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PBS's 'Frontline,' "Trump’s Takeover," Scrutinizes the ‘Faustian Bargain’ Between the Republican Party and Donald Trump
April 10, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

How did he do it? How exactly did Donald John Trump seize control of the Republican Party — “a hostile takeover,” as one political insider describes it in the opening moments of Trump’s Takeover, veteran reporter Michael Kirk’s hour-long exposé for PBS Frontline (Tues., April 10 at 10 p.m. ET check local listings).

Like many hostile takeovers, the internal battle was only just beginning.

“In one fell swoop,” another analyst says, “the Republicans sent a message: You’re not a king. You’re a president.”

Somebody forgot to tell the king, though.

Different sides weigh in. “It’s classic Trump. Who am I going to blame?"

Followed by, “Don’t mess with Donald Trump. Donald Trump doesn’t forget.”

Well, that’s what they say about elephants, right? The party symbol fits.

It’s hard to remember now — the way politics has been playing out over the past year, it’s hard even to remember yesterday, let alone 1874 — but famed Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast provided the Republicans with their elephant symbol by drawing a Democrat donkey wearing a lion’s skin and scaring off all the other animals at the zoo . . . all, that is, except for the fearless elephant, which Nast captioned “the Republican vote.”

Forgetfulness — or loss of memory — is a matter of degree, as events of the past year have shown.

Trump’s supporters, and critics of public broadcasting in general, are apt to label anything emanating from Frontline as “Fake News.”

As a longtime viewer of Frontline, though, and as a reporter who worked for a major metropolitan “newspaper-of-record” for 30-plus years, I like to think I can tell the difference between opinion and reportage, the gathering, assessing, examination and dissemination of straight news and information without fear or favor, that speaks truth to power — whether it’s the party in power in Washington, DC or the corporate sponsors and private donors who hold the purse strings at PBS.

The early moments of Trump’s Takeover revolve around Trump’s difference of opinion — and test of wills — with outgoing Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ, left), who tells Frontline that he decided early on during the nomination campaign that Trump stood for everything he dislikes in politics, particularly the way Trump publicly belittled and demeaned Flake’s fellow Republican senator from Arizona — a decorated war veteran and a national hero by virtually anyone’s definition — John McCain.

These early moments in Trump’s Takeover hint at the chaos to come, both in terms of the campaign for the nomination and to a larger and more important extent, the way Trump would govern.

Trump’s Takeover has the effect of a political Rorschach test. It’s easy to imagine those viewers who see no good in Trump questioning the equal weight given past and present Trump backers such as Corey Lewandowski, Roger Stone, Sean Spicer, and Kellyanne Conway, and Republican skeptics such as Sen. Flake, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and GOP pollster Frank Luntz. A Trump soundbite from early in the campaign (“We are led by very stupid people!”) has the eerie, if not entirely cathartic, effect of sounding as if it could apply to anyone or anything  — all things to all people, political message-making at its most effective and far-reaching.

Nothing in Trump’s Takeover will change the viewer’s mind, whether one’s opinions are hard-wired or open to change. That’s the difference between opinion-making and giving each side equal voice. Cantor talks about Trump’s penchant for anger and how he weaponized it to rally his base just moments after Conway lavishes praise on his populist impulses. It’s “he said/she said” journalism at its most representative, and that won’t sit well with many in Frontline’s audience — not when the present-day political and ideological atmosphere is so febrile.

As Trump’s Takeover gathers steam, Kirk and his fellow program makers pull back the curtain on various confrontations over policy — Trump’s efforts to roll back Obamacare, his willingness to pit the Freedom Caucus against Republican moderates, the cringe-worthy spats with actual policymakers, the list goes on.

Kirk and his fellow program makers have been careful not to include any Democratic voices, to avoid the appearance of liberal bias — what cautionary voices there are hail from Politico, the Washington Post and other mainstream media analysts and pundits.

In a strange and yet telling way, Republican voices of caution carry more weight than more Democratic detractors would, especially when the debate is over the heart and soul of the Republican party. There are revealing anecdotes from respected, long-standing Republicans such as Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) who notes drolly, after Trump claims victory in rolling back Barack Obama’s health legislation, “I’m not sure it’s wise to be spiking the football at the 50-yard line, but what the heck,” to fourth-year Freedom Caucus lawmaker Dave Brat (R-VA), after being berated by constituents at a town hall meeting: “It was hard to have a rational dialogue; it still is.”

True, many viewers will look at Trump’s Takeover through their preconceived notions of political opinion and hardwired beliefs, and see only what they want to see.

For me, though — and I imagine for many other viewers as well — Trump’s Takeover is a brisk, a fast-moving look at how legislation comes together, or falls apart, depending on which way the wind is blowing at any given moment.

I imagine some viewers will look at Trump’s Takeover and vote thumbs down, in much the same way Sen. McCain memorably voted thumbs down on Trump’s healthcare reform bill (left), in one of the program’s more memorable video clips.

That clip appears midway through the program, and others follow: the protests, counter-protests and raw emotions in Charlottesville, Va.; the violence “by many sides,” as Trump disingenuously suggested at the time; the fallout from accusations of Trump’s near-constant race-baiting on Twitter; Trump’s memorable “Make America Great Again” rally in Arizona, home turf of his two most vocal critics in the Republican-controlled Senate; Trump forcing his tax-reform bill through Congress; and so on, on, and on.

Trump’s Takeover is as scattered as its subject, but it’s gripping, absorbing viewing just the same, and well worth seeing. Think of it as a Faustian bargain. You may not agree with everything you see or hear, but you’ll be better off for it.

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