The big question being asked by political scientists and pundits alike is, how did Donald Trump not only become a candidate for president, but the nominee of a major party?
Answering this question is the chief objective in Director Ben Howe’s new documentary, “The Sociopath.”
The film is brief – lasting just under 45 minutes – and free to watch – hosted on YouTube, but it is perhaps one of the most interesting looks at a man whose campaign has highlighted a deep divide within both national politics and the Republican Party.
What Howe’s film does so well is give the viewer a mostly chronological view of Trump’s transition from eccentric billionaire reality television host to becoming the Republican Party’s official nominee for president. To do this, the doc begins by going back to the election of 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain were engaged in a historic and tense election.
At the time, Republicans were attempting to distance themselves from an unpopular President Bush. McCain’s running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, was chosen to help bring in the Republicans who were left uninspired by McCain. However, when the economic meltdown of 2008 occurred, Republicans were blamed as the source of trouble and the Democrats were handed a decisive victory.
It’s at this point that a movement of dissatisfied conservatives and Republicans called the Tea Party began. Their first target was Obamacare, the cornerstone of the new president’s agenda. Beyond that, it became a movement that was successful in getting like-minded political upstarts into office – allowing Republicans to take over the House in 2014. However, this new generation of conservatives would end up causing some problems.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump’s speech at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference is portrayed in this film as uneventful in terms of content, but significant as it relates to the beginning of his brand as a conservative figure. In the following months, leading up to the start of the 2012 election, Trump continues to expand his influence on the right by fully embracing and indeed leading the Birtherism movement, which claimed that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen and therefore ineligible to be president. Despite attempts by Republican Party operatives to reform the party’s message in preparation for the 2012 election, Trump’s fringe views pushed the right’s image in a troubling direction.
Fast forward to 2015 and Donald Trump descends down an escalator in Trump Tower to announce that he is running for president under the Republican banner. Almost immediately, he races to the top of polls, becoming the frontrunner. Simultaneously, many on the right begin to form a coalition, Never Trump, with the objective of opposing his candidacy. Despite their efforts, he wins the party’s nomination. A last-minute effort to free the delegates forms at the convention, but that too is defeated on the floor in Cleveland. What becomes clear to Republicans is that Donald Trump is here to stay.
Since then, as we have all witnessed, Trump’s controversial brand has continued to grow as he attempts to reach out to general election voters. Alongside his rise has been the rise of a nationalist movement called the Alternative Right, or Alt Right for short. This movement features themes and strategies that align with Trump’s, and focuses on racist and xenophobic language and ideas.
“What started as a populist movement in 2008 – as a way to combat an overreaching and overspending government transformed from motivated to outraged to allegiant.”
As the film concludes, it touches on the latest controversies surrounding Trump’s candidacy, including the 2005 Access Hollywood tape where he bragged about sexual assault, his failed Trump University scheme, and his relationship with Vladimir Putin. But in addition to highlighting these controversies as challenges for Trump in the last months of the campaign, the film also considers how these controversies affect the collective attitude of his core supporters. The answer is shocking.
In a montage of interviews with supporters at a Trump rally, the overwhelming theme is a complete disregard for Trump’s shady past. Instead, the subjects focus on Donald Trump’s personal qualifications as a billionaire businessman. To them, Trump is the one man who can fix all of Washington’s problems with his outsider perspective. He alone can save the country, they say. He is a great leader, and they are willing to follow him all the way. To see so many well-meaning people so engulfed in a cult of personality is, frankly, the most disturbing moment in this documentary.
A concluding voiceover says it all:
“Throughout history, movements have begun with earnest intent, and ended in fire and war. It is never at the moment it turns that people accept the path they are on. It is always after it’s too late to turn back. It is not too late to turn back.”
The only challenges that I had with this film was how short it was and how few interviews it featured. While being under an hour certainly makes the film extremely watchable, one is left thinking about what else could have been included. And while the people interviewed – the Washington Free Beacon‘s Lachlan Markay, Republican strategist Liz Mair, author Jonah Goldberg, and campaign strategist Rick Wilson – were certainly wonderful sources with a wealth of background information about the subject, it would have been nice to see other prominent Trump critics lend their opinion to the film as well. Nonetheless, these challenges hardly affect the overall value that this movie provides.
The Bottom Line
What Howe does so well in this film is illustrate the series of causes and affects that led up to Donald Trump, who everyone laughed off at first, becoming the GOP’s most controversial nominee since Barry Goldwater. It also speaks very candidly about the Alt Right, its agenda, and the numerous challenges that it has created within conservative politics and the Republican Party. Overall, this documentary is an important piece of work that effectively tells the Trump story – the story of how we got to where we are today. It’s certainly worth the watch.