Operation Chaos and the 2020 Presidential Election
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If this were a script for the latest iteration of that beloved genre of election-themed films, you may think that it would best be classified under a specific sub-category, that of dystopian election films, with titles like the iconic V for Vendetta(2006, dir. James McTeigue) and the more recent The Purge: Election Year (2016, dir. James DeMonaco), among others. Or, if you’re more appreciating of Cold War anxiety and paranoia, you’d place it right next to classic thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1972) and its remake in 2004 by Jonathan Demme.
The first two scenes above, however, are fact-based depictions of the run-up to the 2020 presidential election in the United States. The third is a perfectly plausible (and much feared) outcome after November 3rd, rather than the product of a dystopic or paranoid imagination. President Trump has been touting claims of voter fraud for four years—even in relation to the 2016 elections that he won—, but in recent months he has doubled down on attacking the validity of mail-in-voting—during a pandemic—while at the same time, and paradoxically, encouraging it and using it himself. We should be warned against dismissing this Trumpian logic as absurd, as we have countless examples of how strategically effective it is. As part of a larger plan that seeks to “flood the zone with shit” (in Steve Bannon’s famous words), this seemingly contradictory logic is part of a multiple-pronged attack to undermine public confidence in the electoral process (and democratic institutions in general) and, as a result, in the legitimacy of the electoral results themselves. Contributing to the climate of anxiety, Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event of a loss, while a top Trump aide at the Department of Health, Michael Caputo, denounced on a Facebook Live event a “Deep State”, left-wing coup and suggested there will be outbursts of fratricidal violence (LaFraniere 2020), while at the same time accusing career scientists and health officials at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) of orchestrating a seditious plan to influence the election with their handling of the pandemic. Last but not least, there were credible suspicions that Postmaster General and Trump appointee Louis DeJoy was disrupting mail deliveries under the guise of cost-cutting and efficiency shake-ups (Mak et al. 2020). Throw into the mix of this particularly paranoid and hyper-partisan moment in American history an arcane and outdated electoral system, and the hypothetical outcome described in Scene 3 above is not a far-fetched possibility: it would actually make what is arguably the most contested presidential election in recent history—Bush v. Gore (2000)—seem like a walk in the park. In fact, multiple legal fronts are open already, with courts weighing in on federal and state electoral laws, even before election day begins.
It would be impossible to cover all of the questions and “hot topics” of American electoral politics in a single, or a single series of, films. But films are often very effective in explaining, one or two at a time, a variety of relevant issues, from voter suppression and legal machinations to the workings of an arcane and arbitrary electoral system. Film often manages to transmit the affective implications of fundamental issues that, in the minds of those who take advantage of them, would better remain obscure. Leaving aside series and documentaries—in which the will to explain and sometimes to denounce is perhaps more straightforward— and because it would be unwise to speak generically of such a prolific genre that continues to fascinate viewers, in this piece I will focus on just a number of films that, in dealing with the “behind the scenes“ of election campaigns, draw attention to a number of issues that remain unsolved and that continue to be extremely relevant today.
Bush v. Gore is in the minds of everyone who is wary of a nightmare scenario after election day, and rightly so. In 2000 the US Supreme Court put an end to the manual vote recount in the State of Florida—that had been litigated, denied, appealed, and granted after going through the whole circuit of Florida courts—and thus upheld the certification of the results by Florida’s Secretary of State. The Secretary was, incidentally, the Bush campaign’s co-chair in Florida, while his brother Jeb was Governor, and George Bush was declared the winner by a waning margin of just 537 votes, a margin that, had the recount been completed, could have credibly changed the outcome. Among the arguments for stopping the manual recount was that the deadline would not be met, precisely because the Supreme Court had stayed the recount in order to weigh in. The legal battle was much more complex than can be accounted for here, and there is a great film that revisits the occasion and breaks down the legal shenanigans in a fast-paced and entertaining way, Jay Roach’s Recount (2008). The film, with an all-star cast including Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Spacey as the legal minds behind the battle, exposes an electoral system that is fragile, arbitrary, and inadequate and, as such, that can be exploited by partisan operatives for their own gain, without even breaking the law. Recount also draws attention to a peculiar and complicated electoral system in which, besides the overarching mandates established in the Constitution, each of the fifty states legislates their own electoral systems via state laws and regulations, with varying degrees of specificity, creativity, and rigor. As a result, states have a lot of leeway for active policies of disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, while standards for vote counting are not uniform even within states and the deadlines set by statutory law are ambiguous at best. The Bush v. Gore precedent of 2000 also helps to understand why and how the Republican Senate has so expeditiously confirmed a conservative Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, effectively tilting an already conservative-leaning court further to the right by 6-3, in the expectation that the results can end up in the Supreme Court once again.
