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'Frontline' on America's Crisis of Democracy

Daniel Hautzinger
Protective fencing in front of the US Capitol. Photo: Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash
Photo: Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash

Frontline: Trump’s American Carnage premieres Tuesday, January 26 at 10:00 pm on WTTW and online or via the PBS Video App. Frontline: United States of Conspiracy is available to stream and Frontline: President Biden is available to stream.

It is simultaneously easy to see how the United States came to a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and difficult to grasp the larger arc of events that led to it. Amid the relentless barrage of news, it can be useful to step outside the moment and understand its roots.

That’s what Frontline does with its long-form documentaries, and as always it is here to help narrate this crisis in American democracy, while also trying to give a glimpse of where the country might go from here—specifically, how Biden might govern now.

Last July, Frontline’s United States of Conspiracy examined how conspiracy theories have migrated from the fringes of politics to the White House. “A fundamental thing in our minds is the rise of conspiracy theories and a conspiracist-in-chief in the Oval Office,” says Michael Kirk, the producer of the documentary. “The way that [Trump baselessly] argued that he won the election was borrowed from QAnon, Alex Jones, and his own imagination and skill at creating conspiracy narratives.”

So Kirk and his team updated United States of Conspiracy to include the siege of the Capitol (Jones and QAnon supporters were present); the new version is now available to stream.

Later this month, Frontline: Trump’s American Carnage will try to explain Trump’s “takeover of the Republican Party,” says Kirk, who is again the producer. Frontline tackled the same subject almost three years ago in Trump’s Takeover, but now the GOP is facing division as they split over whether to finally turn against Trump in the wake of January 6’s Capitol riot. “Suddenly, I think, people like McConnell and Pence have realized—the moderate to conservative Republicans—‘I’ve made a Faustian bargain here, and so has my party,’ ” Kirk says.

“Is this the end of the GOP as we knew it? Is it the next phase of an insurgency with implications of violence that’s coming? Does that rely on Trump—is he required to stoke them up? Is it initiated and therefore there’s no turning back? It’s too early to tell,” Kirk says, although he notes that, “even in the face of what happened on [January 6], 100-plus congressmen still supported the idea that Biden didn’t win the election.”

How might Biden govern in the face of this crisis? Kirk and Frontline aren’t in the business of predictions, but they do believe that understanding the past can be illuminating. President Biden, which premieres on January 19, updates the profile of Biden offered before the election in The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden.

“We made a decision [in The Choice] to compare Biden’s and Trump’s actions in crisis, and it turned out to be even more useful than we expected because of what happened [on January 6],” Kirk says. “Joe Biden is now in the biggest crisis for the country, which transcends even coronavirus, because in some structural way it impacts how you solve coronavirus, which is itself the biggest crisis that’s hit the world in recent decades.

“Joe Biden may not be good at an awful lot of things, but he’s really good at getting in a room with a bunch of people to try to find a path. His skill at persevering, getting deals done, learning from mistakes, acknowledging mistakes to the country and moving forward, I think will stand him in good stead. That ‘get in there and just do the work’ approach is something that everybody tells us Biden is good at.”

Kirk cites as a parallel Harry Truman, who took office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, as World War II was ending. “Kind of unheralded, not super charismatic. Sometimes, at least in our past, the rocky times needed someone to stabilize the boat first.”

But Biden and the Democratic Party, which will narrowly control both chambers of Congress, face a country in which a significant portion of the population believes to at least some extent in an alternate reality where the election was stolen from Trump. “This was the most egregious and obvious example of how truth has just gone out the window, when the President started to say he hadn’t lost,” Kirk says.

“But the side that’s going to be putting out most of the information is now Joe Biden’s side, and they have promised to try to do a better job of relying on facts. Of course they’re also going to spin in their favor, but if that turns out to be true even sixty percent of the time, the environment may get a little bit better. Am I being very Pollyanna-ish about that? Yeah, probably.”

As the political scientist Nancy Rosenblum says in United States of Conspiracy, “Conspiracism has become a recognized and accepted way of exercising political power. [It] creates a kind of polarization in the population that’s much deeper than partisan polarization. It’s a polarization about what it means to know something…Whether it returns to the fringes or not will depend on whether people in office can resist using it.”