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The politics of paranoia – The Kingston Whig-Standard



Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson shamelessly played on the paranoia of certain segments of the British electorate during the Brexit campaign. He managed to win a thin majority in the Brexit referendum and three years later a majority in the House of Commons. (Jessica Taylor/Getty Images)

JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP via Getty Images

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines paranoia as “a tendency to suspect and mistrust others.” It is a fairly common mental health disease routinely treated by psychologists and psychiatrists. In some cases it can lead to a profound sense of insecurity. In others it can be a motivator for violent reactions. In recent years, it has come to the fore in the politics of major nations. Leaders have exploited it to defend themselves and to advance their agendas. This has been true in the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and the United States.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson rose to fame and political power in the course of the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016. In the course of that campaign, he shamelessly played on the paranoia of certain segments of the British electorate.  One point of his appeal was to suggest that Britain was under threat from the faceless bureaucrats of the European Union based in Brussels. According to him, these officials were bent on depriving Britain of the last vestiges of its sovereignty and to reduce a once proud and powerful nation to a servile position in a European federation. The other part of his appeal was to portray Britons as being the victims of a political establishment of privileged people totally detached from the concerns of ordinary citizens. It was in pursuit of this that he chose to cast Prime Minister David Cameron and his associates as a group of upper class “toffs” who had never experienced the travails of the working class. (This was all a bit rich coming from a quintessential establishment figure who was a graduate of Eton and Oxford and who had worked as a journalist for conservative newspapers.) Using both of these tracks, Johnson managed to win a thin majority in the Brexit referendum and three years later a majority in the House of Commons. Exploiting paranoia certainly paid off for him.

Paranoia is also central to the politics of two movements in France. On the one hand, there is the National Front led by Marine Le Pen, who shamelessly exploits the fears of those French citizens who are hostile to the presence of immigrants in their country. She is particularly attuned to the concerns of those who see a threat emanating from the Muslim minority in France. For them, the Muslims are out to destroy French society and its Christian culture. She has built a political career on this and has managed to parlay it into a second-place finish in a recent presidential election. On the other hand, there is the rather inchoate “gilets jaunes” movement, which disrupted normal life in France for over a year. The members of this movement are convinced that France is run by a small cabal of graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration for their own benefit and that of their friends. They feel discriminated against by this elite and vent their anger in often violent protests. Both the National Front and the “gilets jaunes” have done much to undermine rational political dialogue in France.

Then there is Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has fostered anti-western paranoia in his efforts to stay in power. Threats emanating from the West are, of course, a reality in Russian history. In the 18th century, Russia was invaded by the forces of Charles XII of Sweden, in the 19th by those of Napoleon Bonaparte of France and in the 20th by those of Adolf Hitler of Germany. Memories of that last devastating invasion in which 20 million Russians died are still very much alive today and are deliberately rekindled and exploited by Russian leaders. But it is more recent events that are also used by Putin to further his political goals. The eastward expansion of NATO in the past 25 years is portrayed as a direct threat to Russia. So, too, are western efforts to support democracy in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin puts himself forward as the only leader capable of resisting this western onslaught against Russia and its interests. And it has certainly helped to solidify his brand in the eyes of the Russian electorate.

In China, President Xi Jin Ping has also played on his people’s fears of the United States and Japan. In the rhetoric of the Communist party, the United States is portrayed as being bent on “containing” China, much as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Preventing China from becoming a highly successful country capable of challenging the primacy of the United States in world affairs is seen as a nefarious plot engineered by American decision-makers. Added to the mix is the United States’ friendship and support for Taiwan that the Chinese regards as an intolerable interference in their internal affairs since they consider Taiwan to be an integral part of the People’s Republic. Chinese leaders also evoke the memories of Japan’s brutal occupation of their country during the Second World War to foster hostility towards modern-day Japan, as part of a campaign to promote Chinese nationalism. Promoting fear of both the United States and Japan has become part of the stock in trade of modern Chinese leaders.

Firstly, there is that supreme practitioner of paranoia politics, U.S. President Donald Trump. From the very start of his political career, he has been engaged in promoting fear. During his election campaign in 2016, he made headlines by claiming that immigrants from Mexico were rapists, murderers and drug dealers and that they posed a threat to security and well-being of Americans. He then went on to promise to build a wall along America’s border with Mexico to keep out these undesirables and to have Mexico pay for it. When this promise was met with derision on the part of the Mexican government, Trump kept on repeating it, to the delight of his redneck supporters in southern states.

