Because James Stern couldn’t explain to his kids why people were voting for Donald Trump, he grabbed his camera and tripod six months before the election and took off for parts unknown to find out why. With unnerving composure and self-restraint, he interviews Trump supporters, letting them speak for themselves without interruption. Click here for trailer. •Availability: Now playing in theaters nationwide. Click here for theater listings near you. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.
DT: In the beginning of American Chaos, you say that you felt a deep connection to Bobby Kennedy and Obama. Can you describe that connection?
JS: The connection goes way back. I come from a political family, and I had an older brother who was clearly going into politics. I think that in my youthful fantasy I felt a kinship on the brother front. Bobby was also greatly passionate, not quite as old school as Jack, and I think that was probably true in my case as well. I was very, very drawn to his authenticity.
DT: You undertook this mission because you didn’t understand who was supporting Trump and you wanted to be able to tell your kids why this was happening. Have you now reached a better understanding of Trump supporters, and if so, how will you explain it to your kids?
JS: I did reach a better understanding. Not in all cases—the people I talked to were all different individuals. Many people had real issues I didn’t fully appreciate. For instance, when I was down in Arizona, standing by the wall and being told stories by John Ladd about people coming onto his property at 3:00 a.m., and I’m being forced to understand his issue, which I don’t. The same thing was true when I was talking with people who have been out of work for two years in West Virginia. It’s a very visceral feeling that’s different from the one I have just reading about it or watching it on TV. I did develop empathy for people’s situations, but I don’t have sympathy for their solutions.
When you come into proximity and talk to people, you have empathy, and I think you have to be careful about the idea that people are simply wrong in their approach. I think people are rational and reasonable for the most part. Do I think they have the right solutions in voting for Donald Trump? Of course not. Would their lives have been made better by Hillary Clinton? I hope so. I think that one of the things that happened is that they did not feel in any way, shape, or form that Hillary was going to make their lives better after eight years of Barack Obama, so why not try somebody else? That’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone like me, but at the same time you have to listen to them.
DT: How do you explain someone like Julio, who said, “How can you vote for Hillary? Immigrants make this country great.”
JS: Julio Martinez, who was from Florida, wanted to have safer borders. Armand Grossman, who is also from Florida, said, “How could someone possibly vote for Hillary?” He had a very, very strong view about the military and was obsessed with Benghazi. Julio had a very strong view on immigration and closing the borders even though he himself was an immigrant when he was eleven. In both cases they thought Trump was a better answer than Hillary. I think it’s wrong. Do I think it’s irrational? That’s a harder question. At some level politics is about connection, about authenticity, feeling like that person represents you. I did a film called So Goes the Nation, for which I interviewed Mark McKinnon, who at that time was the head strategist for the Republican Party. It was during the Bush/Kerry election, and Mark said something quite chilling. He said that at the end of the day, you can throw out all of the issues. The only issue that matters is what club you want to belong to. Do you want to belong to your club or the other club? If you think about it in a different way, why do I buy Nike shoes? Right now I’d walk over hot coals to buy Nike shoes because of Colin Kaepernick. That doesn’t have anything to do with whether the shoe is better for me; that’s a club I want to belong to. The sad thing was that they didn’t believe Hillary was going to make it any better than Trump, so they might as well join the club where they can watch reality TV.
DT: I can’t remember whether it was Tami or Dave who said, “I’m not electing him to be my Sunday school teacher.” Can you explain why you’re laughing?
JS: I’m laughing because I think that was an extraordinary display of hypocrisy, and I think that if the shoe was on the other foot, they would have been up in arms from a moral and religious standpoint. Trump has complete moral turpitude, and they try and find a religious excuse for it. That was one of the instances I found the most troubling and the most difficult to sit through without reacting. If Barack Obama had done the sorts of things that Donald Trump has done, let alone Hillary Clinton, do you think they would have given either Hillary or Obama a free pass? Of course not. What they wanted was somebody who was going to have the kind of non-gun-control measures they were looking for, and they were looking for someone who was going to pack the Supreme Court in the way Donald Trump is packing the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, that—no pun intended—trumps any kind of supposed religious concerns that they have. I think it’s amazing that people who have been arguing for years about family values and throwing that in people’s faces then turn around and vote for this man. Of all the things I found, the thing I have the most trouble squaring is the free pass they gave Trump.
DT: There were major disconnects between what people said they believed and reality, like the woman who said Obama was going to declare martial law and the guy who said climate change is a load of crap. Maybe this goes back to the matter of what club you want to belong to, but at what point should you expect reality to enter into the equation?
JS: There were a couple of instances where I just couldn’t sit quietly by. One was when Marian said that Obama was going to declare martial law. I just snorted at her and said, “That’s absurd.” The other was when Sue in Arizona said one in eight people was guilty of voter fraud and all of them voted for the Democrats. At that point I just said, “What are you talking about?”
When I grew up, there were three networks and maybe public television. While people argued vociferously about their viewpoints, the facts were the facts. You didn’t say there was no such thing as the Vietnam War. Right now you have a propaganda arm of one of the two major parties that supports people in whatever they say. If all you do is listen to Fox news and go on Breitbart or you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you’re going to have a very, very different view of the world than if you’re someone like myself, who reads the New York Times, or yourself, or whatever. After World War Two there were Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungle for twenty-five years believing the war was still going on.
