Film & Television

How to derail a campaign train

By Liam Pieper
‘PACmen’ is a good old-fashioned look at the absurdities of US politics

On election night, Donald Trump became the first president in more than 30 years to not conclude his speech with “God bless America.” In fact, he did not mention God at all. It’s a strange thing, given that it was the Christian right that really clinched the election for him. In the strongest showing of support for a candidate since George W Bush, 80% of white evangelical Christians voted Republican, delivering key battleground states. The devout and conservative helped deliver the election to a thrice-married, casino-building, ill-mannered, pussy-grabbing New York hustler who had no real history of religiosity.

Trump left the stage on election night to The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. It marked the beginning of an administration in which nobody seems to have got what they want: not the president, who seems bored and aggrieved by the responsibilities of office; not his fractious administration, or foreign governments, the climate; not the evangelicals, who voted for Trump after their preferred candidate, celebrity brain surgeon Ben Carson, was sidelined; and certainly not British–Australian filmmaker Luke Walker, who’d been embedded in the Carson campaign for months. Yet even with the gift of hindsight the question remains: “How did this happen exactly?”

Walker’s film, PACmen, which premiered at Canada’s prestigious Hot Docs in May and debuts in Australia at the Sydney Film Festival on 17 June, tracked the Christian conservative right as it rallied to support Carson. The documentary was made against the constantly shifting context of the US election campaign, and is impossible to watch without seeing the spectre of the Trump presidency hanging over it.

Walker’s previous films had him infiltrating a cult (Beyond Our Ken) and searching for a legendary buried treasure (Lasseter’s Reef). In 2016, with a fractious US heading into a presidential election after President Obama’s deeply divisive second term, he saw the opportunity to make an old-fashioned observational campaign film.

He became fascinated with Carson, the African-American Republican candidate, a world famous brain surgeon with a remarkable, inspiring personal story and a famously pious nature. “The more I looked into him, the more I thought he might surprise people,” Walker tells me. “This unusual candidate might mess with traditional voter demographics.”

Walker wrote to the Carson campaign, saying that he saw Carson as the “Rocky Balboa of the 2016 presidential race”, and asked to document his run. He went to the Texan mansion of campaign manager Terry Giles and over four bottles of wine they agreed to make a film about Carson’s campaign.

However, by the time Walker returned to the US with a film crew, the ground had shifted: Giles had left the campaign to set up a super PAC in support of Carson. Political action committees (PACs) are a work-around of US campaign financial restraints. The 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC ruling allowed a PAC to spend unlimited amounts of money to promote a party or candidate, provided it didn’t have any direct contact with the campaign. PACs are massive, shadowy, and unquantifiably influential on modern American politics; they are integral, for example, to the formation of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party has its genesis in the comments section of a Forbes internet forum, and was founded and stoked by a wealthy elite, masquerading as a grassroots movement, manipulating populist fears to throw up beguiled candidates such as Sarah Palin. None of that would be possible without the use of super PACs – but until now they have been largely undocumented.

Walker was offered the chance to film inside Giles’ Extraordinary America PAC instead of the campaign. “Terry said he’d let me see everything and wouldn’t hide anything from the cameras – he thought America should see how these things work.”

To an observer, making a documentary seems, like democracy, a process of compromise whereby nothing works out as intended. At the best of times, it is an exercise in faith – filmmaker following their instincts, hoping their subject will translate into something amazing. Sometimes it pays off. Often it does not. Sometimes the documentarian stumbles upon something new altogether.

Walker soon realised the film he was making wasn’t the one he’d set out to capture. “It became clear quite early on that Carson wasn’t very good at running for president. Then, that he didn’t seem to want to be there at all. The question became, why is Carson running for president? Who has told him this is a good idea?”

Carson was running on the strength of his rags-to-riches autobiography Gifted Hands (and telemovie adaptation), which detailed how a street-tough kid turned to God after nearly killing a friend in a fight and became one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons.

“This man has the hand of God in him in every way,” declares one of many Carson supporters profiled in the film.  Attracted to his staunch conservatism and religiosity, evangelicals saw him as a perfect “outsider” candidate in an election marked by voter dissatisfaction with career politicians. On the back of the devout, the hopeful, and the millions of disenfranchised blue-collar Americans stoked by Tea Party malcontents, Carson shot to the top of the polls as a Republican contender. Then, as quickly as the campaign soared, it all fell apart.

Journalists began to doubt his origin story, and could find no evidence of him ever trying to stab someone – leading to the strange spectacle of a presidential candidate desperately trying to convince people he really was capable of murder.

Carson seemed unable to open his mouth without a career-ending gaffe. Some highlights: his claim that Egyptian pyramids were built for grain storage; mispronouncing Hamas so that it sounded like “hummus”; and his bloviating about Chinese involvement in the Middle East. The Chinese weren’t significantly involved in the Middle East, and it soon became clear that Carson had no grasp of world affairs, or perhaps reality.

Rival Republican nominee Trump, who had worked having no grasp on reality into his brand, pounced. Cut to a clip of Trump whipping up anti-Carson sentiment at one of his rallies: “How stupid are the people of this country to believe this crap?”

As Carson’s political fortunes plummeted, so did his committees’ finances; by late in the campaign, the assets of one of them had dwindled to $27,000. Worse, the evangelical fervour stoked by Carson’s campaign was being consumed by Trump’s.

In PACmen’s third act, the camera goes inside the Carson super PACs as morale collapses. The true believers, ranks of evangelical volunteers, double down on prayer, hoping that God will intervene to save His candidate. The men at the top, heavily invested in a Republican win at any cost, start to look for other plans. Walker had a front-row seat as the men who’d convinced Carson to run began negotiating with the Trump camp and working out what they could offer.  

In the end, the majority of Republicans, just like those shown at the end of PACmen, concluded it was better to win with a leader of questionable temperament and morality than to lose the presidency for another four years. There are prescient conversations in the room where they realise that Trump is shifting the electoral map and can deliver the necessary states from Clinton’s “blue wall”.

“[I’m sure] Republicans all over the country were having similar conversations and reaching similar conclusions,” Walker says. “They loathe him, they fear him, they think he may very well be ‘malevolent’ – to directly quote one of them – yet they will back him anyway.”

The anti-establishment political landscape had been laid by a Tea Party movement funded by super PACs, and Trump stormed in and stole the whole disenchanted voter bloc. “There was nothing they could spend their money on to stop him,” says Walker. “They had to abandon their moral and political stance to protect their investment as Trump ran away with their movement.  The hundreds of millions of dollars raised by super PACs were no match for Trump’s Twitter feed.”

In some ways, PACmen is a strange artefact – an old-fashioned political film in a world where the rules, norms and perhaps the process of democracy have been scuppered by an ever-accelerating news cycle. It’s a search for truth in a post-truth world. It’s also soothing, for a cynical sort of viewer, to learn that would-be Machiavellis are, in fact, lying to you, to each other and to themselves: to see the layers of untruth, compounded and calcified, upon which American democracy rests.

Liam Pieper

Liam Pieper is a journalist and the author of The Toymaker, the memoir The Feel-Good Hit of the Year and a collection of essays, Mistakes Were Made.


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