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"Frontline" documentary “Lies, Politics and Democracy” shows stakes of 2020, 2022

Donald Trump at the Flynn Theatre
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Donald Trump at the Flynn Theatre

As we near another crucial election in November, many of our assumptions about the sturdiness of American democracy remain in question.

To this day, former President Donald Trump continues to lie about the outcome of the 2020 election — and polls show millions of his backers are willing to go along with it.

Whether the country’s institutions are strong enough to withstand this assault on norms is the subject of the harrowing new Frontline documentary “Lies, Politics and Democracy,” which can be seen on PBS stations and online.

WAMC's Ian Pickus spoke with director Michael Kirk.

So, it's always a busy political time in the country now. And Donald Trump has not gone away since the 2020 election, quite the opposite. Why did you want to release this particular project now?

I think that a part of our role and responsibility as “Frontline” and as journalists who have the great good fortune of the resources and the time to make big, long documentary films, I think we have a responsibility to help people decide what is true, not who to vote for, but to feel confident when they go into a voting booth that they understand the lay of the land and the things that are going on in the country. So, we take our task very seriously and when it comes time for the vote in November, I'm hoping that everybody who's seen this film, and has thought about the big ideas we raise inside of it, maybe they will change their minds, and maybe they won’t, but maybe they'll just go in armed with a little more knowledge and enough to kind of understand what the stakes are for of their vote.

What kind of damage do you think was done by Donald Trump's refusal to concede the 2020 race?

I think it's the final, it’s not even the last, but it's sort of the biggest. It's the beginning of the third act of the Donald Trump saga, what he has done to American democracy. I think it was kind of the beginning of the end of maybe when he lied about having the election stolen from him. He knew better. He had done a number of things, there were a number of inflection points along the way. Our film was about how he took over the Republican Party and made it into his own image and purged it of Republicans who most Republicans would recognize as being the kind of Republicans that were Republicans until four or five years ago, and shared a kind of at least general acceptance of the rules of the road, what are called the norms or the guardrails of the Constitution and the American democracy. Anyway, there were so many places along the road where he did damage and that damage was then carried out even further by the leaders of the Republican Party, McConnell, Ryan, McCarthy, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence. So that this almost final thing, what will follow the lie on the election, is January 6, and many other things along the way. But at the time, it was the beginning of the end.

The film spends a lot of time cataloging the change that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas goes through in terms of his relationship with Trump and Trumpism. Why did you want to focus so much on Ted Cruz in this project?

I think he was going to be the winner of the primary. They had 14 or 15 candidates, if everybody remembers that ran in the primary for the Republican nomination. Trump was the wildcard, he's never been a Republican, nobody really knows, he’s been a TV pitchman and a reality TV star, and sort of fake mogul in New York. Cruz was the classic conservative Republican that I think, a lot of the way the Republican Party was trending were going get behind, had the best chance to win and I think he was the person, the candidate, that Trump targeted to take down. I think he represented and represents in our film the Republican establishment as we understood it in 2015-2016.

So that moment when he is more or less booed off the stage at the Republican Convention, that's really a turning point, as you see it.

I think the crowd that was so angry that he would not endorse Donald Trump at that convention, as he said, nobody wants to be or nobody remembers, or whatever he said, nobody wants to hold Mussolini’s coat or jacket. I think Cruz was the standard bearer for a long time and expected to get a big applause from the crowd and a lot of cheers, and in fact, he out of conscience, took the last stand Ted Cruz would make out of conscience in the last five years and he decided in front of that crowd not to endorse Trump and what he learned, as they devoured him, screaming at him yelling at him, ‘Get off the stage, pull the plug!’ they said. What he discovered was that that crowd was the new Trump crowd, the MAGA crowd, the MAGA Republicans. Some of them would become the MAGA extremists. But he learned who they were. And we all saw who they were. That night when he was booed off the stage so loudly, and you realize the Republican Party and the leaders of the Republican Party, by the way, McConnell, Ryan and all the rest, realize, too, that ‘Oh, this crowd is not our old Republican crowd. This crowd is awake to something new,’ and that was really the first coming out of the MAGA Trump Republican Party.

Having worked on this project, do you have a better understanding of the grip that Trump has on the party and his followers and why there are so loyal to know, to be fair, someone who's never been ideologically consistent and goes against a lot of traditional conservative values as far as they were understood in American politics?

Yes, before we made this film we’d made from the beginning of the Trump administration 15 other documentaries, hour- and two-hour documentaries, a volume of work that enables us, I think, to not only know a lot about him, and to not only know a lot about McConnell and all the rest. And having made plenty of films and stories about them, but also a real sense of who the Trump base is and how he appealed to them and why he appealed to them. So, a fairly good description early was a lot of angry, young, largely male, non-college educated, economically displaced people, without a kind of political home, probably a lot of them listen to Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists. They listen to right-wing radio, and their political education was an education based on grievance and anger and a desire for revenge and to, as Trump said, drain the swamp in Washington. So anti-definite, anti-government, angry, revenge-oriented, fairly unsophisticated group of millions of people. How many million nobody really knows, but that was the base. And it was why Trump courted Alex Jones and others in the very beginning, to sort of get on their radar and then listen to him on the radio because he knew he could bring them into the staid, rudderless Republican Party, he could he could beat the all the other candidates and he did bring them in, and he did beat the other candidates. And a lot of Republicans, including the establishment, hungry and desperate for votes, desperate for existence in a party that was kind of fading out, got new life, new blood. It was like going to the fountain of youth, literally, and the Trump base became extremely powerful when it merged with the existing and unhappy and kind of drifting independent Republican voters. That was the cocktail that fueled the election and the Trump presidency and created great fear in the hearts of Republican moderates and even super old school conservatives and neocons in the Republican Party were shocked and amazed by what they saw and what was happening.

Well, let me ask you specifically about some of the other Republican leaders during this time, like Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan. They all to a degree made their peace with Trump to get certain things that they wanted through Congress or judicial appointments. You talk to some former aides for this project, people who worked in the White House, people who worked in Congress. At many different points during the Trump years, leaders like Mitch McConnell have at times broken with Trump, but never delivered a deathblow, as it were. Is it your understanding that people like McConnell and Paul Ryan sort of got what they wanted out of Trump during his years in the White House?

No, I don't think they got what they wanted, but I think McConnell got more than Ryan received. Ryan had a real agenda, economic and for Obamacare. Well, it was called Obamacare at the time, the Affordable Care Act. I think McConnell got a Supreme Court, a super conservative Supreme Court majority for a generation. That's not nothing. Together, they got a gigantic tax cut and they got it by just having Trump stay in his office and not cause any trouble so they could go out and write a bill all by themselves, and lobby it and it wasn't hard to sell Republicans on a tax cut. So, they could do it as long as he didn't come down into the engine room and throw a wrench in the works. And in return, he got what he wanted, which was their loyalty, which is manifest in that event where they celebrated the signing of the of the tax cut bill, Christmastime in ‘17. I think that was the moment where they all genuflected in front of Trump. He loved it. He had it on television and from then on, he was really running the party, even though before that, had been in Charlottesville, this incredibly racist and horrific moment to somebody like Paul Ryan. They wouldn't take Trump on for what he did, even though what he said was obviously, the first time a president has really been so overtly racist in a long, long time anyway. And for Ryan, it was just impossible after that to try to get anything done, and he left feeling that he had failed, and I think he had failed. I think that because we've talked to people who know a lot more than I do about it think he failed and for McConnell, it was always going to be a battle, but slowly but surely, I think he realized and Trump just beat the heck out of him many, many times. Many times. Big, tough arguments. I think McConnell realized he had to hold on to the guy so that he could get Kavanaugh through and Gorsuch through and Amy Coney Barret through. And a lot of federal judges. That was always McConnell's life goal, and he achieved it. So did he get what he wanted? Yes. But I would assume he wants a nice legacy too and I'm afraid this may have tarnished the view of McConnell that many in Washington have, may have tarnished whatever he thinks his legacy is, despite his victories in the short-term, it's a long, long road toward legacy and I think that the Trump role in McConnell's legacy and his relationship to it and his silence after the big lie of the election, it feels like the people who know and decide such things, people in Washington who we've talked to, it feels like he's been tarnished and diminished in some way.