Bush v. Gore also has the honor of being one of the two elections, in the last five, where the candidate with less votes still managed to make it to the White House (Trump being the second). How can this be? It is worth reminding that the American electoral system is an indirect form of democracy, whereby the votes cast by voters in a state are transferred to state electors, who then in turn vote for the candidate in the Electoral College. Established by the venerated Founding Fathers in 1787, scholars and experts continue to be divided about whether this anti-democratic system is the product of the Founding Fathers’ “unparalleled wisdom” in fending off tyrants by ensuring that people would vote “correctly”—let’s also remember how few Americans were eligible to vote back then—, or whether it is a slapdash and convoluted construction that was left unfinished because the Founding Fathers were in a hurry to get to the Pennsylvania statehouse (Wegman 2020a), as Jesse Wegman argues in his recent volume Let the People Pick the President. Except for a couple of states, most operate under a “winner takes all” model, meaning that even if a candidate wins the state by a margin as thin as 0.1%, he/she obtains all the allotted state electors. This can lead to outcomes like 2016, when a candidate who obtains 3 million more direct votes (a.k.a. the “popular vote“) receives, simultaneously and paradoxically, 77 electoral votes less (227 for Clinton and 304 for Trump) and, as a result, loses the presidential election. As the numerous (failed) attempts in recent years to reform the electoral system show, minority rule is a reality in America.
All this goes to show that it requires a certain level of strategic genius to use this baroque system in your favor, as Trump’s team effectively did in 2016. It all came down to a difference of 79,646 votes in total in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin)—not as bad as the 537 votes in Bush v. Gore, but incredibly close. And perhaps because, in light of these circumstances, winning a presidential election seems closer to playing three-dimensional chess than anything else, a considerable number of American election-themed films tend to focus on the booming industry of “election experts”, the spin doctors, campaign managers, communications experts, poll specialists, stylists et cetera that surround the candidate and who get him/her to the finish line (or not). They often revolve around the compromises that have to be made, the scandals that have to be hidden or exploited, the national myths to be evoked, the talking points, the tactics, the strategy and the rhetoric to be used. One of the best examples of how this rhetoric is often fossilized and over-the-top, appealing to varying degrees of national pride, religious belief, and hooliganism, is lampooned (quite accurately) in The Campaign (2012, dir. Jay Roach), where in his final campaign speech before an ecstatic crowd, the candidate Marty Huggins (Zack Galfianakis) brilliantly proclaims: “I am only beholden to one man, the greatest American that ever lived, Jesus Christ…!!!!” It is possible, however, that after four years of Trump rallies this satirical portrayal has been effectively deactivated.
Many scholars have noted that the 2020 election is perhaps the most consequential election since 1945 and arguably since 1860, at the outset of the American Civil War (Lucas 2020). Indeed, Americans are aware that the stakes are incredibly high: as of writing this, 82 million have voted early (53 million of them by mail), a staggering number if we consider that in 2016 the total number of votes cast was 136 million (McDonald 2020). “Operation Chaos” may backfire, or the nightmare scenario could also be avoided if there is a landslide victory by either candidate, or at least a comfortable margin that cannot be questioned by baseless accusations of “ballot scam”. It could take days or weeks to declare a winner, even if Trump wants the winner announced on election night, and there are credible reasons to fear a Bush v. Gore redux (with Supreme Court Justice Bret Kavannaugh already confusing the terms of what an electoral “result” is). In short, when events outpace fiction, it might be interesting to go back to fiction to regain a sense of what “normal” elections look like. Whether “normal” is positive or negative, that’s a totally different matter, but here is my list of suggestions, four election-themed films—besides the aforementioned Recount—that can make the wait shorter.
