When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, many Democrats were taken by surprise and left in a state of befuddled, angry shock. Perhaps few were as flabbergasted by the ascent of The Apprentice host to the highest office in the land than filmmaker, stage producer, and longtime Democrat James D. Stern, and his documentary American Chaos represents his attempts to work through some complicated feelings about himself and his country. With the personal biases of Stern (which aren’t as specifically political as they are emotional) and the film coming out far too late to impact any real change, American Chaos becomes a so-so, but balanced look into the hearts and minds of Trump supporters and the failure of Democrats to assuage the fears of everyday working class people.
Stern took up his camera six months prior to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election; right about the time that Trump was beginning to look like a serious contender to become the Republican nominee. A lifelong supporter of the Democrats – having grown up in a family of “Kennedy Democrats” with an older brother who became one of Barack Obama’s closest advisors on environmental issues – Stern was perplexed as to why anyone would want to vote for a tough talking, openly mean, and shady businessman without a shred of political experience. Stern travelled the country – heading primarily to Florida, West Virginia, and Ohio – to sit down in conversation with Trump boosters. His intention wasn’t to argue or needle, but to listen and take in everything that he heard.
I’m sure there are many who will mistake Stern’s refusal to fight back against a lot of the right wing rhetoric he’s exposed to along his journey as a sign of weakness, but the thesis of American Chaos seems to be that refusing to listen to the concerns of people who think they’ve been forgotten about is what led to Trump’s election in the first place. That might have been true two years ago when Stern set out on his project, but in the wake of recent world events, the continued rise in nationalism and protectionism around the globe, and numerous allegations made against the president, American Chaos comes across as nothing more than a series of civil conversations that exist in their own little bubble. Had such a film been made while Trump was on the rise and not already a lock for the Republican nomination, American Chaos could’ve boasted a shocking and refreshing amount of relevancy. Two years into Trump’s term as POTUS, this all feels like the opening of a time capsule.
That’s not necessarily an awful thing, but it does mean that American Chaos is the rare example of a documentary with hopes of fostering greater understanding failing in its effort to impact any lasting changes. Our world is so vastly different today than it was just two years ago that Stern’s film seems more quaint and resigned than impassioned. The biggest and most important shock value that American Chaos holds is in its nuanced display of how the Democrats failed the people they so desperately wanted to represent, and how their old school political tactics cost them the election long before people started chanting “lock her up” and “build that wall” at Republican rallies.
What emerges most prevalently from American Chaos is the sheer number of blue collar Americans that Stern profiles who admit to previously supporting Democratic causes and ideals who switched platforms and started voting for Trump. There are sit downs with older folks who get the vapors when talking about the Hillary Clinton email scandal, open bigots, and even one with a far-right Tea Party member who thinks Trump isn’t conservative enough for her liking, but most of the people being interviewed are crestfallen and feel directionless in their lives. They work in sectors that have been hit hardest by Democratic measures, They’re sick of the same career politicians getting elected to office time and again with little real changes. They’re willing to vote for someone they don’t necessarily agree with simply because they speak their mind freely and without a filter. Stern makes the comparison between Trump and a snake oil salesman (and given the President’s track record as a businessman, it’s an appropriate and not unearned one), but these people are willing to vote for him, even if they think he’s disreputable. As one man puts it, “at least you know who he is.” They’d prefer an open liar who will shrug, mug, and Tweet his way through controversy than someone who’ll put a spin on similar matters while ignoring the issues that matter to them.
While Stern’s look into the failings of his own party to connect with an overwhelming number of voters in the run-up to the election is a personal bit of soul searching for the Chicago native, American Chaos does a fine job of reminding viewers of the greater socioeconomic and psychological factors in play. The voting habits of the American people since the early 20th Century have always come down to people generally siding with the politician they’d rather sit down and discuss problems with over a beer or a meal, and the character assassination of Hillary started back when her husband, Bill, was president. The passion people have about their individual causes will always trump overall pragmatism and bigger pictures most of the time, and even the most socially liberal people can be staunchly conservative on economic and religious issues. Big and diverse cities like the ones frequented by Stern can be hotbeds of liberal ideas, but the rest of the United States is much larger and has almost as many people, most of whom hold jobs that city folk either can’t or won’t do.
Stern finds ways of sympathizing with the plight of his interview subjects, but he admits that he struggles to find some semblance of empathy. He’s listening and processing, but just like many of the people he sits across from, he refuses to believe in anything other than his own idea of how the world should work. It’s a film about listening to people without judgment, but maybe Stern should have pushed back more. You can listen to people, take in their arguments, and disagree in a constructive manner, but only once does Stern ever engage with any sort of disagreement in an interview. No change happens without conflict, and Stern appears as being either too scared or too sure of his party’s chances to engage on anything other than a polite level. While Stern shows a gift for crafting montages and allowing his subjects to speak their mind without twisting their words, American Chaos remains a slow-pitch softball for fast-pitch baseball times. After every series of interviews, Stern will appear on camera again to vent about how ludicrous it all seems (that is until the reality of the situation sets in on Election Day), and that generally sums up why such an approach is doomed to fall flat.
American Chaos is too limp and polite to make any sort of impact greater than a well curated clip show. My biggest and most nagging question about American Chaos centres around what Stern would have done if Trump had lost the election. Would he still have a movie? Would the footage appear like someone was having a laugh at the expense of the people who almost elected a reality television star and frequently sued businessman to one of the most respected political offices in the world? Ultimately, I think that’s exactly the kind of back patting sigh of relief that could have been made from such footage, and it was only the physical election of Trump that gives Stern’s footage some weight and seriousness. It wouldn’t have much of an impact in that theoretical form, and it doesn’t have much impact now.
As a nearly lifelong liberal, I can see the value in Stern’s work, but it also seems like the work of an old-guard Democrat who realized far too late that his approach to politics has become outdated in an age where social media algorithms deliver news to people with their preferred method of slant. The blinders are finally off for Stern, but the documentary never suggests where the filmmaker or his country should go from here. As soon as Trump gets elected, American Chaos packs it in, takes a deep breath, and gives up. If that’s going to be your attitude, why even make the film in the first place? There are a lot of harsh truths contained within Stern’s work that Democrats should heed and respect, but the film never becomes a successful tool for change.
American Chaos opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, October 12, 2018. It opens on Monday, October 15 in Montreal and expands to additional cities throughout the fall.
Check out the trailer for American Chaos: