October 2020

Arts & Letters

Body politic: ‘Boys State’

By Shane Danielsen
American democracy is documented in all its gangly, acne-mottled glory

It’s a Saturday morning in Twentynine Palms, California, already 39° Celsius at 9am, and there’s a pro-Trump convoy driving noisily down Highway 62. Twenty-seven vehicles in all: oversized pick-ups, dusty SUVs – not a regular sedan among them. A biker has TRUMP TRAIN printed on the front of his helmet and EAT SHIT on the back. (He’s riding a Ducati, however, which seems off-brand.) One Ford F-150 boasts a United States flag so large, it looks like it should be flying over the Pentagon. The drivers are mostly old, uniformly white, and have the hard mouths and set jaws of the permanently aggrieved – long-time denizens of San Bernardino County who love the desert for its lack of oversight and hate the federal government, Medicaid be damned.

Two blocks ahead, a man in his late sixties is standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign that reads FUCK YOU RACISTS – a commendable sentiment at any time, but especially laudatory given the cavalcade of bigots heading his way. As we stop at the light my wife lowers her window and asks if she can take his picture, and he comes over and delivers what is, we quickly realise, his version of a stump speech:

“This sign is for all racists, the Democrats and the Republicans. Because both parties are a bunch of child-molesters. Haven’t you seen the news?” He starts to sing “A Day in the Life”: “I read the news today, oh boy! Joe Biden touches little girls on TV, but all the people turn their head! Because they get paid – don’t you see?”

He’s still talking as the light turns green, but his words are now being drowned out by a tone cluster of car horns from the Trumpists behind us. (“You piece of shit!” a woman hollers as she drives past him. “All lives matter!”) And then they’re surrounding us, overtaking us, gas-guzzling behemoths decked with stickers reading DEFEND THE BLUE and FOUR MORE YEARS and – a particular favourite, this – L.G.B.T… LIBERTY. GUNS. BEER. TRUMP. The hot, dry desert air fills with exhaust fumes and hissing tar and something else, pulsing like a base note beneath all this defiance. The scent of fear. Fear of time, fear of change. Fear of Ronald Reagan’s proverbial Man from the Government, arriving one day at their door to tell them how they must live and for whom.

An hour later, coming back after breakfast, we see the man with the sign again. Still on his corner, still being screamed at. The last truly bipartisan gesture we’ll likely witness before Election Day.

How did it get like this? What happened to the US? Once the self-styled model of modern democracy, it’s now beginning to resemble a failed state, so riven by partisan beliefs that even hard data and empirical evidence routinely fail to convince one third of its population. Boys State (Apple TV), the new documentary from Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, doesn’t have any concrete answers, but aims to shine a light upon the origins of the problem.

Each year across North America, thousands of junior high school students participate in an experiment in democratic representation sponsored by the American Legion, the US equivalent of our Returned and Services League. The film focuses on one of these Boys State events, held in Texas during 2018. A more insular – that is, more American – version of the Model United Nations, it brings 1100 teenagers from across the state to Austin for seven days, where they attempt to create a working government from the ground up. (There’s also a Girls State, run concurrently but separately, for reasons that remain obscure, which the directors say will form the subject of their next film.) Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney were once Boys State participants. So was conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Randomly divided into Nationalists and Federalists, the youths are then sorted into “cities” and encouraged to formulate policies and run for office – at the municipal level, as councillors and mayors, and at county and state fixtures, all the way up to the rank of governor. Outfitted in matching white tees and red lanyards, they quickly succumb to the tribal impulse, loyalty to these made-up parties becoming as all-consuming as membership of any college fraternity.

McBaine and Moss chose to focus on Texas in part because, in 2017, true to the state’s much-vaunted individualism, its attendees successfully ratified a measure unheard of in the 85 years of the program’s existence: a motion to secede from the US. There’s no such shenanigans this time. Indeed, the first few moments – of prospective candidates being interviewed at their high schools by panels of uniformed veterans – are not exactly encouraging to the cause of original thinking. (“You’re homeschooled?” “Yes, sir!” “Who’s your role model?” “Honestly, I would say, um, Christ.”)

We quickly meet our key subjects. There’s Ben at his home computer, freshly accepted into the program and now busy googling “the best political speeches of all time”. A true believer in the US of A, he even has a Reagan doll that delivers a platitude when you press its back. (Ben’s shit-eating grin to camera as he holds the doll is more terrifying than anything in Hereditary.) He dutifully intones all the neo-con verities – “Hard work can still get you to where you want to go, you just might have to work harder!” – and then we learn that he’s a double-amputee, missing both legs since a bout of meningitis at age three. While stage-managed, this revelation inevitably complicates our feelings, at least until the simulation gets under way, whereupon he reveals himself to have the reptile ruthlessness of Trump apparatchik Stephen Miller.

“I don’t think of myself as white,” he declares. “I think of myself as Ben Feinstein, American.” It would never occur to Ben, in these early stages, that not having to construct an identity means you’re already on the top of the pyramid, that only those with power – two legs or not – enjoy the luxury of self-definition, and one waits with some interest to see whether this world view gets beaten out of him, metaphorically or literally.

Steven, meanwhile, is Ben’s antithesis. The son of Mexican immigrant workers, heir to the tradition of labour activist César Chavez and inspired by an early encounter with Bernie Sanders, he’s earnest, heavy-set, watchful. A listener and a bridge builder. Not naturally charismatic, he often seems as uneasy as a soldier in enemy territory – which, as a liberal in Texas, he pretty much is. René, another progressive, is originally from Chicago – African American, slightly camp, quick-witted and acid-tongued. As Steven gains the Nationalist nomination, René is installed as his party chairman, and the pair make an intriguing and effective team.

Finally there’s Robert: lanky and handsome-adjacent, with the easy assurance of a jock and the breezy, insincere patter of a car salesman. He worked as a page, the previous summer, for a Republican senator; he’s going to apply to West Point military academy when he graduates. He owns a rifle, and is “unabashedly pro Second Amendment”. (“If we cannot defend ourselves,” he thunders, Zoolander-like, “what are we but insects?”) His life, in short, is all mapped out – which makes the gradual and partial disclosure of his secret self all the more fascinating.

Most political arguments in America are about race; those that aren’t usually come down to either abortion or guns. (Which, make no mistake, are also about race.) And while we’re not spared the unedifying spectacle of 1100 15-year-old boys pronouncing on what a woman should be allowed to do with her body, the drama of this film finally, inevitably, hinges on a Second Amendment issue: specifically, on Steven’s uncovered past as the organiser of a March for Our Lives protest in Houston, an act which, in the eyes of many of his constituents, is tantamount to sharing his fries with Leon Trotsky.

As the film proceeded, I began to doubt certain aspects of its methodology. Part of it, of course, is due to Texas, which offers a markedly different picture of voter issues than, say, Vermont or California. But doesn’t the decision to focus on these four individuals, presumably selected before the event began, automatically set them apart from (and arguably, ahead of) the other 1096 participants? Each of the four “leads” becomes a major player, which speaks either to uncanny luck or astonishing discernment on the part of the filmmakers, or – more likely – to an inevitable tilting of the pitch in their favour, simply by dint of their being featured from the get-go.

The directors also cut away from the action from time to time, to interpolate after-the-fact interviews with each of their subjects. Confessions, justifications, lessons learnt. It’s the kind of manipulative directorial choice that brings a film awards (and sure enough, Boys State won best documentary feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), but badly hobbles both its narrative momentum and its claim to impartial observation: the “document” part of documentary. As events hurtle toward Election Day, the storytelling feels even more calculated than before.

But that’s politics, right? Nothing left to chance; everything workshopped and focus-grouped and tested and rehearsed. It’s telling that one of the most consequential moments here occurs when Ben whips up a social media frenzy against his rival, unleashing countless doctored GIFs in a last-ditch attempt to salt the earth. For all its speeches and rebuttals, its displays of passionate advocacy and naked self-interest, the film ultimately is forced to acknowledge that, in today’s world, a meme is worth a thousand words.

There are a few moments of high comedy. One young go-getter announces, before his party has even formulated a single policy, that he intends to run for governor. Asked what he believes in, he first hedges –“My, ah, views will likely align with the party, for the majority of them” – before committing, rather limply, to “freedom”. (“That’s a bold policy,” Ben remarks dryly.) Another participant playfully advances a bill to address “the difficulty of pronouncing the letter W”, and seeks to have the letter formally changed to “dubya”. But for the most part Boys State is a study of tribalism and mass hysteria, and viewers with a distaste for American Exceptionalism or martial music – or for young male energy in general – might want to sit this one out.

The film opens with a quote: “Political parties are likely to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” The filmmakers leave the words on screen for 12 long seconds before providing an attribution… holy shit, guys, it’s George Washington! A gotcha moment akin to Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex, it cheats a little on the exact wording, but gets one thing exactly right: the underlying fear of government that poisons the well of American democracy.

It’s this constant tension – between the steadfast belief that the US is the “indispensable nation”, and an innate mistrust of centralised authority – that will ultimately doom the American Experiment. In what other first-world nation does a sizeable proportion of its citizens live in fear of its own federal institutions? As I watched Steven’s Federalist rival claim that the Second Amendment remains essential “for the able-bodied and well-minded militia to protect themselves from a tyrannical government”, it struck me that these are merely the junior versions of the people I saw driving through the desert that Saturday morning. Prepared to vote, to honour the compact of citizenship, simply and only in order to be left alone.

Things may improve after November, but nothing will be resolved: the divide, I think, will only deepen. Much like the gangly, awkward, acne-mottled kids charged here with enforcing it, American democracy remains very much a work in progress. One way or another, it’s all Boys State.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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