“He can’t win. America is not gullible enough.”
That is director James D. Stern’s opinion about the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency at the beginning of his documentary American Chaos. How crushed he’ll be by the film’s end.
Five months before the election, Stern set out across the country to talk to Trump supporters to try to gain some understanding. “The thing to do is actually to listen,” he said, not argue. “Just take it in.” For the most part, he’s successful, gnashing his teeth only when alone. It makes for a surprisingly sympathetic overview of red-state thinking—though the prevailing thought, “This can’t be,” remains.
Stern travels to Florida, West Virginia, Arizona, the U.S./Mexico border, and Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. He compares the last to being the only person not singing at a Billy Joel concert: “You’re basically in a cult that you are not a member of.” That’s where he meets Marion, a Tea Partyer who initially thought Trump wasn’t conservative enough. Talking about her news sources, she says, “I like Stephen K. Bannon. And then I listen to Rush. He has that soothing voice. I can’t turn him off.”
And then she says Obama is planning to declare martial law in November to cancel the election. At that point, Stern has to break. “Martial law? Who said that?” “Everyone,” she says. In West Virginia, he pushes back when David Hatfield (of the Hatfields and McCoys) claims that Trump is in touch with the working class. “He’s a billionaire,” Stern says, along with a list of other decidedly non-working-class traits. And in Arizona three weeks before the election, with an Air Force vet who seems especially off the rails, blaming the women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct and abuse for essentially being wimps, Stern has to argue when she claims there will be voter fraud in favor of Hillary Clinton. When he gives his counterpoints and asks for her response, she says, “I don’t know. I just think there’s voter fraud.”
Unsurprisingly, Clinton is a favorite target, with interview subjects accusing her of being corrupt, unethical, and even treasonous. Brian, a welding business owner in West Virginia, says, “[She] should be in prison. At least.” (Stern semi-jokes, “What’s ‘at most?’” You can guess.) You imagine that he didn’t get the irony of his candidate’s ensuing Putin slobberfest after saying of Clinton, “When you go against your country, you’ve committed treason.”
Stern, however, remains remarkably calm and even empathetic toward his subjects, particularly when they talk of how many people they know who are out of work or border ranchers who take care of “illegals” when they’re hurt crossing over. Still, he gets disillusioned. After the RNC he swigs a beer and says, “I don’t think [the election is] going to be close.” He’s heartened after the Democratic National Convention but then disheartened when Clinton calls Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” And on election night, he has to leave a Florida bar full of conservatives chanting, “Donald Trump! Donald Trump! Donald Trump!” He says, “I’m going to try my hardest to do two things: not to cry, and to lose with grace, if that’s the way this goes.”
In the end, Stern idealistically hopes that the next election offers enough moderation to satisfy both the reds and the blues. And he grudgingly gets Trump’s appeal. “I found people who felt like they weren’t being heard,” he says. “So really, was it surprising that they listened to a man who told them they would no longer be forgotten?”
American Chaos opens Friday at West End Cinema.