DT: You were in West Virginia when you said, “This is a different country. What do they care about having sensible gun laws?” Was it always a different country and we’re just seeing it now, or do you think that under the Kennedys, for instance, the country was more cohesive?
JS: I think the country was more cohesive for two reasons: (a) like I just said, the media. You didn’t have the ability to have your own set of facts. That makes the country much more divided than it ever was; (b) when my father went into WWII, he trained in Alabama and Mississippi. He intellectually cross-bred with the people he was with and they cross-bred with him. While war is a terrible thing, people from different parts of the country united into a coalition.
Those two things are gone, one thankfully, one not so much so. We now have a real problem. This is the most divided the country has been since the civil war. That is not a joke. The other thing of course is campaign finance reform—which is to say none—where you have massive amounts of money pouring into candidates, buying them ad nauseam simply because of one issue or another that’s central to whoever is paying for their politicians. A famous politician in America once said that without campaign finance reform, he feared for the very essence of democracy because politicians would be bought and sold based on the issues. That politician was not Barack Obama. It was Abraham Lincoln. This is not a new problem.
DT: Let’s talk about your crazy footage from the 1950s TV show Trackdown, where a snake oil salesman tries to convince a town to build a wall to save themselves from destruction. First of all, where did you find it, and second of all, the parallels between the snake oil salesman and Trump are so remarkable that I have to ask whether there’s any evidence that Trump ever saw it?
JS: I don’t know if he saw it. We were out to dinner somewhere, and my editor’s father said, “Have you ever seen this show Trackdown?” When I said no, he told me there was a TV show in the ’50s that had an episode with a con artist named Trump. I said that was impossible, then I googled tv-1950s-trump and it came up! We found the piece! Trump’s father was quite famous and was quite a vicious character by all counts. I wonder if the people who wrote Trackdown weren’t aware of his father. Woody Guthrie wrote a very famous song about Trump’s father called “Daddy Trump.” I think it’s almost too much of a coincidence.
DT: I myself don’t believe in the Trump-won-because-of-disaffected Americans theory. I think it was more like the Cuban guy in your film who said, “I look at Trump and see myself in the mirror.” I think that’s what got Trump elected.
JS: I don’t disagree. They have such a strong desire to be him, such a strong aspirational part of the attraction.
DT: So it’s not that they think he’s like them, it’s more that they want to be like him.
JS: I felt that way. The other thing that was amazing to me was that everybody I spoke to glossed over the fact that Trump was born with a silver spoon in his face. Donald Trump was a man who was born on third base and said he hit a triple. In the film, a professor from the University of Chicago speaks about that. He says that Trump convinced them that he’s some sort of self-made man and he can do for them what he did for himself. That’s quite a trick, given what was factually true about him. The other thing that was quite amazing was that Trump was sued by 3,500 blue-collar workers whom he had not paid. Many of the people I met were either in a similar situation to the people who had sued Trump or knew people who were in a similar situation, but they didn’t seem to care about that at all.
DT: Again, it’s that disconnect from reality.
JS: Exactly right, but it’s also choosing what to believe. And also it’s a culture war—saying it’s the liberal press blowing things up and Hillary’s done worse. One of the mantras was “Hillary’s done worse,” whether it was the religious couple saying that Bill Clinton had done worse or a guy in West Virginia saying that Hillary should be in jail for all the things she’s done and Trump’s never done anything wrong. It’s what you choose to read and believe in that was so striking.
DT: You open and close the film with footage of elections, going back to Teddy Roosevelt. What context does that give to American Chaos?
JS: There have been swirling passions around the elections since we have begun. I believe there will be passions again, and there will be better days ahead. What you see in all those presidents in the 1900s is that some were good, some were bad, but we’re still here. I wanted that to start the film, and I wanted that to close the film. I only go back as far as John F. Kennedy at the end of the film, because that’s personal for me. I feel that our higher angels will carry us forward again, but I was also very focused on saying that this is a bad time, and it’s going to be a bad time. If you take the irrationality of Andrew Jackson and the business scuzziness of Warren G. Harding and the viciousness of Richard Nixon and you put it all together in a cocktail, you get Donald Trump. That said, America has been around for a long time, I believe it will be around for a whole lot longer, and we’re going to get through this.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
JS: I think that we have to listen, and listen as gracefully as we can. I think there’s absolutely zero nobility in losing. I think you do anything you can to win within legal bounds. I think the Democrats have to continue to do so. There’s an old saying that Democrats want to govern and Republicans want to win, and I think that’s unfortunately true, and we need to understand why people are upset. Hillary Clinton lost the election by 77,000 votes over three states where people much like the ones in the movie thought they weren’t being listened to. I’m not saying that if Hillary had gone to those places and done a better job of presenting herself to those people she would have won, but she might have, despite Jim Comey and Russia and everything else. I hope that people see the movie with that in mind. I’ve read some reviews of the film where people have said I seem to be soft on these people. I don’t think I’m soft. I’m giving them a platform so that we can analyze and discuss in their own words, not in my own words. People don’t need to hear from me. They should want to hear from them. That’s what’s important. I’m really proud I was able to make the movie, and I’m proud that Sony is supporting the movie, and I hope that there are better times ahead for all of us, and mostly for our country.
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