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An Impeachment and an Inauguration

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NEWSREEL: On this historic day when President Trump was impeached for a second time he remains holed up over at the White House unable to vent his reaction on Twitter or so many of the other social media outposts, but… Less than a week before President Trump leaves office he has earned the distinction of being the only president who has been impeached twice. The impeachment story is splashed across newspapers front pages nationwide….  The heightened security ahead of President-Elect Biden’s inauguration, response to fears of further attacks like the one on January 6th...

 

RANEY ARONSON: After a chaotic start to the new year, from a violent siege of the Capitol to a second impeachment for Donald Trump, a new presidential administration is beginning.

 

JOE BIDEN: Out of all the peril of this moment, I want you to know I give my word, I see the promise, the promise as well, we've seen clearly what we face now.

 

ARONSON: President-elect Joe Biden is assuming leadership of a divided America that's also battling the deadliest part of the pandemic so far. Veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk joins me to talk about this fast moving moment in American history and to help make sense of it all.

 

MICHAEL KIRK: Are people even more divided and even more in their corners than before, maybe than they've ever been? That's what it feels like.

 

ARONSON: I'm Raney Aronson and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.

 

FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund.

 

ARONSON: Mike, thank you so much for joining us on The Dispatch.

 

KIRK: It's always good to talk to you, Raney.

 

ARONSON: Yeah, so of course, you know, we were in close touch as all the events were unfolding last week, what I really want to know and have you share with our audiences, what was going through your mind as you're watching it unfold?

 

KIRK: We had had a discussion with my team and I, in the morning, before the vote, and we had sort of discussed, who was an optimist and who was a pessimist about what was going to happen after Biden was finally certified. And I was the one who kept saying people will be calm. It's clear that he won. Trump will do what Trump has done is we will know after all the films we've made, and it will get better.   Others on my team, who had been watching very closely, what was happening with Trump since Election Day, said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, there's a firestorm coming.’ And sadly, they were right.

 

ARONSON: Right, like actually on that Mike, one of the things that was really striking to me as this was happening is, you know, your team and you as well, alerting me in the fall to some of the things that you were hearing that actually made you all feel that real violence was possible. So orient me to that, as you're looking at the images that are unfolding in D.C.

 

KIRK: Well, we had been watching all through since this campaign, four years ago, this sort of heating up this temperature, rising ability that you had to sort of get people to their boiling point. And we had watched that happen more and more and more as the years went on, through all of the issues that we are familiar with. And Mike Wiser, who's the co-producer with me and co-writer, it was really his job to watch every single thing, read every single tweet, listen to all of the speeches. And he said to me, ‘This is going to be horrible. He's taking everybody now to the place he's perfected,’ which is the boiling point for anger and action.

 

ARONSON: You know, you're producing three different films this month for FRONTLINE, you have produced, you know, countless documentaries on this starting with “Divided States of America” really is when I look at the beginning of this. Are we at a culmination point right now? Or are we at a point where this is the end of the story? Or are we at a point where you really feel that this is the beginning of something even darker?

 

KIRK: Well, this was the question we kept saying, are we at the end, or is this the beginning and you're right to pose that question. I suspect what we are is we're going into a new chapter. It's not ever going to be the end of Trump. He's around, no matter what the Democrats try to do and others. Donald Trump is with us and with the people who he's activated and who admire him for both alerting them to the problems in the democracy, and from their point of view, protecting their rights. So they believe in this man, they believe what he said, and even without him in the White House, and even deplatformed, Donald Trump's words will ring in their ears, his instructions will activate them and from what we can tell, it's not a pretty picture.

 

ARONSON: You know, for a long time, we've been talking about conspiracies. And of course, you made the film “United States of Conspiracy.” I am curious, as you saw what was happening on the Capitol were you thinking immediately about what conspiracies lead these people to be so inspired and passionate about showing up and doing those types of acts of violence?

 

KIRK: Yes, it actually started the night, after the day after the election. You could just tell where the White House, the President and his supporters were going. As we watched over that week, you just knew that it was going to be the kind of conspiracies that say, ‘You don't know what's happening. Let us help you understand what's happening. It's bigger than you. And we can fill in the blanks for you.’

 

ARCHIVE: This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election… The company counting our vote with control over our vote, whose chairman is a close associate and business partner of George Soros, the biggest donor to the Democratic Party, the biggest donor to Antifa and the biggest donor to Black Lives Matter. My goodness, what do we have to do to get you to give our people the truth… Dictators, corporations, you name it, everybody's against us, except President Trump… 

 

KIRK: And that's really what people use conspiracies for, people who feel powerless in a situation. I think about it, they love Donald Trump, they couldn't imagine that lots of people also didn't love Donald Trump. They think Joe Biden is a socialist or inadequate or whatever. So imagine if your worldview was now being destroyed by an election that seems inconceivable to you that Biden could win. So you will, you're looking, you're powerless, you're looking for sustenance, you're looking for somebody to say this is what's happening. And they're looking for instructions about what to do. And Donald Trump knew that other conspiracy theorists knew that the QAnon people certainly knew that. And Alex Jones, who was in our film, absolute, and knew it and activated an entire world of disappointed and worried observers, what were called the Trump base, into what has happened.

