Filmmaker James Stern on the era of "American Chaos": "Worst situation since the Civil War"

Director of "American Chaos" and producer of "The Old Man & the Gun" talks movies, race and our national divide

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 12, 2018 4:30PM (EST)

James D. Stern in "American Chaos" (Kevin Ford/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
James D. Stern in "American Chaos" (Kevin Ford/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Donald Trump and the Republican Party were rebuked by the American people last Tuesday in the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats now control the House of Representatives after gaining roughly 37 seats. (A handful remain undecided.) Republicans also lost several governorships, including Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, and a number of state legislatures.

Trumpism is a movement that is explicitly hostile to America's multiracial democracy and a more inclusive and cosmopolitan society where nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians, and other groups have equal power with white Christian men. The midterms were a rejection of Trumpism in that regard as well: There will be more women in Congress than ever before; the first Muslim women and Native American women were elected to Congress as well; openly gay and lesbian candidates won elections across the country; African-Americans and other nonwhites also won other historic victories.

Despite these losses, Trump and the Republican Party's backward-looking vision of America has not been conclusively defeated. Republicans have gained seats in the Senate and won key victories in Florida and Texas. Trump is using that energy as a perverse mandate to continue his assault on American democracy and the rule of law. His newest broadside was the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as way of hobbling special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia collusion scandal.

Polling and other data continue to show that Trump's supporters are unwavering in their support of him. In total, the United States is comprised of a group of political tribes who live in separate worlds. Structural features of American politics -- such as gerrymandering, the Electoral College and the Senate gives equal power to all states, regardless of population -- amplify this division by allowing Trump and the Republican Party's tyrannical, fearful and revanchist minority to have an outsize influence on American politics.

I recently spoke with James Stern about his documentary "American Chaos," a project which seeks to provide a lens into the hearts and minds of Donald Trump's most ardent supporters and a divided and extremely polarized America. What do Trump's fans fear? Why do they hate Hillary Clinton so much? How do they imagine "real America" and what has been "lost"? Why would these supposed working-class voters be so compelled towards a New York real-estate billionaire who throughout his career has shown contempt for people like them? How is empathy in some ways a greater threat to American democracy than violence and naked authoritarianism?

"American Chaos" is now available on DVD and Digital.

In addition to discussing these topics, Stern also shared some thoughts about the Oscar-contending film "The Old Man & the Gun," starring Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek, which he produced.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

"The Old Man & the Gun" is a wonderful film. As a serious aficionado of westerns I was very pleased. It presents a very humane vision of the world, and offers at least a brief respite from the discord and hatefulness of the Donald Trump era.

The movie is deceptive in how diverse the cast is. David Lowery, the director of the film, was very subtle and quiet about how that came to pass. The movie is very patient and languid, without it actually feeling slow pacing wise. "Old Man & the Gun" is very much a counter to the kind of insanity of today’s hyperactive world.

What were the casting decisions? It is so natural -- but also radical in its own way, in an American film -- to see black folks, brown folks and white folks all together, just living their lives and trying to make a way as best they can. The movie is also centered on the working class which is also unusual in mainstream American films.

They exist in this universe in a timeless kind of way. We didn’t really have a lot of discussions about the cast in that regard. Sissy [Spacek] and Robert [Redford] are obviously perfect casting choices. The rest just was David saying “Hey, what do you think about this?” We responded with “That’s an interesting choice. Let’s go for it.” There’s no groupthink about it.

I’ve been in situations where the studio would say things like, “We really want to cast somebody of XYZ ethnicity.” Very often that type of choice, made with those motivations, can have unintended consequences. We didn’t say, “Hey, a biracial couple in this year in small-town Texas would be unusual. Are we sure we wanted to do that?” No one said it. No one also said, “Hey, what if we have biracial couple? That would be cool. We didn’t say that either." It was much more organic than that. The sincerity of the decisions came across in the movie.

I don’t think race was referenced one time in the whole film. That could be problematic in some regards, but in this movie it feels natural and is a wonderful corrective to the worst types of "color-conscious" casting, which can seem forced and obvious. As a western, this is a tale of social banditry and how "normal" society can be confining and limiting. Robert Redford's character, Forrest Tucker, is ultimately brought down by those norms.

Yes, that’s right. Forrest Tucker's ultimate lack of care and narcissism brings him down because at the end of the day he doesn’t acknowledge his family. He says "I hope I don’t have kids." But he does have a kid. She is his undoing.

Was the chemistry between Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek as natural as it seemed in the film?

It was. Watching them together was amazing. They so admired each other and they so like working together and respected each other’s work. All of it. It was as natural as you would hope it would be.

We go to the movies, in some ways, to hide from the world as it is. How did this moment with Donald Trump's presidency and movement come to be in America? 

The root of the answer lies in understanding what people really care about. I made a documentary several years ago called  "So Goes the Nation" about the campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry. I was embedded in both campaigns. At the time, I spoke with Mark McKinnon who is [now] the executive producer and co-host of the Showtime documentary series "The Circus." He was working on the Bush campaign and he said to me, “The mistake Democrats make, and will always make, is that they think people care about policies, and in reality people don’t.”

