Donald Trump was elected President during my first semester of college. My dorm was on Fifth Avenue, and as I walked home after having spent hours glued to cable news in a crowded bar and hours more wandering the East Village hoping vaguely for a recount, I turned onto my street and was faced with Trump’s smiling mug on the side of the Empire State Building. I didn’t even know they could put faces up there, and it made me want to vomit.
I’m sure you, liberal reader, wanted to vomit on election night too, because the whole thing was so gross and senseless. The racist reality show host had beaten Hillary Clinton, who was the most qualified candidate of all time! In the following days, as we liberals straggled into work and class, we started using words like “tribalism” and “collusion” a lot, and looked to smarty-pants pundits like Ezra Klein and Rachel Maddow to give us someone to blame. Was it Jill Stein’s fault? Bernie’s? Putin’s?
Almost two years later, I wish I could say that all of us liberals have stopped re-litigating that November night and instead focused on creating a winning—and more importantly, humane—progressive platform with broad support, even in red states: one with a federal jobs guarantee, a $15 minimum wage, and Medicare for all. But despite leftward momentum within certain parts of the Democratic party—like democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s trouncing of Democratic moderate Joe Crowley in Queens—those of us libs uncomfortable with the S-word are still looking backward, seeking assurance that Trump supporters didn’t really understand who they were voting for, and that most of them will flock back to the Democratic party if moderates—think Joe Biden, Cory Booker, or even Andrew Cuomo—run on Hillary’s socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative brand of rainbow neoliberalism.
Jim Stern, our surrogate liberal. From “American Chaos | Official Trailer HD (2018)” on YouTube.
The outdated mindset of these liberals among us has spawned a whole series of “Trump country” stories, in which a spectacled Hillary lover plays our surrogate in middle America, dropping into West Virginia or middle Pennsylvania in an attempt to understand the so-called White Working Class. The conversations in these “Trump country” stories are about as substantive as Twinkies, and typically consist of a Trump supporter saying something outrageous about immigrants or global warming and our surrogate replying with what all of us liberals are thinking: “how can you really believe that?” The Trump lover doubles down in defiance of the Fake News media, we cosmopolitans get to gawk at the backward countryfolk, and our host wraps-up with a wishy-washy centrist conclusion, like “we don’t agree on a lot of things, but we all love the idea of America.” The newest formulaic entry into this prolific and pointless genre, American Chaos, opens on September 14th.
We first meet American Chaos’s surrogate liberal, the Hollywood financier Jim Stern, at a desk in his spacious California home several months before the 2016 election. In front of him sit two pillars of middle-aged American liberalism: a biography of Bobby Kennedy and a laptop streaming Morning Joe, on which Joe and Mika are gabbing about then-candidate Trump’s latest gaffe. Like us, Stern is appalled. Like us, he just can’t understand how people can support this ridiculous con-man. We need somebody to make sense of it all—to see what these folks really think. It’s off to the heartland.
“Why do you have a lock on your house? You don’t let people in there you don’t know,” says this Florida man, who apparently really thinks he’s making a profound point about immigration. From “American Chaos | Official Trailer HD (2018)” on YouTube.
Stern’s game-plan is scarcely different from that of other “Trump country” reporters, and he travels to all the requisite locations, in which he finds all the requisite characters. In one such segment, focused on West Virginia, Stern tracks down the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys, because that’s who we big-city liberals think of when we think of states like West Virginia. The two clans have stopped murdering each other to cash-in by selling trinkets and tours, but many friends and family members say they’re still down on their luck due to the decline of coal mining jobs, and every single one seems to therefore support Trump. One man, Freddy, says he’s been out of work for two years, and there seems to be a consensus among those interviewed that global warming is overblown by elites who hate coal.
Instead of meaningfully engaging with these Trump supporters by gauging their interest in, say, government-subsidized alternative energy jobs, Stern tells us that he’s just going to listen to what they have to say in the interviews, and then explain why they’re wrong to us later on by juxtaposing their answers with facts, logic, and interviews with experts in academia.
Following this form, after the West Virginians complain about unemployment, Stern tells us in a voiceover that, well, coal is getting too expensive, so it’s actually not really viable to mine in the U.S. anymore. Plus, coal mining jobs would be automated soon anyway. And in case us liberal viewers weren’t aware, we’re also shown an interview with a University of Chicago climate scientist who tells us that global warming is very real and very bad, even though we all know that already.
Looking at maps and graphs is important. From “American Chaos | Official Trailer HD (2018)” on YouTube.
Stern continues in this self-congratulatory style throughout the film, using interviews with a sociologist, a behavioral psychologist, and a English/gender studies professor to rebuff conservatives in Florida, Arizona, the G.O.P. convention in Ohio, and so on. We liberal viewers get to feel over and over that we’re good guys who believe in real facts, as if we’re not reminded of that on Morning Joe every morning already. It’s a smug replacement for real dialogue.
Stern concludes his trek at Trump’s inauguration, where he delivers the requisite centrist conclusion, saying vaguely that our next President needs to be a moderate who can make everyone feel good. He ignores, or pretends to ignore, what is staring him in the face: that Hillary was a moderate, and that she lost.
If American Chaos had come out immediately after the inauguration, maybe it would’ve fulfilled some cathartic need for certain liberals among us. But with the midterms weeks away, and “Trump country” stories so hackneyed that Sacha Baron Cohen has had time to release an entire season of TV parodying the genre, Stern’s film does too little, too late. Hopefully, progressives of the future will see this film as a relic of what Democrats were like right before they got their shit together.