1_The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie). Robert Redford plays a young lawyer dedicated to civil rights and environmental causes who is recruited by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to run for Congress in the state of California, with no expectations of victory whatsoever. The idea is, simply, that Bill McKay (Redford) will be “the face” and can say whatever he wants, and thus change what pundits now commonly refer to as “the Overton Window”: the range of issues that become acceptable for discussion in the public sphere, simply by exposing the public to them. What is interesting about watching The Candidate in this bizarre 2020 is that it is a somewhat uplifting experience: The “radical” issues that McKay raises in the ‘70s are totally mainstream today, and we can feel good about how far we have come. And yet, the opposite conclusion is also true: it is heartbreaking to hear McKay denouncing inequality, corporate greed, environmental negligence, and warning that climate change will cause yet more wildfires, as systemic racial inequality continues to be enforced today and wildfires keep raging in California. It is also a good reflection on how special interests and party apparatuses always step in, even in the campaign of the most idealistic of candidates, and how the image often tends to be more important than the substance.
2_The Ides of March (2011, dir. George Clooney). Continuing with the seeming incompatibility of idealism and political strategy, this brilliantly acted and directed quasi-thriller about a campaign staffer (Ryan Gosling) who comes to see the dirty side of politics as he runs the primary campaign of a Democratic presidential candidate (George Clooney) has a remarkable affective power. As we witness the machinations and double-dealings that are necessary to win, politics is brought down from the pedestal of noble ideals and good-faith expectations for positive change to the ordinary, selfish perspective of one man and his interests. But in doing so, The Ides of March also poses an ethical dilemma that is not easy to solve: What is more important, sticking to ideals or a candidate that can win? What is the ethically responsible choice? What moral excesses and violations are we ready to ignore? These questions resonate deeply with the choices made by both Democrats and Republicans in 2016 and 2020.
3_Wag the Dog (1998, dir. Barry Levinson). If The Ides of March is the tragedy of political cynicism, Wag the Dog is the farce, if I may borrow Marx’s often-cited line and neglect chronological order. Levinson’s instant classic is the epitome of politics as spectacle, a very refreshing watch in the era of the Trump reality show. Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman play a pair of shameless and brilliant campaign operatives who resort to every tactic in the book, even manufacturing a war, in order to distract the public from a sex-scandal involving the incumbent President who is running for re-election. De Niro and Hoffman are so utterly delightful in their cynicism and savoir-faire, with their cheesy music jingles and some dramatic plot twists gone awry, that you may find yourself wholeheartedly rooting for them and for the success of their otherwise totally unremarkable candidate.
4_Game Change (2012, dir. Jay Roach). Perhaps the most consequential choice in my list, due to the film’s accurate political analysis of pre-Trump America. When Sarah Palin was picked as the VP candidate for John McCain’s presidential run in 2008 (against the Obama-Biden Democratic ticket), few saw in Palin’s “out of the box“ public persona and political demeanor little more than fodder for Saturday Night Live sketches, as Roach’s film makes increasingly clear. In its depiction of the rise of Palin in 2008 (who would then go on to be a power figure in the Tea Party, and later a reality-TV star), Game Change ominously identifies her as the harbinger for what was yet to come: the rise of right-wing populism in the 21st century and a new phase of hyper-partisan politics. Devoid of the histrionics of Tina Fey’s famous impersonation of Palin in SNL, Julianne Moore’s rich interpretation reveals a woman that is far more complex than the public persona she herself and the media construct, while at the same time it exposes the extent to which utter ignorance can be masked through a candidate’s acting talents and the repetition of talking points and slogans. Besides Moore’s brilliant performance (and Ed Harris’s as McCain and Sarah Paulsen’s as Nicole Wallace), Woody Harrelson offers a quasi-apologetic portrayal of McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. You may find that you will never see Schmidt in the same light again whenever he appears on television—where he is now a pundit—bemoaning the Republican Party’s sequestration by Trump. In the film, as in real life, it is Schmidt who pushes for a “game change” as the only way to stand a chance against the charismatic Obama, intent on winning at all costs, and we all know what happened after that.
I have omitted the latest release in the genre, Jon Stewart’s Irresistible (2020). With such a gifted and politically-engaged satirist as Stewart directing and writing the script, one would have expected a more complex and even scathing rendering of a small-town campaign for mayor in rural Wisconsin. Yes, Irresistible denounces partisanship, the manipulation of “truth” and how finances run politics, with candidates having to court donors who will expect favors in return, but the result is incredibly plain. Even if Steve Carell and Rose Byrne are funny and deliver their usual quality performances, the “both-sides” approach by Stewart is too bland and seems a bit tone-deaf in 2020. Whatever the results of “Operation Chaos”, the 2020 presidential elections will surely contribute to the genre in the future; whether those films feature uplifting stories about redemption and near-misses or downbeat legal thrillers, soul-searching dystopias, and horror franchises, remains to be seen. What is almost certain is that these particularly fraught times will continue to fuel the political and election-themed genre, something which is already evident in other art forms such as literature, music and theatre.
