Monday, July 18, 2022
I am still on holiday in Germany, and I finally managed to sign up for a streaming service that works here, and should work back in Belgium: Discovery+. The trick was to use my German bank account to pay for it, because IP address and bank account are the two ways these services determine who is “local”. Used to be just IP, but everybody is using VPN these days to get around that restriction. While I didn’t sign up to Discovery+ just to watch this, it was an opportunity to watch the recent documentary about the Trump family, Unprecedented. I had an inkling that this might be good, after I saw both left and right complaining about it, which is usually a sign of quality.
So what is Unprecedented? It is a documentary showing the Trump family in the time from before the 2020 election to Trump leaving office. There are a lot of interviews at different points in time with Trump and his family, interviews with “pundits”, backstage footage of events the Trump family did, and all embedded in a timeline of the events of late 2020 / early 2021 as seen on the news. And it is really good TV, because there is no overwhelming bias from the director. Instead of attacking the people interviewed with hostile questions, he mostly lets them just talk, which ends up being a whole lot more revealing. And interestingly that is true both for the Trump family and for the pundits. Often you can see a sitaution from the campaign trail, unstaged or on the sidelines, and that contrasts with the self-serving answers the Trump family gives in the interviews, as well as with heavily biased interpretations of the pundits. Nobody points a finger and shouts “this is a lie”, but the viewer can make up his own mind and detect the lies for himself.
The real success of this method is that it makes it much clearer how everybody involved, left and right, are just human. A pundit explaining how Trump supporters are all just white suppremacists contrasts with footage showing these supporters to be a lot more diverse and often mostly interested in other daily problems than race. The right denying any responsibility for January 6 and the left trying to paint it as a coup d’etat contrasts with a much more mundane reality of a protest action that was clearly planned and to some extent staged which then ran out of control. Cleverly the interview footage often shows the minutes before the actual interview, with Trump at one point spending a lot of effort on getting a glass of water on a side table looking exactly right in the footage. Again it is “Show, don’t tell!”, and Trump very much comes over as somebody extremely vain and somewhat delusional, with a bunch of misled followers, instead of some master villain with a fascist army. There are elements of tragicomedy here that make this documentary good entertainment. But the documentary is also of high enough quality and detached from daily political discourse to be useful as a historical reference that will enable future generations to understand the “unprecedented” end of the Trump presidency much better.
Of course if you are already a political extremist, left or right, with a closed mind, there is nothing for you to see here. Unprecedented is neither the attack piece with secret evidence of Trump wrongdoing that the left had hoped for, nor is it the hagiography that the right wanted. But if you look closely, the interesting parts are those where the narrative of the left and the right are the same, e.g. painting Trump’s children as an extension of Trump and his brand, and the reality you see is very different, with these children clearly having their own ambitions and characters. Or where the “loyal supporters” / “deplorables” turn out to be regular people with real life regular problems just looking for the least bad politician to fight their cause. Unprecedented answers the question of why so many people support Trump by showing the right courting them with lies, while the left just disdains them, and they clearly prefer the former to the latter. And that is important, because it isn’t specific to Trump, but clearly would work for any successor with the same populist approach, with or without the Trump family name.