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WGVU Public Television presents PBS FRONTLINE ‘Lies, Politics and Democracy’

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An examination of the profound and mounting threats to American democracy, Lies, Politics and Democracy tracks major political decisions made over the past seven years and lays bare the deep fissures that resulted. WGVU spoke with veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker, Michael Kirk

Michael Kirk: We made a number of films about Donald Trump and the Trump administration and in many, many dimensions from the Mueller report to all the other things that people unfortunately know so well. One area we haven't really touched but watch happen over the years of the Trump presidency was how the Republican Party itself came to embrace, enable, and in the end support Trump. Enough so that one person in our film says: “Donald Trump took charge of the Republican Party, the Republican Party is a wholly owned a subsidiary of Donald Trump” by the end. And how that happened and the implications of that happening seen through the actions of Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House and Lindsey Graham, and a couple of others is a tale that explains, I think, the relationship of the party itself to Trump and to where we find ourselves now where the country's even more divided than ever before. And a large number of Republicans, Republican voters believe that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Patrick Center: Michael, how far back you go to lay the groundwork. Is it the 80's and Ronald Reagan? Is it speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich? Or do you bring us into the new millennium? Where does it begin?

MK: We’ve made so many films in this territory. We know very well the (unintelligible) from Gingrich to Palin and Palin to Trump in lots of ways. And of course, that's part and parcel of the division…it has all kinds of reasons for existing. We begin with the Iowa caucus in 2016

where Ted Cruz wins and Donald Trump shocks the world by saying no, he didn't, it was stolen from me. And he does it in a way that feels very familiar to now and you discover in digging into where does that come from Trump? That he's been doing it a lot of his life, including complaining that The Apprentice didn't win an Emmy because it was stolen from him by the Emmy committee and on and on right up to the now. So the story begins there with a conservative Ted Cruz who was by all accounts an inheritor from Gingrich and Palin and others of Republican conservativism at the time being vanquished. You then watch Trump vanquish crews and you watch Republican establishment leaders begin to learn real lessons from what they see happening with Trump and you watch them piece by piece find themselves in the first instance not want to talk about it, in the second instance not really wanting to acknowledge it and “it” being Trump's candidacy and you ride along and watch them slowly but surely make their peace with the idea of Donald Trump and what he represents even in the face of what he represents being the destruction of the Republican establishment.

PC: How is it that grievances, because it seems as though the grievance is the cornerstone. How is it that it plays among Trump supporters and the party? How does it work?

MK: Well, there's plenty to be unhappy about in America. You live out in the middle part of America where a lot of well-known problems. Let's just take some of them that were on the table when Trump came along: the economic dislocation from the collapse of Wall Street in 2008, a lot of tremendous changes there. And, you know, corporations, globalization, all the well-known rationale for why a group of Americans were out there just waiting and not just waiting, forming the Tea Party forming the Freedom Caucus, getting involved in state and local politics. The table was set for Donald Trump, who really saw himself as somebody who comes in and creates dissension and capitalizes on people's anger. He wasn't going to ever be bipartisan about anything. Promised to drain the swamp. It's a well-known American trait to not trust your government. It's a good one, in lots of ways. Trump took it to another level and people were ready to be taken to another level. The question fairly early emerges in our film at the National Convention when one of Trump's closest aids says she thought that the MAGA Republicans that were at that convention and roundly booing and basically diminishing Ted Cruz’ political career, that night, because he wouldn’t endorse Donald Trump, that that group, that many of us think of as Trump created them, Trump could make them do anything he wants them to do. Actually, that group was operating on its own steam and its own power and Trump himself maybe didn't control them as much as a conventional wisdom would declare but was himself reacting to the anger where they were taking themselves and the country.

PC: And yet you see a party divided because you talk with those never Trumpers as well. What are they telling you?

MK: Well, this was a fascinating revelation for me despite the fact that, you know, we've made a lot of films about Trump and made a lot of films, a big film with Steve Bannon, a couple of them getting a sense of where that energy came from (unintelligible) Steve Miller and the case of the never Trumpers, they were the Republican establishment. They were George H.W. Bush. They were George W. Bush’s government, but they were Ronald Reagan's government and they found themselves appalled by Donald Trump, the candidate, appalled by what he was saying and stunned and shocked when their friends and colleagues in the government in Washington who are Republican conservatives didn't join in the chorus to try to stop Trump, but instead just kind of went along or in the end said that’ll be good for shaking things up. So the never Trumpers who now are rising up and saying they can't believe what happened to their party stood there witnessed it as it happened in and talk to us about what their experiences were watching it happen as Trump who they view as an invader, not a real Republican, certainly not a real conservative representing something else and anger and as you say, it's your word and I agree with Patrick grievance, helping the grievance

get rolling. The politics of grievance are a good description for what they had and what Trump represented and it was not what the never Trumpers felt or had experienced at their various times, a government that they were the first group that Trump had vanquished in order to take over the party and boy, did he ever.

PC: The rhetoric is amplified through social media, cable news outlets. Where are we heading? Is there a turning point. What do you foresee?

MK: We're very divided. And if you turn your television set or all you had to do for the entire Trump administration depending where you landed MS NBC or FOX or new networks, or talk radio. You heard the amplification, the megaphone of the anger in the grievance, especially at FOX. They've grown up with Trump. Trump every Monday on FOX and friends. It was Trump's network, especially in the evening. They were Trump's stars believe they had access to power to them and they actually did you watch them all the time. He did many things just too get on the air on fox. The power of that force that in social media in propelling Trump and the mega world as sending beyond what the Republican Party and even with the conservative version of the Republican Party wasn't on the ballot. 2012, 2014, 2015 and then Trump comes along.

It is a powerful force in an unbelievable argument that is happening in this country and some people we interviewed in the film said that some of the things that they witnessed, including September 6 and the fact that virtually the entire Republican House of Representatives other than (unintelligible) and Liz Chiney supported Trump and supported what others called the big lie to Trump's allegation that it was a steal. The fact that all of them signed up to support it and did the things they did shows a nation potentially enmeshed in political violence that will lead to bloodshed. That's what many people we talked to were fearful about now.

PC: What should viewers be paying attention to or what do you hope that they learn once they're done watching this?

MK: We're in a way, we're making… we’ve made a film for the history books. Somebody had to do it. Somebody had lay it all out. We were doing that. It's a difficult film to watch no matter what side of the divide your on and there is also some relationship of what the Democrats have done in due to all that is happening. But especially if you're a Republican voter, I was hoping there would be something people would see and they would understand maybe see some inflection points that could have gone the other way. The response to Charlottesville. Few other things like that that maybe, maybe we could have gone a different direction and this battle.

I don't I don't expect it's going to change here in many people's minds. That's not what you make a film like this, you try to inform people, you try to tell people things they may not have seen or known or understood quite that way that you laid out as connecting the dots.

Sometimes, you know, little things, you know, things that seemed really important to them right away but then when you step back and if you spend a couple of hours, we'll be going back over the last 6 years looking closely hearing from people involved in it. Maybe...Could see a way of thinking. We find a way of thinking about it. It's a little less overheated that we tend to be in this country right now.

PC: Tuesday night at 9 o'clock on WGVU public television frontline presents lies politics and democracy filmmaker Michael Kirk, as always, great work. We appreciate your time.

MK: Thank you, Patrick.

Online:

Lies, Politics and Democracy

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.
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