The biggest cliche in American journalism today is when an editor sends a reporter into the red states to “listen to Trump voters.” These moments of hayseed tourism always turn out the same: Reporter points to some crazy thing Donald Trump has done lately and asks “Do you still like him now?,” and the voters say “yep,” and the cycle continues.
James D. Stern, the Hollywood movie producer whose credits range from “Looper” to “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” at least gets credit for traveling to Trump country and talking to the natives back in 2016, before it was trendy. The documentary “American Chaos” captures in plain terms what Stern (who directed the film) learned from them.
Stern introduces himself as growing up a Kennedy Democrat, and that one of his happiest moments was watching Barack Obama’s inauguration. He’s got some connection to Obama, as well: Stern’s brother, Todd, was one of Obama’s envoys who helped negotiate the Paris climate treaty.
Watching Donald Trump descend that escalator and announce his candidacy, Stern had the same reaction most of the experts did: This guy’s a joke. But Stern, at least as he depicts himself here, latched on early to the idea that Trump might actually win, because of the supporters Stern met in Florida, West Virginia and Arizona, and at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
It’s not what these people say about Trump. Invariably, what they say is the same canned nonsense they heard on right-wing media, from Breitbart to Limbaugh to Fox News. It’s all “Hillary committed treason” and “she’s going to take our guns” and the usual rhetoric. They don’t say it with malice, but with the repetitious air of kids reciting their multiplication tables or anything else they’ve had drilled into their head.
The real stories Stern gets are about the people themselves. The Cuban immigrant who worked to become mayor of a Miami suburb. The West Virginia residents who hope against hope that the coal mines will open again. The Arizona rancher who watches a drug-cartel drone fly over the border fence, looking for the easiest route through.
All these folks, like millions of others, heard and believed Trump’s promises that he alone could fix things, that he had the common people’s interests at heart, that he could make America great again. They aren’t deplorable (Stern cringes at the political stupidity Hillary Clinton displayed with that word), and Stern’s mournful but hopeful film shows us how their problems and their lives will still be there, waiting for an answer, after the White House’s current occupant is gone.
Opens Friday, Sept. 14, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for language including sexual references. Running time: 90 minutes.