At the 2016 Jihlava Documentary Film Festival in October, five films about presidential campaigns were selected. Here are the impressions, ranging from Kennedy to Trump, of the screenings. Will they help us gain better understanding of how to deceive people – or push them off the edge?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Electing a President is a strange business. Should you allow yourself to be persuaded, or must you demand more – let the facts convince you? The world’s most important presidential election in current history – Kennedy, Clinton, Obama and most recently, Trump – have to a large degree been characterized by emotions. Let us therefore attempt to look beyond the American «showbiz»: Our method of choice is to look at various documentaries on the presidential campaigns. What were the presidential candidates’ actual programs for a future USA, what political issues did they want to highlight? Is it possible to see these issues (or their implementation) through the artful persuasive rhetoric combined with charisma, shiny faces and slick handshakes?

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The campaigns do not necessarily promote democracy. In the ubiquitous media society we have ben inhibiting since the days of Kennedy, intelligent debates – the prerequisite for a democracy – have sadly disappeared in the place of entertainment. The limelight is blinding, and many actually believe that a more or less charming new leader will help exactly them. This way, Trump was able to, in his last few campaign videos, suddenly pinch William Sanders’ slogan about helping the forgotten ones – which he is unlikely to do as President. Underpaid workers want to believe in better days and are tempted by the absent American Dream. But reality states something quite different: Speak to the hard-working cleaner at Trump’s latest luxury hotel in Washington DC’s converted Postal House (renovation cost 1.8 billion NOK): Did we think her pay was ok? No, she is severely underpaid.

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John F. Kennedy. Do Presidents lie about the future only so they get into the Oval Office? Or were there many genuine plans which just proved impossible to carry through without Congress and Senate backing them? Do they only use enormous campaigns featuring slogans like hope & change? Show the campaigns really only glossy images which are far from reality when we wake up the day after? Let us commence our survey by following John F. Kennedy in the documentary Primary (Robert Drew, 1960) on his campaign trail. His campaign leader comments from the backseat of a car: «It’s a great dream, the dream of becoming President of The United States! »  But we clearly see that Kennedy deeply dislikes the Democratic Primaries – they are too risky, he says. To which William Sanders would probably agree with.  In the old monochrome film we witness Senator He writes his autograph for young boys. Flashes his famously charismatic smile. The film makers – using the period’s latest hand-held cameras with a zoom – join the campaign for five days. The plan was to make a story about a young Senator «who didn’t have a chance». As Director Drew stated some years later: Kennedy was considered to be too Catholic, too wealthy and «one of those from the East Coast». In the film, someone asks whether Kennedy considers himself an underdog in the big fight to be President. Surprisingly enough – as in the case of Trump – the media had no idea of what would happen. Beyond all the handshakes and smiles, the following hope is heard from the Presidential candidate: «How can we protect the outbreak of war, how can we protect our security? How can we maintain the peace? » This is the man who at that time attacked the state leaders’ racism against the Afro American population, and as President used the National Guard to help protect the black people. However, he faced his own trials and tribulations, as he states in the film: «These problems would test the best among us. » Later, of course, he was cynically assassinated for being the best.

Richard M. Nixon. What about Richard M. Nixon? The documentary Millhouse: A White Comedy (Emile de Antonio, 1971) portrays a candid Nixon. He was the Republican Vice President (1953–61) and President (1969–74) until he had to resign following the Watergate-scandal.  And what was his programme?  He despairingly emphasised the importance of «capital punishment». And that the nation required stricter laws. At every occasion, he also created an enemy image of those he deemed «the communists». Did he really carry a mill stone as indicated by his middle name? He was at least subjected to slander, which he openly despised.  When he, hind the scenes, facilitated his brother’s cheap loan, he was exposed – but managed to get up again just at the gloomiest. Cunningly, he made a short film, in which he details his frugal private economy – the viewers are privy to information about his private loans, how much he makes in Congress, how much money he and his wife have at their disposal, how much he is paid for making non-political speeches (are you listening, Hillary?), his insurances, plus the fact that he is paying interest on a small loan his parents’ offered him. His wife (who worked as a stenographer) did not, unlike all the others, own a fur coat. He was not corrupt. Once they discovered a puppy on their door step, with which his daughter fell in love. They kept that present.