When evidence began to emerge of Russian meddling in the presidential election, Trump chose not to blame the Russians but to launch attacks on the credibility of the United States’ intelligence and security agencies. He began to portray organizations such as the FBI and the CIA as being part of some “deep state” out to undermine his administration. Without any evidence to support his contentions, he repeatedly sought to undermine the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community, whether in connection with his dealings with Russia or his failed rapprochement with North Korea.

Trump’s ceaseless campaign against the mainstream media has also been an exercise in fostering paranoia. Describing the media as purveyors of “fake news” and as enemies of the people, Trump has played to the basest instincts of his often ill-informed and ill-educated supporters. Depicting the media as part of a liberal elite that has no sympathy for the plight of ordinary Americans, Trump has promoted his image as a populist leader under attack.

Trump’s relations with the Justice Department merit particular attention. Shortly after coming into office, he fired the acting attorney general because she refused to implement his unconstitutional and very obviously Islamophobic decree banning entry into the United States of immigrants or visitors from some Muslim countries. He then launched a very public campaign against Jeff Sessions, whom he had appointed as attorney general, because Sessions had recused himself from involvement in the inquiry into Russian interference in the election campaign. He then went into overdrive to attack the Mueller inquiry, which had been established by the Justice Department to look into the matter. Repeatedly describing the inquiry as a “witch hunt,” he portrayed himself as the victim of a hostile and out of control Justice Department.

Depicting themselves or their followers as victims of supposedly hostile forces has allowed leaders in many countries to enjoy a degree of political success to which they are not otherwise entitled. It is a rather sad commentary on the state of world politics today.

Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.

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Boys State and 6 other great movies about politics to watch this week –



The national political conventions are upon us — and they’ll look very different this year, thanks to the pandemic. (The Democratic National Convention, anchored in Milwaukee but mostly online, will be held from August 17 to 20; the GOP counterpart, after some moving around, is slated to happen both online and in Charlotte from August 24 to 27.)

But while some people’s TV screens will be occupied by convention antics for the next few weeks, I’m much more interested in a movie about a very different kind of political convention: One that’s made up entirely of teenagers. For Boys State, documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) traveled to Texas to follow the state’s 2018 summer session of a program called, well, Boys State. (There’s a Girls State program, too.) Administered by the American Legion, Boys State is a gathering of more than a thousand 17-year-old boys who, over the course of one week, form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns. The intent is to learn about and experience firsthand how the American system of government works.

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The film is uplifting, funny, thrilling, and revealing. The teens come to Boys State with formed political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they learn a lot about what it takes to cultivate consensus and win. And their experiences provide both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely hopeful ways.

Earlier this year at Sundance, Boys State won the festival’s top documentary prize and broke the record for the highest acquisition price paid for a documentary, with A24 and Apple buying the film for $12 million. And now, Apple subscribers can watch the film on AppleTV+.

Boys State is less of a “political documentary” and more of an exploration of the political process. And personally, I find process-oriented films far more interesting than polemical political documentaries designed to convince you to vote one way or another.

Luckily, almost as soon as lightweight cameras became readily available in the 1960s, documentarians started hauling them onto convention floors and campaign trails. The result is that there are lots of great documentaries (and mockumentaries) about the American political circus, and I couldn’t possibly name them all. But here are a few important and particularly revealing films that give a peek into what’s changed in the American political process since TV and film became part of campaigns in the 1960s — and what hasn’t.

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The 1960 film Primary wasn’t just illuminating, it was groundbreaking. The film centers on the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in which the two candidates were John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. The filmmakers (documentary buffs will recognize the creative team of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, who together went on to make three more films about Kennedy) used new, lighter equipment that allowed them to more easily follow and capture an intimate view of the candidates, their staff, and their supporters, and in so doing they created a foundational work of “direct cinema” that informed decades of political video-based reporting. And they did it all in a time when television and video images were starting to become a major force in political campaigns.

How to watch it: Primary is streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes and Amazon.

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In 1968, National Review founder William F. Buckley and author and provocateur Gore Vidal — famous for their strong opinions about politics and each other — were recruited by ABC to participate in a series of on-air debates during the major political parties’ conventions. Protests and demonstrations marked both parties’ gatherings that turbulent year. And the debates were famously contentious, too, rocketing ABC to the top of the ratings and solidifying, as this documentary argues, the future of hyperpartisan politics and entertainment-driven, shouting-head TV news punditry. Best of Enemies (directed by Morgan Neville, who also made the hit Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor) recounts the debates and their fallout. The result is exciting but also chilling — an origin story for a long national nightmare.