Let's talk now about the vice president during the Trump years, Mike Pence. Pence was a rock-ribbed conservative, evangelical Christian in Indiana, he becomes the vice president. And your film, of course, traces the events that lead up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, where he finds himself the target of an angry mob. A lot of reporting has shown just how close they came to Mike Pence in the capitol that day. What do you make of Pence’s evolution here during the Trump years and how it ended for him?

It must have been torture for Mike Pence. It shows you, if you've been around politics as long as I have, the simplest observation is all politicians will do anything, almost anything, to get elected or reelected. They really believe in their heart, or they rationalize in their heart, that they're doing it for their constituents, for the good people of Indiana in Pence’s case, and they are in some ways, but really, whatever they're doing, it's all about getting reelected, and in his case, he was not going to get reelected as governor of Indiana. He kind of had gone too far on a complicated piece of legislation that had to do with gay people in Indiana. So, he takes the job, he figures it's great. He's going to get on television 500-600 times as both a vice presidential candidate and the guy standing right next to Donald Trump, but really acting like the statesman of the group. And what does he get as a running mate, he gets an uncouth, uneducated, culturally, occasionally profane, uninterested in government, certainly irreligious and incurious, running mate. Thrice married. He holds his own and he and he goes through it, you know, he goes on with it and he's a good soldier, and he's a good whatever, through the campaign at least, because he believes well, you know, Trump will lose to Hillary Clinton and in four years, maybe people will be tired of Hillary Clinton and maybe she will have initiated a lot of legislation stuff that is completely enraged the evangelical base and other Christians inside the Republican Party and maybe I could maybe I can be the candidate. It's my surest path to the White House.

Nobody can blame him, you can say sure, absolutely. But what shocked so many conservatives we talked to was the extent to which he just stood by and, and again, held his nose, watched things happen, especially around Charlottesville and the racism around the George Floyd murder, about all of that. The strong man impulses of Trump and the road to authoritarianism, I think he just he went along and that's on his conscience, I think, I'm sure. Does he regret it or not? We won't know until he writes his book, if he decides to tell the truth in his book, about what he was really doing, or what he was doing. I know people close to him, and they all to person see a really wonderful man up close, moral, serious, determined, has some dark spots for liberals. But for the rest of the country, maybe he'd be an appealing alternative. But you know, he made his bargain with the devil. That Faustian bargain with Trump and there he was in the 11th hour when Trump asked him for his soul to break the rules of the Constitution, to throw America into political chaos, to give Donald Trump the presidency that he hadn’t won from the voters. If he would have done that, that would have been the ultimate price he would have paid. And history would have probably not been kind to him. Now, I don't know whether it will be or not, but he stepped up. He found a way to get out from under the heat. If you talk to some people, he almost died because of the decision. They were going to hang him in the Capitol building, at least they said so. The Pence story is all by itself, Doctor Faustus all over again.

Well, just to end on a positive note, we are speaking just after the Massachusetts primaries were held, and at least in the races that we're covering here at WAMC, the winners won, the losers conceded the race and pledged to work together going forward. And as far as I can tell, there have not been any wild claims of stolen elections or midnight votes or that kind of thing, at least as far as one state goes in September. But I guess we'll see what November holds.

Well, it's Massachusetts, my friend. With a really long progressive tradition of working-class politics. Not Arizona. And if ever there were two wholly different places. I think Massachusetts was the only state to go for George McGovern against Richard Nixon. It's a unique, very unique environment. New England itself, in general, is a unique political environment and not at all like most of the South and an awful lot of the Midwest and western United States.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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