The documentary portrays Nixon on good and bad, as the man who grew up with five brothers. His hard-working relations. Nixon himself worked at his father’s petrol station often racking up 16-hour days. Then, the sons were to receive their education.

In the commando room, slogans are displayed on the walls; «Change versus more of the same», «It’s the economy, stupid» and «Don’t forget about health care».

The conversations in the film seem genuine too, as when we see Nixon greet the press with a sincerity unlike that of today’s politicians. But what happened after he took his position, after all the campaigns? From speaking in favour of peace and ending the Korea-war, we witness how Nixon and Kissinger tackle the Vietnam-war. A hardliner on par with today’s militarists Clinton & Trump. They are both so power crazed that they are able to join in with Nixon’s statement in the film: «The worst is atomic war. But worse than that is to surrender. » When asked about his desire to push the nuclear button, he replied: «That weapon will be used in the South Pacific. »

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If we examine his campaign issues closely, we see that Nixon was a forerunner with regards to filming at arm’s length. He wanted to speak directly to the people. The film comments that he in fact had a face painted on to the camera lens, for this purpose. His mottos Pride, Self-Respect and Hope – akin to Trump’s «Make America Great Again» – regurgitate the same things about how hard labour maketh the man. Besides, getting rid of enemies, i.e. communists, who are to blame for the current misery. This is a well-known rhetoric. During the hate campaigns which accompanied Joseph McCarthy at the time, Nixon blamed communists for everything anti-American. No one should be unemployed – and if anyone had to be, it should be the communists of the previous President administration! Inflation? No, that was communist-talk! According to a friend of Nixon, his dream was to become an intellectual, study at Oxford, and then to pen historical books. Perhaps something a certain domestic Prime Minister should have wished for, rather than becoming head of NATO? As with Nixon, it is possible to end up in forceful situations and make military decisions with incredibly devastating consequences. We all remember a secret recording of Kissinger’s reply to Nixon when he wanted to use the nuclear bomb – that it would be too much, it was unnecessary.

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Nixon, who in 1964 claimed that his predecessors Americanised the Vietnam-war, wanted to «Vietnamise the way to peace». This is not what happened when he, in 1969, became President. In 1971, under Nixon, the Vietnam War claimed more civilian fatalities in the former Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) than ever before in history: One million out of 16 million was killed in that year alone, with another six million forced to flee. The difference between presidential speeches and reality is also evident as Nixon concludes that when they withdrew from Vietnam, the US did not want to sustain a military base there, nor would they demand a financial compensation from Vietnam in return for their assistance (!). The only request is, he states rhetorically, that the Southern Vietnamese are able to choose their own path unhindered by other countries. In the film, we hear Nixon state that as the free world’s most powerful nation, they could have conquered others but chose not to – regardless of how proud this would have made them of their own military powers. It was more important to keep the peace and the freedom – something the US was willing to sacrifice a lot for.

A good orator is not necessarily a truthful one. The film concludes with the 1970s large anti-Vietnam war protests against Nixon.

Bill Clinton. Did we learn sufficiently from these past examples? No. Closer to our own time, Bill Clinton’s campaigns are depicted in the two films The War Room (Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, 1993) and The Return of the War Room (H&D, 2008). These show clearly how presidential campaigns are using media in an entirely new manner. Hillary Clinton coined the metaphor «The War Room», according to the campaign leader in the film.  Then as now, the mantras – as written on the walls of the War Room, were: «Change versus more of the same», «It’s the economy, stupid» and «Don’t forget about health care». In addition to the appendage «Don’t forget the debate» – Clinton was good at winning voters over.

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What were his expressed arguments? Better jobs for more people, paying less for healthcare plus for more children to be able to attend better schools. He wanted to change – improve – the country into something better than the USA he inherited: «Twelve years of trickle-down economics, where the US has gone from number one to number twelve in the world of wages. In four years, has the US produced no private sector jobs – so most people are working harder for less money than ten years ago? » No wonder they wanted Clinton. Conditions for the poor would improve. At the commando central, they had to be armed for gun battle, explain the campaign leaders. Despite the various Bill Clinton sex stories unearthed by the Republicans, they still managed to make him a comeback kid despite the defeats. However, as the Lewinsky-scandal grew, this was no longer feasible.