I have thought about that for years. Democrats keep on saying, "Of course they’re going to vote for us because our policies are better. We’re going to provide people health care. We’re not going to extol a politician for body-slamming a reporter. We’re going to be generous in the way we conduct ourselves. We’re going to have sensible policies on immigration. We understand that climate change can ruin the world. Of course we’re going to win, because we think that villains get their comeuppance and that in the end the good guys win."

It doesn’t actually work that way. How American politics really works is that people want to be spoken to in a way which makes them feel they’re part of a club. That they’re part of some type of organization or community. Religion is no longer a factor in America. Now it’s politics.

It’s a culture war and it runs really deep. Today with the internet and Fox News -- the latter of which is really just a version of Pravda -- there are now people who live completely in different societies. Trump supporters and other conservatives and Republicans don’t believe that the Democrats want to help them with health care. They don’t interpret that as meaningful.  That public interprets it as, "You want me to pay for somebody else’s health care. Screw that." In my opinion America in the age of Trump may be the worst situation and climate since the Civil War in terms of division. I don’t know how we’re getting out of it. I don’t think it’s going to get better. Trump is masterful in his ability to take advantage of discord, strife and division.

This country is not on the verge of a constitutional crisis. It has been in one since Trump was elected president. I also believe that the United States is on the precipice of civil disorder. Do you think I am misreading the situation?

I don’t think it’s going to get there. I’ll tell you why. There is no such thing as a liberal mob.

The violence is going to be one way, not the other way back. The violence is already occurring from Trump's movement and other right-wingers against liberals, progressives, Democrats and anyone else they view as the enemy.

For there to be something that actually sparks a flame and then an explosion there has to be the two sides. I don’t necessarily think that’s going to happen. I think that we will see something actually worse. What I see is the potential for despair which leads to apathy. Hillary [Clinton] won the [2016] election by three million votes. She won California by four million, Illinois by a million and a half, and New York by two and a half million.

The problem is that the Democrats are all concentrated in a few places. I don’t see how the Democrats win the Senate at any time in the near future. The Electoral College is similarly challenged. What I see is people in California particularly, and New York and Illinois to some degree, probably just saying, "You know what? Screw this. Why should I care this much?"

How long does that keep going on before there is a permanent schism?

For most Americans, and most people around the world, Donald Trump is a repugnant figure. But Trump's supporters love him. How do they explain their adoration for him?

First of all Trump is saying what they’re thinking. They’re really freaked out about certain issues, such as immigration. He’s the guy out there saying it. If you are obsessively freaked out about terrorism and Trump is shouting from the rafters about that, he’s going to connect.

If you are saying that the coal industry has been destroyed by Obama and in your mind you don’t have a job because of that, then you don’t care about climate change. You may believe that it is a hoax. Trump says that he is going to bring back jobs for the coal workers. That’s going to connect. Those are the headlines.

Digging deeper, they really hate Hillary Clinton. Absolutely hate her. In Trump's voters' minds, she speaks down to you. She’s called you "deplorable." You think that she is this cold, calculating, ruthless woman who’s sort of snooty and sits there with all her left-wing, lesbian friends.

The third part of Trump's appeal is that they don’t think any of this ultimately matters. They don’t believe for a second that Hillary Clinton is going to make your life better. They don’t really think that Trump is either, honestly. But at least he’s on your team. If a person's cynicism is deep enough, then they don’t believe that Hillary can get anything accomplished. When all bets are off, at that point, you may as well just vote for whoever is more like the club you want to join.  

When you talk to Trump supporters, who do they love and who do they hate? Who’s within their tribe and who’s outside of it?

Of course they hate Hillary Clinton. They hate the idea of Nancy Pelosi. Although they can’t really say this out loud, they hate the idea of Barack Obama too. Trump is in their club. A lot of them thought that he was a bit of a loudmouth and a New Yorker, which is a little bit off-putting to them. I initially thought that him being a billionaire would turn them off. But in reality they thought that if Trump made all that money for himself, then he can make all that money for me.

These Trump supporters can also point to Trump's name on big buildings. In their minds, "Trump built that building. Look at it. He’s got a name on it. I understand that. It’s right there. Maybe he can help us out of our mess too. It’s time for someone just to think about us white people. Someone is standing up for us."

Many of the Trump people you talked to have daughters. Many of Trump's loyalists are women. How do they reconcile supporting a president who is a admitted sexual assaulter of women, who has cheated on his wives, insults women and is a gross and proud misogynist. Never mind the Brett Kavanaugh debacle and what that revealed about rape culture in Trump's America.

I think that there’s this idea that "I got through it, they can. This is a world where men grab me on the butt or my breasts.  I got through it. That’s the rule." The amount of women in these rural Trump-supporting areas, 50 percent or so [of them] believed Christine Ford. They just didn’t care.

What causes you the most hope and what’s left you with the most fear after completing "American Chaos"?

I believe strongly that there is a pendulum. Only once in my lifetime has a party held office for three terms, and that was with Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush. I don’t believe this is going to be that. What causes me the most fear is how much damage can be done in the interim by Trump, the Republicans and their agenda. What causes me the most hope is that this situation won’t last forever.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega