Trump was elected because of racist backlash to Obama's presidency. Trump was elected because of sexist backlash to Hillary's candidacy. Or because of Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders siphoning leftist voters. Or because of non-voters. Or the media. Or Russia. Or because your dumbass Aunt won't stop watching Fox News.
When an election with over 235 million eligible voters is determined by the slim margin of 80,000 cast over three states, the reason can be almost anything. In Thomas Huchon's documentary Trumping Democracy, the reason is fake news and Facebook.
“What if the election of the 45th President of the United States was not a fair fight?” asks Huchon in the opening, a suggestive question that will no doubt get its progressively-minded audience nodding in agreement. The presidency, after all, was stolen. That's the only logical consideration one can have after every political analyst claiming a Hillary landslide, that there was no way the most unlikeable candidate could defeat “the most experienced candidate in history.” Something underhanded must have happened for this event to occur.
It's this presentation of Trump as an anomaly in American political history where the documentary begins, and where it's at its weakest.
George W. Bush bumbled his way into a million dead Iraqis, Bill Clinton's legacy is stained dresses and packed prisons, and Ronald Reagan is nothing if not a more-polished precursor to Trump. Even Huchon's argument that mainstream media was duped by fake news—highlighted by an interview with The Atlantic's Rosie Gray—fails to mention the growing distrust Americans have felt toward mainstream publications since they trumpeted the White House WMD lie in the lead up to the Iraq War. It's as if eight years of No Drama Obama erased every mishap that'd gone before.
This narrow scope in the service of the doc's thesis is a shame, because the film gets intriguing in its second half, as it details with how insidious the world of data collection has become. Trumping Democracy is at its best when it breaks down the operations of Cambridge Analytica. This is a data firm that buys information from credit card companies, banks, and social media giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to develop—and then sell—consumer profiles for some 230 million American adults.
“It's legal, but nobody brags about it,” ominously narrates Huchon.
While it's the sort of targeted marketing that's been the norm since businesses have fought for consumer dollars, it's now been amplified to its logical extreme as technology has crept into every aspect of our lives. The difference that emerged in 2016 was two-fold: Data collection and algorithm processing has been perfected to the point where it can predict user behavior better than someone's spouse—an interview with Stanford psychometric professor Michal Kosinski is as riveting as it is harrowing—and that, for the first time in America, that technology was able to be used in a general election.
But it's here, again, that Huchon's doc swerves back into shrug territory.
We've long known that Facebook and Google collect, then sell, our data. We've also known that businesses target persuasive ads at us. For Huchon's thesis of fake news being responsible for Trump to work, he needs the hands of an illegitimate outside actor at the controls. For many, that has been Putin and Russia. But for Huchon, it's Robert Mercer, billionaire computer scientist, and one of the principal funders of both Brexit and Trump's campaign.
Painted by Huchon, Mercer is an odd bird with a penchant for gun-collecting and a hatred of the media spotlight. He's the 21st century version of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, a staunch capitalist who wants enough money to get away from everyone else, then some more money too. Plainview gets that money through oil, Mercer through tech. While Mercer's biography intrigues, it never quite pinpoints why this is much different from any big money spender who foot the bill for the Clinton campaign. To be fair, Huchon briefly tabs at the ghastly 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United as to why Mercer has been allowed such purchase power, but quickly moves past this.
This narrow lens highlights the lingering ideological problems left by Trumping Democracy.
Mercer backed Brexit and Trump, okay, but why? Why have Facebook, Twitter, and Google been allowed to collect and sell user data? Why do shabbily-dressed freelance writers spend their time writing “fake news” posts? Why is the business model of Cambridge America allowed to exist? And why, after claims of being the most tech savvy and data driven campaign in history, was the Clinton campaign able to be beaten by a bumbling reality TV show host, a billionaire recluse, and Facebook likes?
This is the danger when you focus on the 80,000 votes, not the 62.9 million votes before. Or the 2016 election, without considering the campaigns, elections, and policies that came before. If you think this single presidency was stolen, you don't see that the rules of the game were changed a long time ago.
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