Documentary The Accidental President Intentionally Forgets the Trump Presidency
During one of the few visually compelling moments of the documentary The Accidental President, a tangle of red lines spread like spider webs across a field. The red lines represent a tweet by Donald Trump, which users then share and re-share across Twitter, ensuring that his message dominates the discourse.
In voiceover accompanying the image, former Chief Scientist for Twitter Deb Roy describes the viral nature of Trump’s tweets, noting that they seem to spread uncontrollably.
Roy’s description perfectly captures the film’s approach to covering the Trump campaign. According to press notes, director James Fletcher made The Accidental President to answer one basic question, “How on earth did Donald Trump win the election of 2016?” The movie’s answer is equally simple: “Donald Trump won the election of 2016 because he couldn’t be stopped.”
The Accidental President treats Trump’s ascent to the presidency as simultaneously unexpected and unavoidable. In the film’s estimation, Trump benefited from a perfect storm, the convergence of national divisions and dissatisfaction with standard partisan politics, the latter personified in Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
The Accidental President recycles the same tired messages that media pundits have been repeating since 2015
In other words, The Accidental President recycles the same tired messages that media pundits have been repeating since 2015.
That repetition should come as no surprise to anyone who takes inventory of the talking heads Fletcher assembled for his film. Among the most prominent are CNN host Van Jones, Time contributor Molly Ball, NY Times writer Amy Chozik, and CNN anchor John Avlon.
Much of The Accidental President plays like a compilation of greatest, and grossest, political hits circa 2015 and 2016. The film revisits Trump’s campaign comments about Mexico sending its worst, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his insults toward fellow Republican candidates, his debate performances, Clinton’s emails, “Grab them by the pussy,” and more. In every case, the media personalities refuse to analyze the substance of these moments, falling back on horse race coverage, just like they did five years ago.
Worse yet, Fletcher supplements his film with several right-wing speakers and operatives. When John Avlon makes the tepid observation that supporters were drawn to Trump not only because he looked like them, but also because “he hates like them,” the film quickly segues to Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt trotting out the trite “economic anxiety” rhetoric.
Fletcher, who has produced campaign ads for UK conservative figures such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, describes his film as a balanced analysis of the Trump election, but its preponderance of right-wing figures reveals its bias. In addition to people like Schmidt and Republican pollster Frank Lutz, Fletcher gives screen time to CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp, The Federalist‘s Mary Katharine Ham, and Republican strategist Susan Del Percio. In addition to giving ample screen time to vapid conservative celebrities Anthony Scaramucci, Piers Morgan, and Scott Adams, Fletcher makes room for prominent Trump team member Kellyanne Conway.
The few liberal-leaning figures who appear – Democratic operative Joe Trippi and internet commentator David Pakman – do not get enough screen time to counter the conservative voices. They also fail to provide any analysis of substance.
As a result, The Accidental President tells a story of Trump’s rise to power that best suits conservatives. For them, Trump exists as an anomaly, one that represents the weakness of the Democrats more than he embodies core Republican traits. The word “racism” is uttered a few times, but is quickly dismissed, with no discussion of the white supremacy, misogyny, or nationalism that conservatives have long fostered.
Instead, the film’s media figures blame Clinton for her failure to talk to the press or cut a likable TV-friendly figure, thus re-purposing a misogynist trope about female leadership. Meanwhile, the right-wing operatives mask racist motivations among Trump supporters by dressing their concerns in the language of class conflict, pointing to ideological divisions as a reason that the electorate rejected the standard politics of Clinton, Jeb Bush, and others. Both groups characterize Trump’s media presence as an irresistible force, as if his appearances on talk shows and news programs were a natural calamity that no one could’ve prevented.
At times, the film inadvertently reveals the complicity between major news figures and the Trump administration. When Kellyanne Conway talks about Trump’s Twitter account and its ability to manipulate the narrative, she grins as she says, “The media has to cover his tweets.” Sure enough, we see not only news footage of reporters in 2016 reporting on his tweets, but also new talking-head segments with some of those same reporters, discussing their coverage as if it was unavoidable instead of a strategic decision.
Moments such as those capture the pernicious nature of The Accidental President. Ever since he won the presidency, those on the right and in the center have been trying to control the narrative. They want to frame Trump as an uncouth and disgusting oddity who has no real bearing on the mainstream conservative movement.
Republicans want us to believe that Trump does not represent their values, that his racism and misogyny have no relationships to do with the party’s goals. Media figures in outlets such as CNN and the New York Times want us to believe that the close relationship between reporters and politicians violates no ethical boundaries, that horse-race coverage matters more than substance.
These are lies. Trump was not an anomaly, but the manifestation of the patriarchal white supremacy that has always been present in America. His rise to power was aided by corporate-driven news outlets that eschew analysis for entertainment coverage, by reporters and analysts who lack integrity. What incentive do they have to address their implication in a corrupt industry? Apparently, none.
Like Russia after Stalin, like Germany after Hitler, like South Africa after apartheid, the United States needs truth and reconciliation. We must accept the fact that the electorate voted into office a man who has no competence in statecraft and no coherent set of beliefs other than racism and xenophobia.
Not only does The Accidental President fail to perform this type of analysis, but the movie also stymies it, giving those who participated in the grooming and installation of pro-fascist leader a platform from which to manipulate history. We desperately need documentaries to answer the question posed by Fletcher. We do need movies to help us understand how Trump won the 2016 election. But those documentaries need to be clear-eyed and honest instead of dismissive propaganda that presents Trump as a mere accident or an inevitable act of nature. Such propaganda paves the way for yet another Trump.
Joe George writes for StarTrek.com, Tor.com, Bloody Disgusting, and elsewhere. He tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii and sometimes updates his website joewriteswords.com