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Can Anything Heal America's Great Divide?

'Frontline' filmmaker Michael Kirk talks about what he learned making his most recent Obama and Trump documentary.

by Katie Moritz
January 16, 2020 | I ❤️ PBS

For 40 years, Michael Kirk has been reporting on politics. A longtime filmmaker for PBS's "Frontline," he has made upwards of 20 films on the Obama and Trump presidencies. His most recent film, "America's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump," premiered on PBS this month and is now available in full online.

I spoke with Kirk about what makes this film different than his others, and what he's learned over his decades of covering America's political tussle.

Katie Moritz: The film starts with President Barack Obama being elected, and ends with essentially the present day. What was the purpose of making a chronological film about fairly recent events?

Michael Kirk: The big idea was that the film was supposed to describe the increasing divisions and the irony of it, in the sense that a president who promised that he would be the unifier -- said that his biography itself was an example of how he could unify because he had come himself from such a diverse background -- President Barack Obama promised we're not red. We're not blue. We're the United States of America. That he could heal the wounds or division basically by who he was. And the irony is that by the end of his presidency -- he freely admitted and everyone else could see -- that the division was even deeper, even broader, that racism was even more rampant. That in lots of ways the country had descended into even more black-and-white, us-and-them kind of arguments.

A photograph of filmmaker Michael Kirk, wearing a gray sweater and glasses. Rewire PBS Our Future America's Great Divide
Michael Kirk

Some of it had to do with direct opposition to him. Some of it had to do with the leadership of Sarah Palin, when she ran against him and then stayed in the battle on behalf of right-wing radio and Fox News. Some of it had to do with the technological innovations of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, other ways of spreading political arguments so that it really kind of divided people. But at the heart and soul of all of it was a number of things that happened inside the Barack Obama presidency.

Especially at this time, as the curtain goes up, and it is the actual overture to the political opera that's about to play out in America, the most fundamental and, I would say, important political year in the 40 years I've been doing political reporting, what the films are are really a sort of bring-you-up-to-speed with where we are, how bad things are. So then as you watch the election happen, as you see the deepening division, maybe, maybe, people can act a little differently as they think about how they're going to react to the politics of the next year.

KM: Especially as someone who's younger, so some of it was happening when I was a teenager, it's really interesting to see, "Oh, all these things are interconnected." I didn't really think about it that way because I wasn't really paying attention at that time.

MK: So many people see all these things in the news, I mean even older people, but pulling things together doesn't really happen. So in that sense, I'm glad to hear that you viewed it as a way to connect some dots, because I think that's what everybody kind of needed. At least that's the feedback I've been receiving. So it's wonderful that it served that purpose for you and I think it's a similar need that's been fulfilled for people of all ages and political stripes.

KM: For these films, you interviewed high-profile people from across the political spectrum, including a lot of Obama's aides and conservative political commentators like Megyn Kelly. Was it hard to get such politically diverse people interested in talking?

MK: I think we've made 20 films over all these years about either the Obama presidency or the Trump presidency. So we kind of know our way around both of those administrations. There were a lot of people in the Obama presidency who we would talk to when we were making the films, but they wouldn't go on camera or on the record. And now that they've been out for three years, they've written their books or they've had time to think about it, it was a good time to go back and get them to tell us what they thought. And I'll tell you, the Obama administration and the things that happen there are really better understood by the Obama people after three years of (President) Donald Trump. It put everything in relief or something.

It was fun and interesting to get the new observations from people around Obama who we have known for years and to continue to develop our sources and our understanding of Donald Trump and his motivations and what he does.

KM: I saw "Bombshell" right before watching "America's Great Divide." It was cool to see Megyn Kelly in the flesh and talking so candidly after that portrayal of her.

MK: It was a pretty neat thing that she agreed to come on. She hasn't ever done a big, long interview like this. And it's an interesting story she tells, and the way her mind works. I'd never met her before and was pleased that she was willing to come on, because, of course, she was like a sports announcer or something on the rise of Fox, first taking down Obama with some regularity, and then Trump. So it was fascinating to get her perspective.

KM: Another of your films on political division, "Divided States of America," came out in 2017, right before Trump's inauguration. What was the difference between making that film and this one?

