The United States general election is coming up fast and furious in early November 2020, and it’s one of the most spoken-about campaigns in recent decades. That’s thanks to the controversy surrounding current President of the US (POTUS) Donald Trump, his term in office, the country’s current split down some very topical lines.
“The country is at a crossroads – and we can’t move forward unless we understand what brought us to this moment,” says filmmaker Michael Kirk. He is the man behind America’s Great Divide, Sundays on History (DStv 186) at 20:15, a three-part documentary that is looking at the Trump presidency under a microscope.
Michael the Man
Who is Michael Kirk and why should you listen to him? His work portfolio includes 20 documentaries focussing squarely on the US Presidential administrations of both current POTUS Trump and his predecessor, former POTUS Barack Obama.
Michael knows what he’s talking about, and along with his team, Michael has spoken to the right people to get accurate, truthful information for this series. “In this special series, we have identified key turning points in the development of America’s increasingly divided politics, laying out essential history and new insights for the public as this consequential election year begins,” says the documentary filmmaker.
US Politics 101
The politics that govern the United States is unlike that of anywhere else in the world. Michael helps with a little insight to the US political system, understanding President Trump’s administration, as well as why there’s such strong animosity between the current and former POTUS.
How would you describe the importance of series and documentaries like America’s Great Divide?
Michael: America has never, or at least in a very long time, been in such peril, where the nation itself is divided deeply. That division has manifested itself in the differences between the two men, the former president and the current president. President Obama promised change, and so did Donald Trump. One was a change to unite America, and the other is seemingly very happy to divide America. That is the state of play in America right now.
Is it really that simple, that President Trump is pushing to divide the country?
Michael: His life story, his success certainly in business and in politics, has been division, conflict, chaos, trouble. His top aid through the campaign, Steven Bannon – who I did a three hour-or-so interview with - said, “Yes, this is a guy who doesn’t shy away from saying he wants to divide America. He thinks in the division is the strength of the democracy.”
He (Donald Trump) thinks that if you are fighting hard, that is a good thing. The middle of the road never yields anything new, important, revolutionary, essential. So, Trump brought to office very strong thoughts on things that could exacerbate the division of society. He was brought in by a summer of 2016 campaign where Russia and others stoked up that division and chaos between the two parties.
On the racial spectrum, which has always been an original sin in America, we like to believe we’re not as bad as lots of other places in the world but in fact we are equally bad in that dimension. Trump has had great success in dividing America along racial lines as well.
Did the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s backers know, coming into his campaign and eventual presidential administration, what he was pushing for?
Michael: It’s a very interesting thing that happened. We’re used to American presidents, no matter their viewpoints – very liberal or very conservative – by the time they get elected, what we call “the pivot” takes place, and they’re sitting in the Oval Office, the centre of power in America, the weight of it all lands on them. And the desire to be re-elected lands on them. They figure they have to race to the middle, trying to enfranchise as many people as possible. This did not happen with Donald Trump, much to everyone’s surprise.
He (Donald Trump) runs and makes it very clear what he thinks. He runs on a racial dimension. He runs on a “we’re going to crush and break the institutions of Washington. We’re going to undermine the government, we’re going to become isolated in the world. We’re going to create immigration policies to prevent people from coming in.” All of that was very clearly articulated. Everybody thought, “Yeah, that’s just politics.” The idea that he would change, everybody expected it. Then he delivered what we call “The Carnage In America” address at his inauguration, everyone thought, “Oh my god!” Within a week, he’d done “the Muslim Ban”. Everything then happened rapid fire and we realised, “We’re in for a very different kind of change!”
The people who supported him revelled in it because they’ve never had a president who did exactly what he said he was going to do.
Is he being spiteful and taking away everything POTUS Obama did or is there method to Donald Trump’s political “madness”?
Michael: The people we talk to, many who’ve known him across the spectrum of life and not just his political career, say that there’s a little bit of everything there. There is a plan there, a little bit that has been delivered to him by Steve Bannon and US Attorney general Jeff Sessions and others right around him.
He saw the reaction when he went out and gave speeches to his base. It’s not hard for him to calculate who his base is. Largely white, largely male, generally speaking not college educated, lower working-class base of maybe 20 million people. That group, that base and perspective, is seemingly easy to calculate: America first, China bad, Russia might be good, free trade. Big governments bad, institutions like the State Department, forget about it. NATO, forget about it. World Health Organisation, forget about it.
He doesn’t listen to experts. You’ve seen this with the COVID-19 pandemic. Knowledge-based institutions, the press – he immediately goes after them. Intelligence agencies – the CIA, the FBI, NSA – he goes after them immediately. There is method to his madness.
This racist strand, and this personal animosity towards Barack Obama, who mocked him at an event, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, after he had attacked Obama on whether Obama was actually an American – a truly racist perspective, a question never ever asked about any other white President ever. So, on all those dimensions, he’s both freelancing for all its worth, and he’s learnt that all of those things have one thing in common: they cause tremendous chaos and disruption.
He wants to rule in chaos and disruption. As many people tell us, as a narcissist, as a centre of attention, “There’s only one spotlight and I’m in it.” There’s no better way of staying in the spotlight than by creating controversy all the time, and that’s his modus operandi.
Is President Trump surrounded by the right people who would advise him on pressing the big red button to launch a nuclear missile?
Michael: There were many people at the beginning of the process who were comforted when he became president that he had surrounded himself with failsafe figures. The Defence Department, they have the actual control of “the red button” if there is an actual red button. Everyone was happy that he chose General “Mad Dog” Mattis to run the Defence Department, Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor and he brought in H.R. McMaster. Everyone said, “At least the trains are going to run on time.”
But then he did something we’ve seen on (Donald Trump’s reality show) The Apprentice for so many years: he fired a lot of people. If he didn’t like them, on a whim in some cases. We’ve heard stories that at the Defence Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of all the military divisions, had literally had instructions not to listen to the White House if a phonecall came, but they supposed to be checked with if a duty officer got a call from the Situation Room and the President was trying to launch something. The military put in all kinds of firewalls should that happen. There’s always been that.
How much should we worry about a president that manifests so much chaotic behaviour when it comes to the safety of the rest of the world, and subsequently the United States of America? The short answer is that there’s such volatility around him that many liberal Americans were very, very worried. That was somewhat abated by the existence of General Mattis and others. When they all left, and now the President had people he was putting in place that were not so rooted in liberal democracy and the military and “there’s parts of Europe and we care about Europe, and there’s Africa and we care about Africa”, those people aren’t there anymore.
Even experienced people who a lot of people were afraid of, like John Bolton as the National Security Advisor… Bolton, who a lot of people feared as a warmonger, a hawk, even he was unhappy. He’s very, very worried about the state of America if Donald Trump continues to be president.
Watch America’s Great Divide, Sundays History (DStv 186) at 20:15
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