Critic's Notebook: 'Trump's Takeover' Feels Like a Nightmare Revisited
The incisive 'Frontline' documentary recounts the story of Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party.
If you've kept up with the news since the 2016 election and consider yourself vehemently anti-Trump, watching the latest Frontline documentary may prove particularly painful. Not because it doesn't do an excellent job of chronicling its subject's domination of the once-respectable Republican Party over the last year. But rather because reliving the events and all their horrid implications is like pouring salt in a gangrene-infected wound. Nonetheless, Trump's Takeover, airing Tuesday night on PBS, proves essential viewing for anyone interested in the way our government has been upended — and that should be everyone.
Directed by Michael Kirk (previously responsible for Frontline efforts President Trump and Trump's Road to the White House), this latest installment begins with the always creepy Roger Stone declaring of Trump, "Let's face it, he was larger than the Republican Party. In fact, his nomination was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party."
That's certainly the way it's been described. But as the documentary makes clear, Trump may have been hostile to Republicans, but they, with a few exceptions, weren't all that hostile to him. In fact, the party leaders thought they could use Trump to achieve their goals. Shortly after Trump became president, House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered to him a carefully devised agenda, the priority of which, of course, was repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Trump didn't know or even care about the details of the subsequent House bill. He just wanted a win. When the bill passed, he held a lavish celebration, complete with a string quartet, in the Rose Garden, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it stood little chance of getting through the Senate and actually becoming law. As journalists watched with mouths agape, Trump acted like he was FDR and Reagan rolled into one.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole recalls thinking, "I'm not sure it's wise spiking the ball at the end of the 50-yard line, but what the heck."
When the bill proved hugely unpopular with constituents, who made their feelings known at raucous town hall meetings, Trump naturally shifted with the wind, trashing the bill and declaring it "mean." A revised version eventually came to a vote in the Senate, and we all know how that came out. Arizona Sen. John McCain killed the bill with his dramatic thumbs-down gesture in the middle of the night.
The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe comments, "It was the most dramatic night on the Senate floor I had seen in all my years there."
Trump expressed his anger by naturally doing what he does best: tweeting. He went after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a tweetstorm-filled vengeance, and the two men eventually engaged in a profanity-filled screaming match over the telephone. (Who even knew that McConnell could speak above a murmur?)
Not long afterwards came Trump's most shameful moment as president thus far (remember, we have a long way to go), when he blamed "many sides" for the horrific violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"It's not a challenge to denounce white nationalists," The Washington Post's Dan Balz points out, rather unnecessarily. "And yet he couldn't do it." After the resulting media and political firestorm, Trump not only didn't apologize, he made it worse. And, of course, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski defends him. "He has to fight back," Lewandowski says about the bully-in-chief. "So, when you accuse him of being a racist, he doesn’t want to back up, he wants to double down and prove to you that's not true. That's what the president is." Lewandowski fails to explain how equating civil rights marchers and neo-Nazis is an effective method of proving you're not a racist.
Trump went after two of his bitterest enemies, McCain (that war hero who was only a war hero because he got captured) and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, on their home turf, in a typically insult-filled rally in Phoenix. He also engaged in a Twitter war with a former supporter, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, with the two men going at it like drunken high schoolers. "I think it juiced him," O'Keefe says about Trump's gleefulness at the fight.
Flake delivered a passionate speech on the Senate floor denouncing Trump, only to see it go largely ignored. Lewandowski, apparently auditioning for the role of a villain's henchman in a Bond movie, once again weighs in. "Jeff Flake thought he was going to raise his profile to the point where he would have an opportunity to be something bigger than what he is," Lewandowski comments, somehow managing not to cackle. "And what happened? He made a terrible miscalculation. He went against Donald Trump, who's a proven winner. And now Jeff is a guy who used to be a U.S. senator." (Memo to Lewandowski: Flake still is one.)
As we all know, if there's one thing all Republicans can agree on, and there really is just one thing, it's tax cuts. Trump finally got his desperately needed win with the passage of the tax cut bill, not caring that it went against his promises during the campaign to his working-class supporters. Once again, he threw a big bash, the apparent requirement for attendance being a willingness to publicly kiss his ass. Congressional leaders fell over themselves to pay tribute to their Dear Leader, with Ryan praising his "exquisite presidential leadership" (it almost sounds obscene) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch gushing, "You're one hell of a leader and we're all benefiting from it. We're going to make this the greatest presidency that we've seen not only in generations, but maybe ever." (No wonder Hatch is retiring. There's no way he could possibly top that level of sycophancy.)
Lewandowski, displaying remarkable loyalty to a man who fired him, again weighs in. "What the Republican establishment now knows is that Donald Trump is unequivocally the leader of the party," he gloats.
Conservative political commentator and prominent "Never Trumper" Charlie Sykes takes a less sanguine view. He laments, "The Republican Party has been thoroughly Trumpified."
Adds Sykes, "Now, in a Faustian bargain, remember, you often get what you want. You get judges. You get regulatory reform. You get tax cuts. But then you find out that the price is way more than you were expecting."
If current polls are any indication, Republicans may well be paying that price this November and again in 2020.