MK: One of the things about journalism which is really interesting is if you do a big opus (like "Divided States of America"), you kind of think, maybe that's over, I'll never have to do that again, or I'll never get to do that again. We were finishing that film, and we assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win. And these things are like super tankers, these films, you can't turn them really fast, you need a big harbor to turn it, and if news or something really important happens, it's hard to, given the logistics and the realities of a filmmaking, to (change the trajectory of the film).

So when Donald Trump wins, we had been thinking it's going to be Hillary Clinton, so we were making a film about how Obama's presidency and the challenges that it faced from the economic dislocation caused by the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and all the way along, as a primer for what would happen with Hillary Clinton when she came in. Suddenly Donald Trump wins, and we have to pull out all the sequences we had already made about Clinton and go find and deliver and make full scenes about Trump and birtherism and lots of other things.

So on one level that was a gigantic super tanker (and) its destination was one place and we thought it had all the things on board that it needed. Let's see how far I can go with this metaphor. All of a sudden, Trump wins and you have to turn it pretty sharply and bring whatever Trump did to win into the Obama story, not the Hillary Clinton story.

Like anybody who has done a big opus, and knows it's imperfect, you look forward to, and you're lucky to, get to go back in there and rebuild that again, given what you've learned and what the people you know who were inside with Obama the whole time now believe. They raised the question with me that it is, in their minds, entirely possible that Donald Trump would not exist if it wasn't for Barack Obama.

[ICYMI: Can We Bring Back Civility by Talking About Politics Less?]

KM: What were the most surprising things you learned making "America's Great Divide"?

MK: (The importance of) race, racism in response to Obama, his own lack of understanding of what that meant, and the quandary that he faced about, is he the president of the United States, or is he also the president of black America? And is there a difference? I watched the rise of birtherism. And I watched the response to Obama's "The cops acted stupidly," or "Trayvon Martin could be my son." When you put those all together, you step back and then you see the film, and in there near the end when he's down in Charleston and he's singing "Amazing Grace." And he gives that amazing speech to the crowd there, the grief-stricken crowd. And you suddenly realize, "Oh my God, race." You know it intellectually. But now I hope when you watch the film, you know it the way I know it now, emotionally.

And the truth. In the (second part of the film), from my point of view, much to my surprise, was the extent to which truth is so malleable and that (Trump's) success and his continued success is so based on a brilliant decision to talk about "fake news" and to bring down the press and bring down his critics and use, the way the Russians did in the campaign, Facebook and Twitter in lots of ways to make the truth his truth, versus the sort of objective truth that all Americans could more or less agree about. Once you've taken objective truth away from people, especially in a democracy, and they're already worried about so many things — economic dislocation, race, the quality of their life, immigration — and when all of that is in play and there's no common American belief system, we're in big trouble and the division becomes worse than it ever has been.

KM: After doing all this reporting, how do you think we can fix the division? Or do you think it's a one-way street? Have we gone too far and we won't be able to turn it around?

MK: It's a really great question. It's the question. It's the one I can't answer because I just don't know. As I always say, my crystal ball isn't working anymore. The reality is I talked to, you know, 40 people to make this. Or maybe, when you add up all the old films, a few hundred people. And I do very long interviews, like an hour, hour-and-a-half, two-hour, three-hour interviews with people. And so I really get down into it with them. And near the end of every one of those interviews, I will often ask somebody the question you just asked me. And they all say that democracy has been fundamentally poisoned. We have to figure out a way to not be so us-against-them about every single thing.

We've always, as Americans, argued vehemently about our politics. We're that kind of a country, we're a rough-and-tumble country, it's in our DNA. But we've always (had) some things we've shared, we have always kind of thought of ourselves as people who are optimistic about the future. And if you're optimistic about the future, you figure out a way to get along with people you're arguing with. But I don't think people are optimistic about the future, not the people I talk to, and they're the people who are creating the future.

So I'm very uneasy about it, and I look to your generation, and I don't mean by just sloughing things off to your generation. I just look for fresh ideas, and it may be a kind of openness to the dialogue, but not such intense hatred. It's worse than any time I can remember. Even in the '60s, even in the civil rights movement, even with the anti-war stuff, even during Watergate, this is much, much worse.

Parts 1 and 2 of "America's Great Divide" are available in full on YouTube and PBS.org.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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