September 12, 2018
November 9th, 2016 is a day that will live in infamy for many Americans. It is the day that reality television star/real estate mogul Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. Documentary filmmaker and self-described “political junkie” James D. Stern (Every Little Step, Sport in America: Our Defining Stories) decided at the beginning of Trump’s campaign that he wanted to know why anyone would vote for the man. He got his answers, and shares them in American Chaos.
Stern, a lifelong Democrat and a supporter of both Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama, went into “enemy territory” to speak with Trump supporters in battleground states like Florida and West Virginia. He spoke freely with Trump backers, who in turn spoke freely with him. Many were coal miners who had been out of work for years and believed Trump would get them back on their feet. Some thought their second amendment rights were being threatened. Others were ranchers near Mexico who believed that the American border was not secure enough. But the common thread in Stern’s research is clear; these people weren’t necessarily voting for Trump, they were voting against Hillary Clinton.
American Chaos is a very personal and introspective movie for James D. Stern. He legitimately wants to find out why intelligent people would vote for a man who is clearly not one of them (as evidenced by Stern’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion – “this is a Man of the People?”). Stern does not condemn nor ridicule his subjects. He listens to them, and tries to get some semblance of why they think that a billionaire con artist would make a good president. Stern’s sincerity and humility nets him some powerful and honest interviews.
Most of Stern’s interview subjects have universally valid reasons for voting for Trump, even if they seem to have been reeled in by emotion and, therefore, they seem misguided. In short, they’ve all fallen for what we now know is Trump’s con game. One man thinks that, once elected, Trump can sign one executive order to undo everything that Obama did in eight years, with or without Congress. A handful of unemployed miners take Stern on a tour of an old closed-up coalmine, and they are all positive that Trump is going to open the mine back up and they’ll all be working again on the day after the election.
Although Stern never teases any of the Trump supporters, he does have a bit of fun with the man himself. Throughout the movie, Stern intercuts footage from a 1958 episode of the television western “Trackdown” in which a snake oil salesman, conveniently and ironically named Walter Trump, preaches about the end of the world and claims that he is the only one who can stop it, as long as the townspeople believe in him and what he can do for them. Stern also emphasizes snippets of interviews that, in retrospect, are mocking Trump. For example, one man says that, as a politician, he would never send the military to do something that he wouldn’t do himself, Stern slyly winking towards the “bone spurs” that kept Trump out of Vietnam. Another man talks about Trump’s moral character, saying that he’d never heard of the Donald doing anything wrong, but there have been dozens of accusations about Hillary, and “where there’s smoke, there’s fire!” Yet another man makes the claim on camera that Hillary should be in jail – “or worse” – and when pressed for what he means, he insinuates that because Hillary committed treason, she should be executed. Never mind the fact that the Trump presidency has been plagued by scandals and accusations of treason since the day it began. American Chaos is full of little stuff like that. It’s an even handed documentary, but Stern cleverly uses editing to inject his personal beliefs in and get his point across.
Looking through 2018 eyes, It’s easy to feel sorry for the people Stern interviews. They’ve been hoodwinked. It would be interesting to see follow-up interviews with them to find out how they think Trump is doing two years in, since he has not reopened the coal mines, gotten Mexico to pay for the wall, or done anything else he promised that would “Make America Great Again.” Do these people have Trump regret, or are they still waiting for results? Or are they just glad Hillary isn’t president?
American Chaos is not really about politics, even though the MAGA-hat wearing crowd will try to make it that way. There is no mention of Bernie, Russia, or the Electoral College. It’s more about the people who supported Trump than it is about his campaign, presidency, and administration. And, unsurprisingly, each one of those people comes off as much more sincere than the man himself.