There’s nothing like finding an old movie that just reeks of prescience. The most prominent example is Network (1976), which not only imagined more than three television networks, but the idea of combining news and entertainment. My favorite, however, is an HBO movie about the 2008 election called Game Change. (Though it takes its name from the book by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the movie actually only focuses on the Palin campaign; don’t buy it thinking you’ll get a more in-depth version of the movie.)
The movie is most well-known for Julianne Moore’s Emmy-winning performance as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. But every time I watch it, it becomes clearer to me: That election was really the precursor of the groundswell that became the Donald Trump presidency – that is, the election of someone whose charisma exceeded his capability. Even Obama himself presaged Trump. On one of his campaign stops, he said, “You understand that in this election the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result.”
But what’s glaring is the comparisons between the candidates in 2008 and the one who was elected in 2016. As political consultant Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) says in the movie about Obama, “A man of no accomplishment has become the biggest celebrity in the world. What we need to do is ask the American people a very simple question: do you want a statesman to be your next president, or do you want a celebrity?”
But who did the Republicans select for the vice-presidency but someone who could bring that kind of celebrity to their campaign? Schmidt frequently refers to Palin as a “star,” “a red-light performer” (as in, when the camera comes on, so does she), and “the best actress in American politics.”
Even though the ticket lost, it’s no surprise that the incipient desires that gave us Sarah Palin kept bubbling up and gave us someone who is – as Palin is portrayed in the movie – unqualified, emotionally unstable, and plays fast and loose with the truth. 2008 was just the dress rehearsal for 2016.
Item: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said about her intelligence: “It’s not that she doesn’t know the right answer. It’s that she clearly doesn’t understand the question. This is way beyond anything we have seen from a national candidate.”
Item: During an exchange between Palin and a reporter when he asks her about Troopergate, she says, “I was thrilled to be cleared of all wrongdoing,” to which Schmidt later says, “You can’t say that, because you weren’t! You’ve got to stop saying things to the press that are blatantly untrue.”
Item: This quote from John McCain (played by Ed Harris): “There is a dark side to American populism. Some people win elections by tapping into it.”
Do those statements remind you of anyone?
Keep in mind that this movie was released in 2012. Donald Trump didn’t announce his candidacy until 2015. But the movie foretold the future best when Schmidt, knowing the Republicans had lost the election, lamented, “This wasn’t a campaign. It was a bad reality show.”