If Hillary Clinton had won the election (sorry, I didn’t mean to depress you), “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time” would never have played at Sundance, because it wouldn’t have existed. The movie, which was pieced together in record time, is a sharp, fun, disquieting, and fleetly edited chronicle of the entire campaign year, inside and outside the media bubble, with the focus held obsessively on Donald Trump’s rise.
The film’s directors — Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson, and Banks Tarver — drew on thousands of hours of footage shot for the weekly Showtime documentary series “The Circus,” which followed the acerbic pundit-reporters John Heilemann (a neurotically quick live wire who gets to cuss more than he did in his previous media jobs), Mark Halperin (the sage rabbinical one), and Mark McKinnon (genial third banana) on the campaign trail, getting up close to the action, sometimes in a way that only cinema vérité filmmakers used to be able to do, and unleashing their incisive (and often quite prophetic) commentary. In “Trumped,” the focus is almost exclusively on the Trump campaign, and it includes a couple of angles we haven’t seen before (an interview with Trump on his private jet, a visit to his Mar-a-Lago compound). But mostly the film re-assembles a great many things that we have seen.
So why would anyone want to sit through any of this again?
For masochistic political junkies, there’s a twitchy and morbid media-world fascination to seeing a replay of Trump’s greatest hits (his ride down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy; the mocking of John McCain, Megyn Kelly, and New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski; the first time he promised to build that wall). But the real reason to watch “Trumped” takes the form of a question: Knowing what we know now, does the evolution of the Trump campaign look different? Are there hidden signs of what was ultimately to come? And what of Trump himself? On the campaign trail, where his candidacy was rarely taken seriously by the mainstream media (until it was), and where a great many people believed that he could never win (until he did), does he look different in 20-20 hindsight?
In one important way he does: When you watch “Trumped,” there’s an eerie and inescapable sense, from early on in the campaign, that Trump knew he was going to win. You could argue, of course, that his whole style of in-your-face braggadocio is simply based on his pathological need to present himself as a “winner.” That’s the signature of the Trump brand, and since he ran the campaign much as he did his real-estate business — as a pugnacious swirl of smoke and mirrors — you could argue that his angry swagger and puffed-up invincibility during the campaign was just another meaningless piece of Trumpian advertising. Yet Trump, it’s clearer now, saw how the excitement at his rallies was building and catching fire, and he knew that the whole nature of fire is that it spreads. His son Donald Trump Jr. sums this up most perceptively when he observes, “It’s not a campaign anymore; it’s a movement.” He’s right. In “Trumped,” Trump’s bravado plays as less truculent, more onto something, as he brushes reporters aside with a thuggish gleam that says, “I don’t need you.”
The other thing that Trump grasped was the power of social media to create its own reality. In the interview on Trump’s jet, he’s tired and relaxed, and he talks about his revelation that Twitter had rendered the entire world of political advertising irrelevant. With a single tweet (he mimes punching one out), he could rule the mediasphere.
But the scariest insight offered by “Trumped” is to demolish a notion that became a liberal shibboleth: that Trump didn’t really want to be president. The movie presents clips from him in 1980 and 1987 that indicate otherwise. But more than that, as you observe him up close on that plane and backstage at several rallies, you taste the ferocity of his hunger. The movie suggests that he was always in this for real. But was it a dark desire for power and adoration, or did he actually think he was going to be helping people? In “Trumped,” there’s no indication that he sees a difference.