Critic's Notebook: 'Frontline: Trump’s Road to the White House' Plays Like a Horror Film
The PBS special is a stomach-churningly scary look back on the president's unlikely rise to power.
If Donald Trump follows through on his idea of privatizing public broadcasting, he won’t have to worry anymore about documentaries like Frontline’s Trump’s Road to the White House (airing Tuesday night on PBS). Not that this chronicle of the most bizarre presidential campaign in modern history is particularly biased or unfair. On the contrary, it simply recaps the main events of his rise to the presidency, and that’s horrifying enough.
This may be the only documentary about a sitting president to ever require the warning, “Tonight’s program contains graphic language. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Since the film doesn’t really shed any new light on a story that hasn’t exactly gone underreported, its airing less than a week after the inauguration almost seems sadistically designed to pour salt into the wounds of the Americans who voted for Hillary (a group that counts roughly 3 million more than Trump's voters). His supporters, on the other hand, will be thrilled — if they see it, that is, because people who watch public television are probably too devoted to facts to have voted for Trump.
Lacking only the sort of soundtrack you’d hear in a torture porn movie, the documentary opens with election night when Trump, to his horror, realized that his plans had gone awry and he had actually won the electoral college vote. It then flashes back to the beginning of the campaign, as the narrator intones, “He redefined what it meant to be a serious presidential candidate.”
Following the familiar footage of Trump descending his golden escalator at Trump Tower, Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook, looking suitably chagrined, comments, “I remember watching the announcement and laughing at the entertainment value.” Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who wrote the announcement speech, says that it was only supposed to run seven or eight minutes, but with Trump’s improvisations it ran nearly forty-five.
Those ad-libs, of course, included Trump’s comments about Mexicans bringing drugs into the country and being rapists. It was just the first of a seemingly endless series of verbal gaffes that would have imploded any other candidate. The film reminds us of yet other notorious lines such as “Blood coming out of her whatever,” “I like people who weren’t captured” and “Look at these hands … I guarantee you, there’s no problem.”
Describing Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric in front of his increasingly rabid fans at rallies, pollster Frank Luntz, who emerges as a surprising voice of reason, explains, “To his critics, it’s fear-mongering. To his supporters, it’s truth-telling.”
When Trump captured the GOP nomination — described here, as it is so often, as a “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party — he told his audience at the convention, “I alone can fix it!” As Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker correctly points out, “That’s the language of a strongman. That’s the language that you hear in autocratic societies.”
Pundits thought that Trump’s campaign was sunk when he attacked the Khans for denouncing him at the Democratic Convention. But as with every other presumably fatal misstep, Trump survived. (At several points during the course of the film, we hear Trump’s inflammatory tweets, including one directed at the Gold Star family. But the announcer gets it all wrong by reading them in a flat monotone. To convey their true flavor, the tweets need to be shouted in the voice of a deranged madman.)
Along the way, Trump’s aggressive instincts were further reinforced by Steve Bannon, described here as a “bomb thrower,” and pollster Kellyanne Conway joining the campaign. Not surprisingly, the film includes no comments from Bannon, who would probably burst into flames if exposed to direct sunlight. But it does feature Conway, because, God knows, we just don’t hear enough from her.
Again, the conventional wisdom was that the leak of the notorious Access Hollywood tape would doom Trump. But, once more, he refused to go gently into that good night. Robert Costa of the Washington Post recalls that when he asked Trump if he was going to quit the race, Trump told him, “I’ve survived everything else, I’ll survive this.” Damned if he wasn’t right.
Another ignominious highlight is the footage of the shameless candidate trotting out Clinton accusers at a press conference just before the beginning of the second debate. “The media was stunned,” points out Lewandowski, “because the media couldn’t fathom something like this.” (Speaking on behalf of the media, we still can’t.)
As for Trump threatening to put Clinton in jail if he was elected, the reactions reflected the country’s polarization. "What the media saw as third-world, dictatorial politics, voters saw as one candidate holding the other accountable,” comments Luntz. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t make the observation any less depressing.
Trump’s campaign was falling fast in the polls, but Hillary’s soon was rocked by the WikiLeaks dumps and FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented announcement that he was reopening his investigation into her emails. “That pit in my stomach, I’ll never forget the feeling,” recalls Mook. Despite later revelations that Russia was behind the hacking, the damage was done.
We then see sinister-looking photographs of Trump as president. “You guys need to get used to it,” warns Luntz. “That there is no pivot … that there is no normal. The fact that there is no normal is the new normal.”
“Buckle your seat belts,” he advises. “Sit back, because this is going to be a wild ride.”
It’s unfortunate that Trump’s Road to the White House is airing so late in the evening; anyone who watches is going to have a hell of a hard time getting to sleep afterward.