Frontline drills deep on how we got from 'hope and change' to Trump

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Republican candidate Donald Trump arrives with his family to speak during election night 2016 at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York.

The airwaves are flooded this week with retrospectives on President Obama's eight years in office and worried talk about where we are headed in the next four with Donald Trump.

There is not enough time to view all of it -- even on demand.


Even though I know four hours is a lot of time to spend with any one report, let me enthusiastically recommend Frontline's "Divided States of America" at 9 Tuesday and Wednesday night on PBS.

Nobody does long-form, deep-dive politics like Frontline. In these partisan times, some will surely claim it has a liberal bias because it is on PBS.


But I dare you to watch this production and square your thoughts of bias with such moments as the one in 2009 when Obama summoned the CEOs of the biggest banks in America to the White House and instead of castigating them for driving our economy to the brink, secretly made nice with them.

At a time when the CEOs were voting themselves huge bonuses while everyday Americans saw much of their savings lost, Obama did nothing to punish them in that meeting -- even as insiders tell Frontline that the bankers expected some pain and were willing to accept reforms.

"Divided States" not only chronicles that moment, it also places it in the greater context of how it contributed to the populist backlash against Obama's administration that helped propel Trump into the White House.

Frontline has been both deep and daring in its political coverage during these tumultuous times, and "Divided States" continues that pattern.

In its widely praises pre-election profiles of Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, titled "The Choice," Frontline made the bold choice of opening Trump's profile with a long, uninterrupted piece of video featuring President Obama mocking the businessman mercilessly to his face at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Frontline suggested this public humiliation by Obama was one of the key factors that drove Trump to seek the presidency.

In an interview last week, Michael Kirk, who produced "The Choice" and directed "Divided States," told me the Obama-Trump cold opening of the Trump profile was so long Frontline had to get "special dispensation" from PBS to open with that much video before the credits rolled.

Frontline makes a similarly bold choice in "Divided States" as it showcases former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and treats her as a serious cultural force instead of a joke, as many in the mainstream media have done. In fact, Palin gets far more time airtime in the film than Clinton.


I asked Kirk about that.

He said the core challenge for the film was to try and explain "how hope and change and a transformative president's promise wound up yielding Donald Trump."

As the Frontline team worked its way back through the last eight years of politics, they saw Palin's influence in much of what was happening on the right from the Tea Party to the rise of Trump.

"You could absolutely feel the Palin impulse when you looked back to '08," as she burst on the national scene as John McCain's running mate, he said. "Or, when you looked back from the vantage point of  2013 or even 2011 at the birther movement, you said to yourself, 'This definitely has a Palin feel about it.'"

The crowds at Trump rallies also "had a Palin kind of feel about them as you heard the buzz words of 'elites' sounded and the boos when The New York Times was mentioned," Kirk said. "None of that was lost on Trump, and we thought, 'What if we could just take the canvas out and paint the full picture showing those connections?'"

Few documentary filmmakers can connect the dots like Frontline.


That doesn't mean Kirk and his crew got all of them. No one could on a story this large.

For example, I think there is much more to be said about white men and their voting record for Republicans since Ronald Reagan -- and how that could have predicted serious problems for the kind of administration and campaign Obama and Clinton, respectively, were running. Neither spoke in any meaningful way to this demographic that was not only feeling left out but blamed by the Democratic Party for many of the nation's ills even as their own prospects worsened.

I am not reluctant to rip PBS (see: previous comments about NewsHour).

But programs like "Divided Nation" from Frontline redeem public broadcasting to a large extent and remind us that there are still moments of great journalism and non-fiction storytelling to be found on PBS.

"Divided States of America" airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow and Wednesday on MPT and WETA.