The Circus probably seemed more relevant when it was watched in real time with the recent U.S. Presidential election but in the immediate aftermath it can remain fascinating to the politically observant. Covering the Primary Campaigns from January 2016 when the Republican field has shrunk a little bit to just after Election Day when President-Elect Trump meets with President Barack Obama at the White House. The series follows Mark Halperin, John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon as they cover the election campaign. Halperin and Heilemann are both career journalists who have worked covering political campaigns for the past three decades and wrote together the book Game Change of Sarah Palin’s effect on the 2008 Presidential campaign. Mark McKinnon a one-time musician became a media advisor to several Democratic Campaigns before going to work for George W. Bush, he now supports many bipartisan initiatives.
It would be surprising to find out that Halperin and Heilemann are not usually Democrat voters but one strength of the show is their supposed objectivity. In fact in some ways they have been criticised for their obsession of the horse race aspects of a political campaign rather than the moral issues.
As long term professionals though known by everybody involved in politics they are given incredible access to all the figures of this recent political year. Two strengths of the show are said access allows for some allows for some human moments to come to the fore from candidates on both sides which may prove healing for the country at large and secondly it is fascinating to look in retrospect at long term political players scrambling to figure out what Trump’s popularity means for the game they play.
Early in the Caucus race they meet with running candidates in small hotel lobbies, see them perform to small crowds in Church book stores and of course ride with them on tour buses. The show is more interested in personalities than the issues, Ted Cruz might be introduced as someone who could get the Evangelical core’s support but the man is not reduced to a one sentence description but allowed to reveal himself.
Mocked by mainstream media for a video showing his young daughter refuse a kiss from him after a long day here we get to see the fuller picture of a loving family man and one who is personally robust enough to take such slights. John Kasich it turns out has a propensity for agonising Dad jokes that he makes more agonising with his delivery except well isn’t that the actions of a guy trying to stay upbeat and friendly. Chris Christie an effective debater and a political brawler seen here when he’s already behind looks like a bad ass going after Trump which kind of breaks your heart more when you see what he does afterwards in support of Trump.
Jeb Bush is seen as an awkward man who maybe lacks the ruthless charisma of his brother but actually is more thoughtful than him. He probably would have made a great administrative President but he’s just not as strong a campaigner and alas that is what required when you’re in the circus tent. The Circus is produced by Showtime Network (a cable channel owned by Viacom) who also shows Homeland. Jeb asks if they can get him a role on Homeland and they ask him what kind of role he would like. “Something G rated where I kill a terrorist with my bare hands.” He replies, a telling line which kind of sums up the broadness and contradiction of the base he’s trying to appeal to.
We see how human these people are, how draining the campaigns are, how hard they and their teams work and then the agonising realisation that after all that money, after all these people have volunteered for you, after all that noise and media following you, after everything it comes to naught for so many. It gives you a new appreciation for them throwing their hat into the ring just to give you options. Even family members get a chance to shine, Ivanka Trump who had the highest media profile out of her father’s children doesn’t get seen much here but Donald Trump Jr. does and he’s a credit to his old man.
Loyal, articulate and thoughtful about what is driving the votes to them he’s again maybe somebody you wouldn’t agree with on many issues but here you get to know him as a proud son. The only one who you might like more is Jane Saunders who is just the nicest person in the world.
We see Bernie a little tired and short tempered when he’s down in the race but we also see him clear a room to talk privately with Halperin when Iowa caucas ends too close to call on voting night. This reflects that Senator Saunders knows he’s in a bubble with his people and he wants an outsider to give their opinion to him. It speaks to the man’s wisdom and later you can’t help but feel for the guy as he calls the delegate count at the Democatic National Convention to heal the party and get his supporters to throw in behind Hilary.
Access is also given to major political players from the past and the media teams working for Clinton. Roger Stone, a former Nixon campaigner, is in exile from Trump due to a difference of opinions with another Trump staffer. Yet in one dinner scene he chats with the journalist and lays out what effectively become the selling points of Trump as a candidate. How exiled is he you may be left to wonder. One episode features GOP insiders talking about Trump around a fancy lunch, one points out that there is not like a secret back room where they decide these things which is a good thing. There’s a little irony in that moment given the setting but it is also a reassuring truth even if Republican powerbrokers did throw over $150 million dollars at Jeb Bush’s campaign in an effort for him to be the presumptive nominee.
As Trump’s campaign kicks into a new gear of popularity the man who regularly accuses the media of bias and is able to reach his base easily through social media allows people on his private jet. Weeks later at a time when he effectively ties up the Republican nomination his next move is to invite Halperin and Heilemann to his prized Mar-a-lago estate (family functions have been held there) where he talks openly with them about how the campaign is going. You know who never gives access on the campaign trail? The only candidate who they only get to ask questions to by standing behind voters at rallies while the candidate walks past to shake hands calling out questions behind shoulders? Yeah that’s right – Senator Hilary Clinton, the politician who easily beat Donald Trump in three debates just never put herself out to the media, the media that was supposedly on her side. Figure that one out and you might have the answers to why she lost.
It’s true to say in living memory there has never been a Presidential campaign like it. Trump’s scandal late in the game about grabbing women by the pussy seems to have been the only one that broke through the noise and changed his fortunes. Not calling Mexicans rapists, not saying Megyn Kelly had her period, not denigrating the war service of Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain and not being caught out lying about his Republican opponents.
Yet he won in the end, if you’re looking for answers these seasoned political pundits don’t have them for you. In fact they’re relatably human as they stand around at conventions and try to figure out what the hell is going on. They’re there on the ground when the Chicago rally is called off, they meet outside and listen to Trump supporters at his rallies when so many others in their field just remain confounded at his popularity and on the day after the election when the hyperbole of half of the country was calling the election result the end of the world they close with life will go on. Some things become uncanny now with the outcome known, Kelly Anne Conway’s steadfast belief they’ve got the numbers in crucial states a week out from the election and Clinton’s advisor John Podesta on election morning not being able to comprehend his candidate could lose becomes poignant.
The series has recently formed the basis for a short documentary Trumped which takes the best moments from the show and arranges them in a 2 hour runtime. The production values are certainly slick but something is lost here, not least of which are the openings of each episode where the three guys will sit around a local diner or café in whatever town they’re in and eat some local cuisine while hammering home through repetition the big theme for this episode.
I’d recommend seeing the whole thing, sure some episodes aren’t as interesting as others and you certainly can’t binge watch it but it reflects the flow of fortunes and captures little moments that shaped the campaign. For example one indulgent episode is centred around Joe Biden who was only campaigning on Hilary Clinton’s behalf. Yet even here there are gems to be found especially if you’re a fan of the former Vice President. A late night dinner with his sister reveals he would’ve run in 2016 if his son Beau hadn’t gotten sick and during the election campaign honest Joe talks openly about Hilary’s weaknesses while campaigning for her. Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, I sure would have loved to have seen that race.