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Today, with the existence of the internet, anyone anywhere in the world is able to dig out dirt that can be used in an attack. As mentioned in the last film, more is demanded from a War Room now than ever before. Although – considering Trump’s women stories, who really cares?  It will work for a while. The economy grows under Clinton – with a monetary sprint initiated in the loan markets, where currency-printing central banks redirect the debt into the future. People refused to listen to Presidential candidate Ross Perot’s warnings in 1992. But, as the 2008 documentary describes Clinton: «Oh boy, he screwed up, right off the bat. » His decision to accept gays into the military was unpopular.  He wanted to create a healthcare program, but did not seek any advice from the heath care sector. The hope of change extinguished, according to the documentary, after 100 days. However, as pointed out in the film, The War Room enjoyed «a short and glorious life».

 

Barack Obama. And what of the subsequent preacher of change? Obama disappointed also. In the documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (Amy Rice, Alicia Sams, 2009), we follow Obama on the campaign trail as Senator and beyond. The incredibly charismatic presidential candidate won through with lots of feelings for America and, again, its hope & change. But as we know, he promoted war, extrajudicial executions (Nixon’s death penalty), and did not manage to either reduce the use of arms, or nuclear weapons, either close Guantánamo, nor introduce a particularly great healthcare reform.

But, if he was genuine and just did not receive any backing from the dual chambers of Congress, many will compare him with Kennedy – intelligent enough to envisage what is needed, but operating in a USA preventing him from accomplishing it. And the film? Full of emotions for a charismatic leader; a film almost bereft of any factual arguments about what he was supposed to do as President. The film’s close-up of a falling tear as he speaks to the people about change & hope is caused by his grandmother dying – not by how to achieve changes.screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-20-41-15 The fact that hundreds of thousands of people stood there brandishing little signs saying «change» was tragic, considering what happened over the course of the next eight years. But today, this is considered more farcical than directly tragic – in the same way Trump got a lot of Americans to wear caps emblazed «Make America Great Again».

unknownDonald Trump. Allow me to conclude with two campaign-critical films from this year’s presidential debate: The Choice, in which Robert Reich states «Hillary got very involved in the campaign. For all intents and purposes, she was the campaign manager. She completely forfeited her own identity, at least physically, got rid of the glasses, got her hair dyed …» We are talking about the woman who created the term «The War Room». At the other end, Timothy O’Brien (TrumpNation) states that Trump went from being seen as a joke due to his excesses and bankruptcies in the 1980s. Over the course of 14 episodes of the TV-series The Apprentice, he became a celebrity for millions of Americans. This trickster who was elected President, tweeted: «To all Americans, I see you & I hear you. »

Michael Moore’s recently launched a documentary entitled Trumpland. The film is a stage show set in an Ohio theatre where Moore discusses the various presidential candidates in front of 400 invited spectators. However, the online link to the Trump film was changed (!) and stated instead «And when you vote for Trump, and it will feel good …». The continuation, which is cut off, used to sound «for a day, maybe a week». Moore was invited to speak on Fox TV, where he commented «if you’re thinking that this is some love poem to Donald Trump, because it’s the opposite to that» –  but by then, around a million viewers had already seen what Trump was spreading.

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At the TV-show Democracy Now, Moore explains to presenter Amy Goodman that Trump is «music to the ears of the people in the Brexit-states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin … Trump is the hand grenade that people can legally throw against the system which claimed their lives». But, when they later discover that «Trump wasn’t going to do a damn thing for them, it will be too late to do anything about it. Good night America. You’ve just elected the last president of The United States. »

Armed. One thing for certain. The son of a millionaire, the reality-TV celebrity, bankruptcy-jockey and businessman, Trump is yet another President promising «changes». As a celebrity, his vulgar appearances won him more than 25 billion dollar worth of free airtime
where he could influence people with his vague message. This type of President along with the many Americans who share his values, will the USA with its persuasive weapons – military investments are due to be increased more than the Norwegian oil fund –  be directed at us, asking us to swallow the country’s vulgarity, populism, racism, homophobia and intolerance. Unless you are able to remain on the outside – as a Communist, Muslim, Mexican, non-white or freedom-loving Anarchist.


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