Revisiting the election that broke the mold

James Fletcher’s documentary looks at what Donald Trump did right in 2016—and what Hillary Clinton did wrong.

By Richard Ades

The Accidental President is worth seeing, but the timing of its theatrical release is less than ideal. Does anyone want to see a documentary that rehashes the 2016 presidential race when we’re still trying to put the 2020 election behind us?

But for those willing to give it a try, James Fletcher’s flick is a lively and surprisingly even-handed history lesson that’s sure to provide nuggets of new understanding. Though it mainly relies on talking heads to examine the past, those heads belong to an eclectic and thoughtful group of journalists, commentators, political operatives, a prominent screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) and even a cartoonist (Dilbert’s Scott Adams).

Writer/director Fletcher begins his look back with the 2016 primary season, which saw a record number of prominent Republicans vying for the top spot. The sheer volume made it hard for any candidate to stand out—any traditional candidate, that is. While his politically experienced opponents focused on ideas, Trump gained traction by becoming, as former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci puts it, a “human wrecking ball.”

During the GOP debates, Trump targeted other hopefuls with a steady stream of insults and name-calling that kept his face front and center throughout the 24-hour news cycle. In short, the former reality TV star showed he knew how to work the media. While conservatives often claim news outlets have a liberal bias, one interviewee notes that they actually have a “conflict bias.” Thus, the political neophyte was able to garner millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity by creating one juicy kerfuffle after another.

At the same time that he was slaking the media’s thirst for conflict, Trump was stoking the anger many Americans felt over the perception that they’d been left behind by the modern economy. The documentary notes that Sen. Bernie Sanders benefited from some of this same dissatisfaction in his bid for the Democratic nomination, fueling an early lead over Hillary Clinton. It also notes that his fans’ anger was exacerbated when the party’s establishment was suspected of using “super delegates” to give Clinton an unfair advantage in the race.  

Time correspondent Molly Ball is one of several political observers featured in The Accidental President.

Speaking of Clinton, her diehard supporters probably won’t appreciate the section of the film that focuses on what she did wrong after becoming the Democratic candidate. Despite being vastly more qualified than Trump, she hobbled herself by avoiding the press and mostly ignoring the so-called “blue wall” states where Trump ultimately carved out slim leads. (One of them, Wisconsin, was snubbed altogether.) She also made verbal gaffes such as referring to Trump supporters as “deplorables,” thus alienating voters who felt looked down upon by the “coastal elite.”

Of course, Clinton also was handicapped by FBI director James Comey and his controversial decision to raise the issue of her emails yet again during the campaign’s final days. On the other hand, as Time political correspondent Molly Ball suggests, Clinton should have been so far ahead of her inexperienced opponent by that point that such a setback wouldn’t have mattered. In the end, she won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, which was the only vote that mattered.

The Accidental President also brings up other issues that played a role in 2016 and still bear consideration today: Why were Twitter and Trump such a perfect match? Do emotions beat out ideas on the campaign trail? And how was Trump able to weather the “October surprise” that was the Entertainment Tonight tape?

The 2016 race may be long over and Donald Trump may be out of office, but the forces that led to his surprising victory will continue to play a role in politics because they obviously worked. That makes The Accidental President a useful history lesson.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Accidental President (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets and will screen in limited U.S. theaters beginning June 21. It will soon be available on Starz.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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