How to watch it: Best of Enemies is streaming on Hulu for subscribers and for free on Tubi. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on services including Apple TV and Google Play.

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Four More Years was a groundbreaking, hour-long “guerrilla” TV movie consisting of footage shot during the Republican National Convention in 1972, when “four more years” was the chant from Nixon’s fans. The first independently produced videotape to be broadcast on television, the film focuses on media coverage, protests, and Nixon’s young supporters, with long, revealing interviews. Some people in the film claimed they didn’t know they’d appear, and the crew tried to stay inconspicuous. Four More Years is revealing — and aired on TV two years before Nixon’s resignation.

How to watch it: You can stream Four More Years on Vimeo or at the Media Burn Archive.

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Was Ronald Reagan the consummate performer? The Reagan Show makes the case that the former actor’s onscreen experience was a perfect training ground for his presidency, chronicling the Reagan administration entirely through news reports and footage shot by the administration itself. It uses Reagan’s work as an actor and one of his common nicknames — “the Great Communicator” — as its jumping-off point, opening with a very prescient-seeming clip of Reagan telling newscaster David Brinkley, at the end of his time in office, that “there have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor.”

How to watch it: The Reagan Show is streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on services like Apple TV and Google Play.

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In 1988, nobody named Jack Tanner was actually vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. But HBO broadcast an 11-episode miniseries about the fictional Tanner anyhow, directed by Robert Altman and written by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau. Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) is an idealistic Democratic congressman who’s on the campaign trail, accompanied by his 19-year-old daughter Alexandra (Cynthia Nixon). Tanner struggles to distinguish himself against a pack of competitors until his campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) figures out how to present him through footage of pep talks he gives his staff, caught on the sly. The series blurs reality and fiction; “real” people like Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, and many others show up as themselves, and Tanner’s campaign staff is constantly talking about his competitors (including Joe Biden, who was running for president back then, too). It’s a brilliantly satirical series that skewers the process of running for political office more than political positions themselves, and with Altman at the helm, its style feels different from most TV mockumentary series as well.

How to watch it: Tanner ’88 is streaming on the Criterion Channel and on HBO Max. The series is also available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon.

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By 1992, presidential candidates were used to having cameras follow them around, but even by those standards, Bill Clinton’s campaign was unusually loaded with defining moments that made for great clips. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were there to document them in The War Room, which follows strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos through the primary season, including Clinton’s surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire, the Gennifer Flowers scandal, and much more. The film offers an inside look at a campaign through the eyes of those who lived it with the intimacy that we’ve come to expect from our campaign documentaries.

How to watch it: The War Room is streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to rent or purchase on digital platforms including Apple TV and Amazon.

… but still taps into how our sensationalized media ecosystem aids in creating some of the problems that plague our politics, here are three worth checking out:

  • The 2014 film Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an unscrupulous stringer who rushes to the scene of violent incidents in LA to capture them on camera and sell the footage to local TV news stations that are hungry for content. It’s streaming on Netflix.
  • Robert Greene’s 2016 nonfiction thriller Kate Plays Christine follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to “play” Christine Chubbuck, the Florida TV reporter who shot herself on air in 1974. (Chubbuck’s story was reportedly the inspiration for the 1976 film Network.) It’s available to Topic subscribers or to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon.
  • Being There, Hal Ashby’s 1979 comedy based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel, is a fable about a man named Chance (Peter Sellers) who is shut off from the outside world his whole life, except through TV. Then, one day, he has to leave the house. Through a series of happy accidents and willful mishearings, Chance becomes a confidant and adviser to the president, who along with the rest of the country adores his “simple brand of wisdom.” Being There is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including Apple TV and Google Play.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.

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Here's why the Post Office is the most important story in politics right now – NBC News



WASHINGTON — After weeks of tension over accusations of political meddling at the Postal Service, it feels like the dam is breaking.