 Scene 1 quotes Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on August 14, 2020. Scene 2 quotes former Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the Department of Health Michael Caputo on a Facebook Live event on September 16, 2020. Video of the latter is available online at https://edition.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/09/16/caputo-facebook-live-cdc-valencia-ip-vpx.cnn.
 According to Caputo, there is a seditious plot by some officers and scientists at the CDC to actively undermine the federal response to the pandemic in order to make Trump look bad. Allegedly, they will let the situation improve after a hypothetical Biden win.
 Because I’m focusing on fictionalizations of electoral events/campaigns, I’m not referring to documentaries, but I would be remiss not to mention Billy Corben’s recent release 537 Votes (2020) on Bush v. Gore, Slay the Dragon (2019; dirs. Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman) on how gerrymandering is used to influence elections, and Michael Moore’s politically-charged documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), TrumpLand (2016) and Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018), all of them released during presidential or mid-term electoral years. And, of course, what many hail as the most groundbreaking political documentary in history, Primary (1960; dirs. Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles) about the 1960 Wisconsin primary between John F. Kennedy and Herbert Humphrey, while others would also point to The War Room (1993; dirs. Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker) about Bill Clinton’s presidential run in 1992. Also, Netflix’s recently released three-episode series, Whose Vote Counts, Explained (2020), that offers a good overview of the major challenges posed by the American electoral system.
 Additionally, Netflix’s three-episode series Whose Vote Counts, Explained (2020) is a good introduction to how the system was devised and how it works (and doesn’t work).
 In 2016 there were 245,502,000 million eligible voters and voter turnout was 55.67% (136 million). Clinton obtained 1.2% more votes, with 48.18% of total votes cast, while 46.09% of total votes were cast for Trump. All data is available in the Federal Election Commission’s report of the 2016 federal elections at https://www.fec.gov/introduction-campaign-finance/election-and-voting-information/federal-elections-2016/.
 This is a beloved subject in election-themed films and documentaries; the most recent is the History Channel’s two-episode special The Campaigns that Made History (first aired 27 October 2020).
 Commenting on Hegel’s assertion that all great historical events and characters appear twice, Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”. Slavoj Žižek took up the phrase as the title for his 2009 volume, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, where he analyses the post-2008 global crisis.
LaFraniere, Sharon. 2020. “Trump Health Aide Pushes Bizarre Conspiracies and Warns of Armed Revolt.” The New York Times, September 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/14/ us/politics/caputo-virus.html
Lucas, Scott. 2020. “2020: The Most Important American Election Ever?“ America Unfiltered, season 2, episode 1. Clinton Institute for American Studies, September 24, 2020. https://www.ucdclinton.ie/commentary-content/2020-the-most-important-american-election-ever.
Mak, Tim, Tom Dreisbach and Dina Temple-Raston. 2020. “Who Is Louis DeJoy? U.S. Postmaster General in Spotlight Ahead of 2020 Election.” NPR, August 21, 2020. https://www.npr.org/ 2020/08/21/904346060/postmaster-general-faces-intense-scrutiny-amid-allegations-of-political-motives.
McDonald, Michael. 2020. “2020 General Election Early Vote Statistics.“ United States Elections Project. Updated October 30, 2020. https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/index.html.
Wegman, Jesse. 2020a. “Abolish the Electoral College.” Why Is This Happening? with Chris Hayes, episode 112. MSNBC, June 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tl372t7B4yo.
Wegman, Jesse. 2020b. Let the People Pick the President. The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Clooney, George, dir. 2011. The Ides of March. Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures.
Levinson, Barry, dir. 1998. Wag the Dog. Burbank: New Line Cinema.
Ritchie, Michael, dir. 1972. The Candidate. Burbank: Warner Bros.
Roach, Jay, dir. 2008. Recount. New York: HBO.
Roach, Jay, dir. 2012. Game Change. New York / Santa Monica: HBO / Playtone.
Roach, Jay, dir. 2012. The Campaign. Burbank: Warner Bros.
Stewart, Jon. 2020. Irresistible. Beverly Hills / New York: Plan B Entertainment / Busboy Productions.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Resano, Dolores. 2020. “Operation Chaos and The 2020 Presidential Election.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published November 2.