“Unprecedented” is a good title for a documentary series about the last six weeks of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, notably the events of January 6. You could say, and you’d be right, that nothing in the Trump presidency had much precedent, from his bombs-away talk-radio-host-in-chief habit of saying whatever the hell was on his mind to his penchant for achieving policy through chaos. But with the 2020 campaign and election, Trump topped even his own sociopathic shoot-from-the-lip self. His claim that the election had been stolen by Joe Biden effectively set the stage for the next level of alternate reality in American politics, one that we might call “Goodbye democracy, hello QAnon!”
I only wish I could say that the 149 minutes of “Unprecedented” (which dropped Sunday on Discovery+) were more unprecedented. It’s a show for anyone who feels like they haven’t spent enough time in their life watching heartland rally speeches delivered by the likes of Donald Trump Jr. The hook of the series is that Holder gained special access to both Donald Trump and his adult children, who were effectively managing his 2020 election campaign. (Tiffany, his daughter with Marla Maples, wasn’t part of the team but makes a cameo appearance.) That sounds, in theory, like promising raw material for a documentary that could give you an inside glimpse of Trump and his family dynamic.
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But here’s how it works in “Unprecedented.” Trump sat down, in the faux-hunting-parlor den of his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for several extended interviews, and in every one of them he’s as smoothly controlled and on-message as if Tucker Carlson were throwing him softballs. There’s no fly-on-the-wall footage of Trump, and we never hear Holder ask him a challenging question — not that Trump would give in if confronted with one. Trump, looking a glowier shade of bronze, essentially spews his playbook palaver: Ivanka is great, Don Jr. is great, my supporters are great and I love them — and, oh yes, the 2020 election was an outrageous fraud perpetrated upon the American people.
Not much news there, to put it mildly.
So what of the Trump children? “Unprecedented” keeps telling us that Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric are “part of the Trump brand,” and once you’ve heard about a dozen times that they “have the values of the Trump brand” and “embody the Trump brand” and “see themselves as extensions of the Trump brand,” you may be even sicker of the Trump brand than you thought you could be. Yes, these three are part of the Trump brand, but that’s what’s ultimately so uninteresting about them. With rare exceptions, they do what they’re told and go where they’re kicked. All three are rich-kid dweebs who speak in spin. Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, presents a more complex case, but he’s barely in the movie — and when he is, he talks in polite euphemisms, revealing nothing.
Ivanka, we’re told (though we never get to see it), at one point urged her father to concede the election, which was a blasphemous thing to utter in Trump’s presence. It’s a sign of how much power Ivanka wields within the family that she could say it. She’s Trump’s favorite and always has been (at least, ever since his divorce from Ivana), and on the campaign trail she’s all beaming smiles and we-will-prevail spunk. Coming off a tour of proletarian Nevada, she says, “I’ve been in four states in the last two days, and the energy and excitement for the president surpasses that in 2016.” Ivanka was trained in media from a young age (her mother walked red carpets with her), and she speaks like a corporate PR executive. “Nobody takes more incoming than the president,” says Ivanka in her calm guru-of-spin velvet tones. “Most politicians don’t have the strength or the conviction to withstand that pushback. This president does.” Yawn!
As for Donald Trump Jr., the film seems to believe that he’s the future politician of the dynasty (want to take any bets?). And because he broke, once or twice, with his father, mostly by becoming a hunter and outdoorsman (which Trump, at the time, found declassé), he holds a certain sway with the red-meat side of the MAGA faithful. But the smug, bearded Don Jr. is also a flyweight opportunist who’s so deluded that he actually fancies himself as having a “working-class” side because he toiled as a bartender in Colorado for a year-and-a-half after graduating from Wharton. (As the Atlantic writer McKay Coppins points out, most working-class bartenders don’t have a trust fund.) These Trump offspring stand for nothing. They’re their father’s spear carriers and that’s all, and the idea that Alex Holder thinks he got hold of some documentary scoop because he allows them to take up more than half his movie is mind-boggling.
For all their gassing on, none of the Trump children will go on the record to say a thing about January 6. Neither will Mike Pence, who’s interviewed here, at one point right at the moment he receives an email calling for him to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office (he reacts with a Mona Lisa smile). He, too, reveals nothing. The film gives you a vivid sense of how the Jan. 6 assembly, egged on by Trump, boiled over into violence, but the Jan. 6 hearings have already gone so far beyond this in terms of showcasing the events of that day — visually, logistically, conspiratorially — that “Unprecedented” feels like a rerun.
We see a clip of Trump saying, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election…if I win.” Is that from 2020? No, that clip is from November 16, 2016. So Trump hasn’t changed. As the movie points out, he has always ascribed his failures to a rigged system, going back for decades. He has simply ramped up the fervor and open declaration of his authoritarian ideology.
The difference, of course, is that he is now well into the process of putting in place an army of functionaries on the state level who can cooperate with him in overturning the democratic results of the next presidential election. A phenomenon, if it happens, that’s destined to provoke a Constitutional crisis, one that would likely by resolved by a Supreme Court that’s now likely to side with Trump. And this movie is focusing on how much Donald Trump Jr. embodies the Trump brand!
Yet in that sense, “Unprecedented,” in its smoothly watchable greatest-hits-of-Trump’s-outrage irrelevance, reflects the head-in-the-sand myopia of much of the current media, at least in regard to the danger that Trump still poses. The idea that Joe Biden stole the election is a conspiracy theory as dangerous as it is deranged, but a sizable swath of the Republican Party has signed onto it, and liberals, pushing the scenario that Ron DeSantis is rising in power enough to wrest the Republicans nomination from Trump, seem caught in their own web of delusion. DeSantis has become almost a hero to them; they claim to despise him, but their secret fantasy is that he’s Not Trump, and therefore his very name spells relief.
What this leaves out, of course, is something all too real yet hard to measure: that Trump has turned the Republican Party into a cult, so that his grip on it extends beyond the usual measures of political power. As a documentary, “Unprecedented” is sort of like a mediocre TV-movie version of the Jan. 6 hearings — which, as some of the hearings’ staunchest advocates acknowledge, have been assembled and presented not as the usual Congressional dronefest but as a show, a compelling dramatic presentation of the narrative of Donald Trump’s crimes. Yet I know too many progressives who are drinking in the hearings as a kind of Broadway show of Watergate nostalgia, as if their righteous effectiveness as drama meant that they were somehow game-changing. News flash: The Watergate hearings were compelling, but their effectiveness was all about how they linked up to our system of justice — the fact that Nixon resigned because he would have been impeached and tossed out of office.
The equivalent here would be that Donald Trump is arrested and prosecuted for his crimes of treason and sedition. We always talk about smoking guns; in the case of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election, we have a dozen smoking guns. But will the U.S. attorney general, Merrick Garland, prosecute him? Each time I read another editorial predicting why he may not (It will tear the country apart! It’s too challenging to win in a jury trial!), my heart sinks and I think: This is why Merrick Garland should be teaching in a college somewhere. Where’s LBJ when we need him?
We’re either going to confront Donald Trump over his crimes or we aren’t. And all the tut-tutting in the world over Jan. 6 won’t accomplish that. There’s no question that Trump holds culpability for the violence of that day, but since then he’s committed a far more grievous and profound form of violence against America: a violence against our political system. His open plans to steal the 2024 election are what we must confront. And if we don’t do it now, we’ll regret the day we didn’t. Because it’s what’s still to come that could tear America apart. If our leaders don’t do the right thing, we‘ll have them to blame as well.
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