In just the last day or so:

  • The president said in his most explicit terms yet that holding up emergency funds for the Postal Service would ensure that the post office would be unable to “take all of these millions and millions of ballots.” More: “Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”
  • The Biden campaign directly accused the president of attempting to “sabotage” the USPS, calling it an “assault on our democracy.” (Biden himself added that Trump “doesn’t want an election.”)
  • Trump seemed to suggest that he would not veto a coronavirus bill that included postal funding if it made it to his desk, but he also continued to make claims — without evidence — that mail balloting conducted with that funding would be fraudulent.
  • Vice reported (and NBC News confirmed) that the Postal Service is removing sorting machines from facilities around the country without any official explanation
  • We learned that USPS warned secretaries of state in Michigan and Pennsylvania that that their deadlines for mail balloting might be too tight to meet the service’s “delivery standards.”
  • We learned that the president and his wife have requested absentee ballots in Florida for the second time as Palm Beach residents
  • The Washington Post first reported that new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who instituted the recent changes that have slowed mail nationwide, is “in frequent contact with top Republican Party officials” and met with the president in the Oval Office last week.

Aug. 14, 202003:13

Oh, and amid all of this, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate until after Labor Day, signaling that talks on coronavirus relief — and the emergency mail funding that could be connected to it — have officially completely stalled.

The controversy is now definitely in the public bloodstream — and it’s not going away.

Our question: Does all the attention this story is getting backfire for Trump if Democratic voters start reassessing — again — how and when they’ll cast their votes to ensure they’re counted?

Spaghetti, meet wall

Outside of the mail story, the Trump administration had a positive message they could have run with all day yesterday.

In a diplomatic breakthrough, the United States brokered a deal between Israel and the UAE to normalize ties.

But instead of zeroing in on a historic deal, Trump stepped all over that message by making headlines about a laundry list of other things.

Floating a conspiracy theory about Kamala Harris being ineligible to serve as president. Calling Harris “angry” and a “madwoman” and saying that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “yaps” … Announcing that he’ll break with protocol and accept the Republican nomination on the White House grounds… telling the New York Post that he has a shot to win New York, a state that he lost by 22 points four years ago… saying Democrats “don’t want to have cows … or any form of animals” — without any further explanation.

Meanwhile, other than a brief response on the USPS story, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris talked about one message on Thursday: Pushing a national mask mandate to save lives and slow the spread of coronavirus.

Which message do voters want? “Wear a mask”? Or Trump’s scattershot approach?

Tweet of the Day

Barr the door

Speaking of the dam breaking… Trump’s mail comments on Fox Business yesterday deservedly got a lot more attention, but don’t miss this statement from President Trump yesterday on Bill Barr’s handling of the Durham probe into the origins of the Russia investigation.

The president told the network that he hopes that U.S. attorney John Durham “is not going to be politically correct” and won’t limit his findings to “just get a couple of the lower guys.” (That comment came after he suggested that Barack Obama and Joe Biden “knew everything.”)

And he made this ominous statement about Barr: “Bill Barr can go down as the greatest attorney general in the history of our country, or he can go down as an average guy. We’ll see what happens.”

Barr, for his part, is promising a “development” in the probe today, although not an “earth-shattering” one.

It’s another example of how the president’s comments publicly pressuring investigators will probably backfire, though.

For any DOJ investigation to have a real-world impact, the investigators would have to have credibility. (That’s what Jeff Sessions was thinking when he recused himself from the Mueller investigation, and look where that ended up.)

But Trump’s threats continually undermine the ability of his Justice Department to be viewed as anything but political.

Help is not on the way

After talks on a coronavirus relief bill hit a standstill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate until after Labor Day. While senators will be on a 24 hour notice to get back to D.C. if a deal is made, there are no signs that negotiations are continuing.

But while the Hill will likely be quiet for the rest of the summer, September will be busy not just dealing with coronavirus relief legislation, but also with investigations into the slow-down of mail, senators campaigning for reelection and a government funding bill — since current funding runs out on Sept. 30.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

5,274,473: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 61,225 more than yesterday morning.)

168,329: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,522 more than yesterday morning.)

64.6 million: The number of coronavirus tests administered in the U.S., according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

20.8 million: Over 20.8 million people have been sickened by coronavirus worldwide, according to a New York Times tracker.

755,294: The number of people who have died worldwide from the virus.

The Lid: Ballot blocks

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at a new poll finding that half of registered voters expect that it will be difficult to cast their ballot this fall.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world?

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced they’d formalize relations on Thursday – a decision cheered by Bahrain and Egypt and denounced by Palestinians.

Belarusian authorities released some detained protesters after widespread condemnation and ahead of the European Union meeting to discuss sanctions.

The Justice Department accused Yale University of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants.

President Trump echoed the racist “birther” theorythat California Sen. Kamala Harris doesn’t meet the requirements to be vice president. Harris was born in California.

President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said in his new book that Trump worked with Russia to win the 2016 election.

