has to pay. Now, finally, here was a man who fights back.
Frontline also failed to understand the evangelical wing of Trump’s base. The Left lectures them on how they should disapprove of the philandering Trump. Christians, on the other hand, can be described by half the lyrics of popular country music songs, which tell tales of flawed men and women who stray on Saturday nights, then ask for forgiveness on Sunday mornings. They see in Trump themselves. Since there is virtually no Christianity left among the liberals, they and the media elite are utterly baffled by this dynamic.
As for Bannon, he simply told Trump of the Access Hollywood tapes, “Who cares?” His plan to parade Clinton’s abused women was met by Trumps’s, “I love it.” Most egregiously, however, was Frontline’s failure to understand the role of conservative talk radio. All they did was play a few snarky sound bites to belittle it, but it may be likely that no single person did more to bring about the Trump Presidency than Michael Savage (see “The talk-radio godfather of Trumpmania,” salon.com, 2016) . . .
A fellow New Yorker, he was kindred spirit to Trump who had him as a guest on his show long before the 2016 election. He promoted the idea of a businessman not beholden to special interests, as big a Trump selling point as any. Savage gave Trump a sounding board, but just as importantly he was with Trump while other radio hosts were lambasting him. Savage wrote several books that Trump obviously used as guides in the campaign and now as policy, particularly with regard to immigration. Just as important, callers to Savage’s show demonstrated great public support for Trump. Key members of the Trump Administration hear Savage regularly, and they read michaelsavage.com, as well. After the election Trump thanked Savage, acknowledging his importance, and undoubtedly will need to tap into it again in 2020.
There are two news snippets that almost seem to shout “FU” at Obama and the Democrats. The first was the White House Correspondent’s Dinner right after the birther issue came to a head. With Trump in attendance, Obama came to the podium and made jokes about Trump and his reality show, The Apprentice. The audience laughed at his expense. One camera caught Trump, and several witnesses described how at this event most people absorb the jokes at their expense with good humor. Not so Trump. He stared straight ahead, fury in his eyes, while those around watched as if he was a coil ready to spring.
Roger Stone said that was the moment Trump decided to run, and his reasons were personal: revenge against Obama for making fun of him.
The second snippet showed Ann Coulter on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Surrounded by radical liberals, in front of a howling audience of Left-wing fanatics, Coulter was asked who had the best chance among the GOP nominees. She calmly said it was Trump. While everybody laughed uproariously, she just sat there, truly knowing something nobody else knew.
Looking at these segments in 2020, one is struck that if ever a man got revenge against his enemies, it was Trump. This is further tempered by a larger fact, which is that the man who accused Barack Obama of being born in Kenya and therefore was illegitimate, was rewarded by the United States of America with the Oval Office. This is profound on multiple levels, and any attempt by the Democrats to just explain it away with sweeping pronouncement that they all must be deplorables is as smart a strategy as a Polish cavalry officer thinking he can defeat the German Blitzkrieg with horse-and-sword charges in 1939.
Next came Trump’s obvious lies about crowd size at his Inaugural. Again, Frontline missed the point, which is that Trump does lie and his supporters do not care, because it means nothing. He is the C student who claims he got an A. Of course he had sex with Stormy Daniels. Millions of American males just responded that they would if they could, at least back in the day when she was hot before putting on the pounds. He lies, he exaggerates, but not about unimportant things. To quote Bannon, “Who cares?”
After years of watching politicians lie, voters are immune to it. Frontline did not counter any of it by describing Obama’s lies on socialized medicine or any of his many scandals. They failed to grasp Republican frustration at how one prominent Democrat after another gets away with everything, while Republicans pay the price. The system is quite obviously rigged by a “deep state,” and they see Trump as the man to “drain the swamp.”
The documentary did get to the heart of Trump’s competitive nature. He takes everything personally, always gets revenge against his enemies, and narrows everything to a zero sum game: me vs. them. While these traits were essentially what brought down Richard Nixon, what was not understood is that in today’s world, with the Left, the “deep state,” public schools, academia, the media and Hollywood all aligned against the Right, we have reached a point where only a man like Donald Trump is thick-skinned enough, tough enough, and ruthless enough to counter all the hatred. The media totally fails to understand that all they accuse Trump of doing, they have been doing to Republicans in Saul Alinsky manner for decades. Only when Republicans resort to these tactics, in their view, are the tactics to be criticized. Now, finally, somebody is fighting back. Trump’s enemies have been punched, are dumbfounded like schoolyard bullies, and Republicans are ecstatic that finally the Grand Ol’ Party is no longer playing by Marquis of Queensberry rules.
