"Frontline" will air an exhaustive, fascinating look at the fault line in American life and politics called "America's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump" (WNET/13, 9 p.m., Monday and Tuesday; all four hours will stream online starting Monday at 6 p.m. at pbs.org/frontline). Monday night covers Barack Obama's presidency, while Tuesday covers Donald Trump's so far. I recently spoke with veteran "Frontline" producer Michael Kirk about the program.
An edited version of our interview:
Why do this now? After all, the Great Divide has been around a while now.
With the New Hampshire primary [Feb. 11] and the Iowa caucus [Feb. 3], it just felt like it was the right time to create what in effect is the overture for the opera that is coming.
In your reporting, did you arrive at a consensus that this is the greatest divide after the Civil War?
I'd always ask people we talked to — where does this fall [in history]? — and they'd always say, the Civil War, then the Great Depression and [then] they think now — or somewhere in the top five, depending on who you talk to.
How was this structured?
We created an extensive timeline of everything that happened in the Obama years and how that contributed to the rise of Trump and his base, and the underlying divisions. You define it in a certain way so you can say — OK, what things happened during Obama that resulted in Trump. We came up with 34-or-so key moments. [But] by our lights there was a fundamental shift in society — the rising tide of anger over Obamacare, and racial issues.
Did your reporting turn up anything that shocked you?
The new thing that rocked my world was really — in a way I hadn't really understood the extent to which before — how much race played such a fundamental role in the rising up of the opposition to [Obama and] how that American original sin is still living with us, deeply inside our politics. For me, that was mind-bending. I guess I know it intellectually, but I now know what a fundamental problem this is in our society and it's worse now.
There's a lot here on Breitbart's influence, but almost nothing on Fox News — which many believe had energized Trump's base. Why?
I once shared that perspective, too, [but Breitbart co-founder Steve] Bannon thought [FNC] was more establishment-oriented, and Breitbart more reflective of the base [and] if Trump had lost, I would not have been surprised to see a Trump/Bannon [TV] collaboration. He wanted control of that audience.
You have a wide range of voices here. Anyone you wanted that you didn't get, like Obama or Trump?
I never use the principals, and leave that to "60 Minutes." But you do try to get those who know them — Bannon, [former Trump consultant] Roger Stone, [Obama adviser] David Axelrod. …There are voices that are worried about [the divide] and feel they need to talk about it.
There's a pervasive sense of gloom — even doom — over these hours. Nevertheless, there are plenty of voters who think Trump has succeeded, and the divide was exactly what was needed to "drain the swamp."
I think so and that in some ways is the problem because to have division, you have to have chaos and all the things that go with it. [But] I hope what comes through here is a recognition that it's not a good thing for us to be this divided, and to have this level of distrust.