The Biden campaign reported it raised $48 million since announcing Harris as the V.P. choice.

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In 'Boys State,' American politics in a teenage microcosm – meadowlakeNOW



“Boys State” may sound like a mere mock government exercise, but the film finds in Boys State a microcosm of American politics, one that frighteningly reflects much of the tenor of today’s Washington and, in other ways, counters our more cynical grown-up government with stirring idealism. “Boys State” will give you both hope and fear for America’s future.

“The film is an unvarnished depiction of what we encountered,” says Moss. “And that includes the horrifying but also the profoundly moving and the uplifting.”

Boys States are run throughout the country by the American Legion, along with corresponding Girls States. Some notable names — from Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh to Mark Wahlberg — have gone through the program. Moss and McBaine were unaware of Boys State before reading a 2017 Washington Post article about a first in the program’s history: Texas voted to secede.

The filmmakers sensed they had found a prism through which to view the changing nature of civic discourse in the U.S. following the election of Donald Trump. Paul Barker, then Chairman of the American Legion Texas Boys State, was impressed by McBaine and Moss’ previous film ( “The Overnighters” ) and figured a documentary could expand the program. He had one suggestion.

“When kids are 17-years-old, sometimes their mouth gets ahead of their brain,” says Barker. “But you have to see that as part of a learning process. My only caution to them was to let the needle run.”

The filmmakers, who shot the 2018 program, expected juvenile behaviour and got it. The boys, not irrationally, enact a statewide ban on pineapple pizza. But Moss and McBaine were less prepared for the emotional ride of watching some of the students find their voice.

Foremost among them is Steven Garza, a liberal-minded son of Mexican immigrants. He’s more reserved than many of his fellow high-schoolers. In an overwhelmingly white and largely conservative mass of boys, Garza stands out. Yet his underdog campaign gains momentum, rising on his own idealism and his ability to connect straightforwardly with others.

“I came out even more idealistic,” says Garza, now a 19-year-old studying politics at the University of Texas, Austin. “I knew that I could run a campaign as a brown person, a progressive person and have conservatives vote for me. Even if they didn’t believe everything I stood for, they believed that if I was elected that I would work with them to come to agreements.”

“We’re a lot closer than most people think and a lot closer than the people who are actually in Congress are,” says Garza.

The Texas Boys State, like the national political system, is a skewed representation. It’s a program that, as Moss says, “has a foot in the 21st century and a foot in the 1950s.”

Barker readily grants the film has been cause for reflection for the program. The huge imbalance in diversity, he says, is something that may take a cultural shift for the organization to change. (Field offices of the American Legion interview students from across the state and pluck one or two per high school.) A Peoples State, with boys and girls, has frequently been considered but isn’t happening anytime soon.

“They can make a better effort to create an outreach or recruitment program that reflects the growing diversity of Texas,” says René Otero, one of the few African American students seen in “Boys State” and the film’s most gifted orator. “I didn’t feel protected as a student of colour. If you want to engage people in civics, you have to show them that the people who need civics the most — the oppressed — have the power to engage.”

Otero departed jaded from the experience and disinterested in politics. His place, he feels now, is outside the system. He wants to be activist and an educator.

“I’ve been around a lot of white folks before but not THAT many for seven days. It felt like I had to conform to a different space. I was trying to figure out how to change and twist myself up,” says Otero. “But being forced to self-advocate was a beautiful lesson in developing my agency as a person.”

There are smear campaigns and reckless gambits of self-preservation in “Boys State.” Abortion rights are wielded as a political tool. Robert MacDougall runs on a pro-life platform but acknowledges in a private interview he’s pro-choice. “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart,” he says. Federalist Party chairman Ben Feinstein, a Ronald Reagan acolyte who lost his legs to meningitis, in one scene cribs from what he calls “the Trump playbook.”

“It was chilling to hear Ben — who we really love as a person and is complex — invoke Trump,” says Moss. “That was a question for us. Are young people internalizing the norms of behaviour that we see? Of course they are.”

But they are also forging their own conceptions of government. The film’s primary subjects have stayed in touch since 2018 and attended Sundance together. Some of their views have since aligned, some still diverge. But they all respect each other. Talking — and filmmaking — has brought them closer.

“Collectively as a group is how we’re going to change this country,” says Garza.

McBaine and Moss aren’t done with the program. When the pandemic passes, they plan to document Girls State.

“It’s not a sequel,” says McBaine. “It’s a sibling.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at:

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press

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