Coverage of the deplorable 2017 Charlottesville riot was nothing less than despicable. Frontline did what all liberal media outlets always do, which is selectively air Trump calling both side “fine people.” First, this completely discredits most of the people who came to the rally, which was simply to show displeasure with the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, as if every single person there who was not a member of Antifa was in the KKK or the Nazi Party, not to mention failing to mention that Antifa is a pseudo-Communist Alinsky violence machine.
PBS happily showed a few shots of some angry white Trump supporters shouting racist slogans, but the violence of the Left, of Black Lives matter calling for the killing of cops – a regular, despicable event of the Obama years – was not aired.
It is very easy to find Trump calmly saying that he does not include Neo-Nazis and the Klan among his “fine people,” and a documentary meant as the first chapter in history should make sure this is known, as it is demonstrated about once a week on the Larry Elder Show. Frontline knew such an exculpatory piece of evidence could not be allowed, and it was not. Millions of Americans just shouted at the screen, “That’s not what he said.” Oh well.
By the same token, Frontline only found fault with conservative media; Fox News, Breitbart, talk radio, social media. It is as if they are living in the 1930s and 1940s. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC; one would think these are all staffed by modern day William Shirers.
Then there was Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s outrageous Supreme Court coverage. The documentary never questioned for a second the veracity of obviously questionable, at best, accusations by women, and found no fault in coverage of the hearings that would do Pravda or Joseph Goebbels proud. It was insane.
Even more insane was their narrative that somehow Kavanaugh was worthy of criticism for having the temerity to defend himself, just as Trump has defended himself over Impeachment. Again, the Impeachment of Trump was viewed as perfectly legitimate, as if any coloring by virtue of politics or even obsession cannot be brought up. Only the “conservative media” was questioned, never the main stream.
Various “never Trumpers” were interviewed, in particular former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. These segments are meant to make Trump supporters question themselves, question their own ethics, honesty and decency, as if decency can only be attributed to those who oppose Donald Trump. The GOP, according to Frontline, does not care about lies and have ushered in a new era, a solemn one different interviewees inform us, in which now, for the first time apparently, truth is a casualty that has no bearing on politics.
William Randolph Hearst, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Bill Clinton’s lies, the anti-Muslim film, Benghazi, the IRS scandal, “fast ‘n; furious”; apparently only now in the age of Trump are we as a society plagued by the lies of a charismatic politician.
To the credit of Frontline, they did air several people who informed the viewers that this dynamic was not started by Trump, but he did take advantage of it, as if Saul Alinsky’s tactics of polarization, the model of Barack Obama’s career, was never something that happened and still happens. Again, the Right continued to listen to all of this and say to whoever will not listen to them, that all they accuse Trump and them of doing, the Left has been getting away with forever. But failure to understand this frustration is what has fueled Trump, and will continue to fuel his momentum.
What was satisfying to Republicans was the way a telling of Trump’s story obliterated the last of whatever legacy the Clintons still had. This was done without even mentioning the ghost of Jeffrey Epstein, which seemed to hover over all mention of Bill Clinton throughout the documentary.
Frontline assiduously failed to mention all of Trump’s accomplishments; destruction of ISIS, killing terrorist masterminds, ruling over the greatest economy of all time, and of course the fact he is now drawing some 30 percent or more of the black and Latino support was like an elephant in the room. To Frontline, it was “see no evil.” The closest things they came to reporting a Trump triumph was the Republican’s passage of the tax cut in 2018, but of course the fact that this was the spur the American economy needed to explode into space was not mentioned.
Finally, and perhaps most notably, was the music. First in describing the failure of Obama, which PBS undoubtedly considered a failure of America and a tragedy – not a rejection of Socialism by the rugged individualists who make America great – and then the steady rise of Donald Trump was back grounded by a constant violin twang, the kind used often in describing life at Auschwitz. It was the kind of subliminal messaging meant to effect emotions without people noticing it.
This reviewer noticed it.
Steven Travers can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.