Mar 20, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: The Campaign (2012)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series: Idiocracy, Bulworth, Bob Roberts, A Face in the Crowd, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, The Dead Zone, All the King’s Men, The Candidate, and Star Trek “Turnabout Intruder”.)
It’s not an easy thing, being a committed independent in this country. Not so much in the face of conservatism, since the Republican party seems largely neutral on the subject, but my colleagues on the left seem to take our mere existence personally. Every single election, I get to be regaled by the demonstrably false narrative that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the vote in 2000. (Yeah, it was Nader voters and not the fact that Gore hired a sentient strain of anthrax as a campaign manager. Seriously, Google “Bob Shrum” sometime.)
I talk about politics from time to time on this website, but for the most part I don’t feel it’s my place to discuss my own views in the context of movie reviews. For the record, I’m to the far left on every issue except gun control. I left the Democratic party in 2009 because they aren’t liberal enough, and it seems like ever since Bill Clinton was in office the party line has been to suck up to the Republicans as much as possible, even to the point of failing to properly support President Obama out of some delusion that the GOP might return the favor if they ever took back control of Congress. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)
So you can imagine my frustration then, that I’m still often forced by circumstance to side with the Democrats on the issues. Sure, there are some good eggs, like our former president, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren from about two years ago, but I’ll never forget that the Dems are just a party, and their members care more about getting re-elected than serving the people.
Because, you see, I remember John Edwards.
Do you? Senator from North Carolina? John Kerry’s VP pick who gave that “Two Americas” speech? Committed several felonies to cover up an extramarital affair, which came to light mere months before his wife died of cancer? No? Well, you should, because that affair was only slightly less sordid than the wacky 2012 comedy it inspired, The Campaign.
How scummy was this whole business? In a Hollywood movie made by outspoken Democrats during Obama’s re-election campaign, the Republican… is the good guy!
Now, this will be slightly different from other entries in this series because the parallels to Trump aren’t as concrete as they were in, say, Bob Roberts.
Will Ferrell plays our Edwards analogue, Cam Brady, a controversial Democratic congressman who’s running unopposed in North Carolina. Cam basically stands for nothing, aside from looking good for the cameras. He gives the exact same speech everywhere he goes, he doesn’t understand most of what he says, and we learn later in the film that he doesn’t even vote on floor most of the time. When his public image is tarnished due to a sex scandal, a pair of stand-ins for the Koch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) recruit a well-meaning buffoon named Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) to challenge him. Not because he has any experience, mind you, but because his father was a big wheel back in the day.
Aside from a race between a widely disliked Democrat and a political neophyte Republican who’s only where he is because of his father, there aren’t many literal similarities to Trump. It’s in how the campaign itself plays out that things start to get interesting.
Having been largely unopposed most of his career, Cam’s first instinct is to try and scuttle Marty in the most humiliating way possible. When Marty turns out to be more resilient than Cam realized (due to having the best hatchet-men money can buy at his disposal), the dirty tricks start coming out fast and hard. Marty picks up the political game fairly quickly, boiling his message down to a simple, oft-repeated catchphrase (“It’s a mess!”) and attacking Cam’s values. To be fair, he has no values, but he’s able to fake it well enough until a backstage scuffle leads to Cam accidentally punching a baby in the face.
This, and a DUI that follows shortly after, sends Cam down a desperate spiral that turns the campaign into a three ring circus. Both men court the religious vote with a vengeance, leading Cam to get bitten by a poisonous snake; Marty releases a book Cam wrote in grade school as proof of his supposed “communist” sympathies; Cam sleeps with Marty’s wife and leaks the footage as a campaign ad, which in turn leads Marty to shoot him in the leg with a hunting rifle, both of which cause their numbers to go up.
Marty has a change of heart when he learns that the brothers funding him just want someone who’ll roll over for the Chinese, but when he balks at their plan of “in-sourcing” foreign laborers (as a business major, I can assure you this is a real thing, though not quite how it’s presented here), the brothers simply shift their support to Cam without skipping a beat. Marty makes a last desperate bid to win, but since the voting machines are manufactured by his former backers, it’s all for naught.
Still, Cam himself has a change of heart and concedes during his victory rally, so there’s a happy ending after all.
Hopefully, some of the parallels are a bit clearer. 2016 was a non-stop parade of “how low can you go?” Between Trump bragging about his exploits with women, Trump claiming that he could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square and not lose any support, his Republican opponents devolving into schoolchildren trying to out-controversy him, and the knock-down, drag-out embarrassments that were the presidential debates, nothing in this movie would have seemed all that out of place last year.
Hell, Hillary Clinton might not have risen to the bait the same way Cam Brady did, but her almost pathological need to never quell any accusations about her became a self-caricature in its own right. (Free tip to all aspiring politicians: no matter how ridiculous an accusation is, if you never respond to it, people will assume that it’s true.)
The biggest difference, obviously, is that Marty Huggins is no Donald Trump.
Inexperienced idiot though he may be, he’s unquestionably a good person. Indeed, one of the few qualms I have about the film is that, for all that they try to paint him as being corrupted by the system, only to snap back before it’s too late, well… that’s really not what happens. We’ll get to why in a second, but if one were so inclined, there are more definite parallels to be drawn between Marty and Bernie Sanders. Both are short, funny looking guys with weird hair, odd accents, and an untarnished desire to help people that everyone and their grandmother believes can never get anywhere in politics.
Again, the fact that this character is a Republican just speaks wonders about what an unredeemable scumbag John Edwards was and is.
Now, the big crossing-the-line scene I mentioned above refers to Cam getting that DUI. After a heart to heart talk with his son, Cam shows up at Marty’s house unannounced and tries to bury the hatchet over drinks. There’s a nice bit of character development here, as we learn that the two of them went to the same elementary school. (One gets the impression this is a small district.) Cam ends up getting Glaswegian sailor drunk and rides off; Marty, at the prompting of his campaign manager, calls the police.
The way this scene is shot and framed, we’re supposed to get the impression that Marty’s done a Very Bad Thing, but… he hasn’t. Cam really is drunk and putting other people’s lives in danger, and when he’s pulled over, his first instinct is to steal the policeman’s car and try to escape. Yes, the audience has been charmed by the fact that Cam is an unhinged lunatic when cornered, but he could have killed somebody.
In all, much like the freewheeling style of the script, the details of the plot aren’t what’s important as much as the atmosphere and the madness. I suppose that politics is always inherently absurd, and local elections even more so, but there’s just something about the depths of depravity reached that remind me so starkly of last year. After all, The Donald had a simple catchphrase and a desire to shake things up too, and he might not have won if the Democrats hadn’t sunk into self-parody. And sometimes, it felt like those of us who remain unaffiliated were the only ones who could truly see what was happening.
But, you know, it’s our fault, somehow.