 

ARONSON: Right. So there's a series of conspiracies that run through and get activated by Trump and his supporters throughout his whole presidency. Talk to me about the movement, the idea, the ideology, behind the election being stolen, and ‘stop the steal.’

 

KIRK: In order for stop to steal… In the first place, ‘stop the steal’ is a great slogan. 

 

ARCHIVE: Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal!

 

KIRK: If there’s one thing about President Trump and the people around him and the people who support him him, the sloganeering, the marketing was fabulous and stop to steal to that base with it's a catchy phrase, and it also says everything all at once, and it's something you can chant. Trump has been doing that effectively since ‘build the wall’ and ‘lock her up,’ and here we are with ‘stop the steal.’ So when that got rolling you knew that the whole playbook was very much in action. It crystallizes, in just three words: what their job is, which is to stop, and what happened, which is the steal. And you just, you  know you knew it when you heard it. And you knew what the plan was. And we were, we were sitting there having watched and chronicled him over at least nine films in the last four years. We knew where we were headed, and it was really only a question of how far would he go?

 

ARONSON: You know, Mike, one of the things that we have spent a lot of time doing at FRONTLINE is to track the individuals that take part in, in this case, it's an insurrection, but in other cases, protests that then turned violent. I wanted to talk about the people that are there and their ideologies. We saw especially the most vivid images, a lot of anti-Semitic messages, a lot of racist ideology. What were you seeing and how is racism, anti-Semitism, laced inside this movement’s ideology?

 

KIRK: It's been at the heart and soul of the Trump campaign in the very beginning. Remember the comments on the day he announced about Mexicans as rapists and other dog whistles. It found its first big manifestation during Charlottesville. 

 

ARCHIVE: Blood and soil! Blood and soil!

 

KIRK: And his statement that there were good people on both sides, he knew that was going to line up his base and his supporters. He was very good at knowing who those people were. And you could see that in the very beginning of the campaign. As we say in one of our films, there were Ku Klux Klan members following him. Other anti-Semitic groups…  

 

NEWSREEL: Trump repeatedly deflected when asked to disavow former KKK leader David Duke, who recently told his radio listeners voting against Trump is really treason to your heritage… TRUMP: Just so you understand. I don't know anything about David Duke. Okay? REPORTER: Would you just say, unequivocally you condemn them and you don't want their support? TRUMP: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don't know what group you're talking about. REPORTER: Well I'm just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but… TRUMP: I don't know, honestly, I don't know David Duke… 

 

KIRK: It shouldn't be a surprise, that by the time they got around to assaulting the United States Capitol, many of those symbols, and all of the dog whistles were on full display.

 

ARONSON: We'll be right back. 

 

ARONSON: Mike, I want to shift gears to the Republican Party, which we've also long talked about, and I thought vividly this week, about one of your films called “Trump's Takeover” a number of years ago, how you cover the way in which the Republican Party really followed Donald Trump. And of course, in the last few days, we've seen some Republicans and perhaps most notably Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Mitch McConnell. They're seeming to break a bit, ranks with Trump. Do you feel that we're witnessing a war within the GOP or what do you feel is going on?

 

KIRK: I think the people who identify now as Trump-supporting Republicans, the members of the House of Representatives who voted, you know, for him in the impeachment moment, the people who are extremely strong and ambitious and also realize they're there because of Trump's base. They will do and are doing all of the things necessary to preserve and maintain what Trump has brought to American politics. And they are a powerful force. They are the Freedom Caucus, they are the utterly mature version of the Tea Party that started in ‘08 and was so nurtured by Sarah Palin and what she stood for, and activated and enhanced by Donald Trump. So that wing, the Steve Bannon version, Steve Miller version of the Trump wing, ideological wing that is alive and well and fighting. There's a whole other group of more sort of institutionally oriented, Mitch McConnell types. And where are they and you know, how effective will they be? There's going to be a tremendous tug of war inside that party for the next year or so at least, as Trump — does he wane? Does he not wane? Can he make things happen, even though he's not president? Is a sort of de facto presidency going to exist out there that he'll hold rallies, he'll steam people up? Remember this is a moneymaker for him. So he'll try to keep it viable and alive. And the real question is — what does Joe Biden, what does the Biden administration do? What does the rest of Republicans really do when they watch the actions of what Biden is going to try to do about the virus most imminently? And what happens if the right, the hard right, the Trump base, the angry Trump base that we saw at the Capitol Building further tear up the Republican party? That's where all eyes belong right now, it seems to me.

 

ARONSON: Right, so speaking of Biden, we're talking now on the eve of Joe Biden becoming president, and you've done such a remarkable job on “The Choice” and again, in the big film that we're releasing this week, called “President Biden,” you've been able to crystallize his life, and how he got to this moment. And I just wanted you to help us understand what stands out to you the most about Biden becoming president at this particularly difficult time in our country.

 

KIRK: There was something about super maturity meeting ambition. He was so ambitious for so long at a young age — elected to the Senate at 29. He was too young to even hold the seat. He made many, many, many mistakes, serious mistakes, in pursuit of his ambition to be President of the United States. And here we are, basically what 40 years later. And maybe learning from all of that, and developing a kind of attitude about how to activate his perseverance quality, and his grief counselor-in-chief quality, which he's carried all the way through his term as Vice President, maybe that can meet this moment.  Can he, with his experience, with his willingness to make mistakes and apologize for them and move forward with his, with his relationships, with the process of governing? We haven't had a president like that in four years, who just understands institutions and values knowledge based information and wants to nurture and encourage things like the C.D.C. and science and maybe even, you know, parts of the media, is that man, that mature, super mature, old President of the United States — is he right for the times? If he is, it's a presidency for the century.

 

ARONSON: So shifting to your film on January 26, I want to talk just at the end of this conversation about “Trump's American Carnage.” And I want to ask you first the title, talk to me about that word ‘carnage’ and why we're using that title.

 

KIRK: It's a double entendre. He used it in his inauguration speech… 

 

ARCHIVE: TRUMP: And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now…  

 

KIRK: He pointed to the people behind him essentially, up there on the side of the Capitol building said, you know, ‘These people don't have your interests at heart. I have your interests at heart, and we're going to fix America. There's carnage in America, now we're going to go fix it.’ So American carnage became a phrase of his. One of the things you notice when you're making the film we're making now is at every critical juncture he was also creating carnage of his own. And intentionally so, as Bannon said and has Trump has acknowledged, they were not here to heal, they were here to divide. They were here to create chaos, and you watch it happen, as he nurtures that based at once trouble so that by the time you get to the end of his presidency, and you see what happens at the Capitol building where there is a mob going through that door and there is carnage — some things that are so horrific. That's by any definition carnage. And that is ironic in the sense that he starts saying, you know, ‘The carnage that is America, we will fix.’ By the end, it is, ‘The carnage that is America, we have helped create.’

 

ARONSON: I wanted to know, in the last week or so as you've been really focusing on this upcoming from what has surprised you the most?

 

KIRK: I think it is the depth of affection for Donald Trump. And it’s two things, really, it's the depth of affection by his base and it is the agreement by the Republican establishment to go along, then beyond that the absolute support of him and not a single Republican vote against him in the first impeachment all the way down to the end, until he apparently just went too far for them with the stolen vote, the stolen election, all the conspiracy theories and the unwillingness to do it at the same time that he was ramping up the anger in his base. That's when the Republicans finally left him. But that arc of the learning curve by Republicans like Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence, at the same time that you watch how Trump calculatedly, instinctually, in some ways, just caused the inevitable collision that happened between the Capitol Police and his most violent and aggressive followers. That to me, is really an astonishing arc that was happening in plain sight, right before all of our eyes for the last four years. And, and certainly right before the eyes of Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and all of the Republican leadership. And yet, here we are, finally, some of them in the Republican Party recognize it for what it was, and of course, deeply regret where both their party is and where America is now.

 

ARONSON: Mike, I'm curious in the conversations with you and your team, what are you hearing from them, what questions are they asking and probing right now?

 

KIRK: The interviews they're doing, we're doing, we will probably end up doing 15 or 16 new interviews this week, and a lot of people on all the political spectrum just giving their observations about what was actually happening in plain sight, what it meant, what certain events meant, and how almost everybody missed it. You knew something bad was happening, but you weren't sure what it was or why it was. And it wasn't until the very end that you see it, and to and to have people who are in the game who are playing and fighting and wrestling and in politics at the time, and reporters who are recovering it, you know, every single day finally, see it all culminate in what happens at the Capitol Building. You suddenly, you realize what a critical and unique moment it was in American history. Even a week later, as we interview these people about it, they are all shell-shocked. Shell-shocked on behalf of America, shell-shocked on behalf of their own parties, shell-shocked on behalf of the incoming president. Where are we now? That's the question they're all trying to answer. And I don't think anybody really knows.

 

ARONSON: Well, it's such a pleasure always to talk to you and thanks for your hard work. And thanks for coming on the Dispatch.

 

KIRK: Thanks Raney.

 

ARONSON: Be sure to go to FRONTLINE DOT ORG to see Michael Kirk’s recent films - including President Biden which premieres Tuesday, and Trump’s American Carnage, airing Jan. 26  both are also on your local PBS stations.

 

Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards.

 

Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. 

 

Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 

 

Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress are our senior editors. 

 

Phil Bennett is our special projects editor. 

 

Andrew Metz is our managing editor.

 

I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 

 

Original music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette. 

 

The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

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