Michael Kirk has been producing documentaries for almost fifty years. He has covered the highs and lows of US politics, and along the way, he has been recognised with every key broadcast journalism honour. However, nothing could have prepared him for the gravity of the challenge to American democracy today. Kirk, 74, remarks of his most recent undertaking for PBS’s investigative series Frontline: “There has never been a film I made where I was more apprehensive, unhappy to make it, unwilling to uncover the things we were discovering.” “Worried” is not a strong enough term to describe how I feel about where our nation is at, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that.”
Lies, Politics and Democracy tells the story of how, like a colonial army of occupation, Donald Trump subdued the Republican party with a combination of brute force and manufactured consent. It is a chilling character study in how, one after another, party leaders ignored, acquiesced, collaborated and enabled a demagogue while fearing his fervent fanbase.
The film draws on more than 30 interviews with former government officials, political journalists and experts. Like the congressional January 6 committee hearings, it provides a compelling narrative of half-forgotten turning points that, viewed in totality, resemble a Greek tragedy hurtling towards the inevitable and deadly climax of 6 January 2021.
It is striking, for example, that three of Trump’s most oleaginous loyalists have also, at various stages, suffered the harshest blowback for defying him. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was publicly humiliated at the 2016 Republican National Convention after pointedly refusing to endorse the party nominee. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was heckled as a “traitor” by furious Trump supporters after appearing to disown the president on January 6. Lesson learned, he was soon back on board. Vice-President Mike Pence, who for four long years remained unswervingly loyal, may have been hanged if the mob had their way after he refused to overturn the 2020 election.
It has a heartbreaking opening for anyone who cherishes democracy: graceful concession speeches from Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore and other defeated presidential candidates going back decades. Cut to Donald Trump in 2020 falsely claiming, “Frankly, we did win this election.”
Lies, Politics and Democracy – which will be broadcast on PBS on Tuesday at 9pm – complements a growing body of literature tracking the Republican party’s capitulation that includes It Was All a Lie by Stuart Stevens, American Carnage by Tim Alberta, Insurgency by Jeremy Peters, Why We Did It by Tim Miller and Thank You for Your Servitude by Mark Leibovich.
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