With just five months to go until the 59th US presidential election, political nerds are understandably excited.
If you can’t wait until November, here are seven television shows – and two podcasts – to keep your election fever in check while you count down to the big day.
The Final Year (Netflix)
This long-form documentary – filmed throughout 2016 – captures the workings of the Obama White House as the 44th president seeks to secure his legacy. With the administration’s efforts focused largely on foreign policy (not least stopping the ongoing bloodshed in Syria), the camera hardly seems to notice Joe Biden at all (which is perhaps understandable given the former vice-president had, to all intents and purposes, announced his political retirement at this point).
The end result is not just an engaging documentary, but also a stark reminder as to how American foreign policy has been completely upended in one single election. Samantha Power’s ‘values-based foreign policy’ gets a friendly hearing here, but can it compete – electorally at least – with the seductive mercantilism of Trump’s ‘America First’? We shall see.
Does any documentary do a better job at capturing the human side of the presidential election than Greg Whiteley’s Mitt? Following the Romney clan – who seem to outnumber the Von Trapps – across two failed presidential campaigns, this is a profoundly intimate portrait of what it means to be at the centre of the electoral storm.
While the film’s sympathetic portrayal of Romney himself will play well with anti-Trump Republicans (for whom the God-fearing, never-swearing Mormon serves as a model of principled conservatism), the real insight here is the sheer mental fortitude needed to suvive the campaign schedule itself – and the constant glare of media scrutiny – without sacrificing your happiness and sanity.
Bobby Kennedy for President (Netflix)
This BBC Four style talking-head documentary series does an excellent job of capturing American politics, warts and all, at a time of profound social change for the country. Picking up with the assasination of JFK, the documentary shows how Robert Kennedy, the late President’s brother, forged a path to being the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the fractious 1968 election, only to be assasinated by a Palestinian radical.
While the main narrative is fascinating in its own right, what really jumps out here are the parallels with today’s political situation: namely a divided Democratic party, a restless radical left, an uneasy backdrop of racial tensions, and a seemingly unassailable political divide. A powerful – and intelligent – watch for anyone interested in modern history.
Trump: An American Dream (Netflix)
First off, let’s not pretend that this Trump documentary – which takes a scathing look at the president’s business and family history – will change anyone’s mind.
Described by Forbes as a ‘supervillain origin story’, this four-part doc hammers home many of the familiar themes that the Democrats will be hoping help mobilise their core vote in November: namely that the president is a self-obsessed chancer prone to lashing out against those offering anything less than absolute loyalty. It’s partisan, yes, but it’s well-made and well-researched. And if we’re going to endure six months of mud-slinging, we might as well start with an example of it being done well.
Veep (Amazon Prime)
For a comic but suitably punchy take on the White House, look no further than master satirist Armando Ianucci’s transatlantic successor to The Thick of It. Veep follows the ambitious Selina Myer, played by Seinfield’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as she wrestles with the frustrations – and more often than not the trivialities – of being second-in-line to the Commander-in-Chief.
Though the humour is less acerbic than its Whitehall predecessor, Veep is still every bit as sharp as you’d expect from one of Britain’s best comic writers. A bit of trivia: when the show first took off in America, Louis-Dreyfus was invited to spend a day observing her real-life counterpart in the White House – vice-president Joe Biden.
Knock Down the House (Netflix)
Netflix political documentaries aren’t exactly known for their even-handedness, and this flashy effort is no exception. In fact, at times it plays out more like a cinematic victory lap for lefty superstar Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, one of the four Democratic hopefuls profiled in the film, than any serious attempt at journalism. What the film does, though, is capture the scale – and ferocity – of the leftist insurgency which has energised many younger activists within the Democratic Party.
Can Biden – the pale and male embodiment of the Party’s centrist establishment – capitalise on their campaigning vigour in November, or will this ideological and stylistic split – and the left’s eternal appetite for infighting – help deliver President Trump his coveted second term?
American Factory (Netflix)
Like all great documentaries, American Factory – which shows what happens when a Chinese conglomerate takes over a former General Motors plant in Ohio – leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Namely can America’s model of liberal capitalistism ever coexist with China’s ruthless state capitalism – or will the demands of a borderless economy inevitably result in a painful race to the bottom for workers of both countries?
Interestingly, this documentary was the first film co-produced by Barack and Michelle Obama under their megabucks Netflix deal. An attempt on their part, perhaps, to convince America’s liberal left to grapple seriously with the rise of China and its consequences for the world – a political blindspot that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House in the first place.
American Elections: Wicked Game (Podcast)
Have American elections always been so brutally adversarial? Largely yes, according to one popular – and superbly nerdy – podcast. American Elections: Wicked Game is a weekly history show that takes a deep dive into each presidential election in turn, beginning, back in 1789, with the inevitable coronation of George Washington as the new republic’s first president. Having recently reached the early twentieth century (and the emergence of the two modern parties that have dominated each election ever since), the podcast will soon turn its focus to more recent events – serving as the perfect lead-in to November’s showdown. History nerds should rejoice.
Americano, Spectator USA
The Spectator’s Americano podcast delivers in-depth discussions with the best American pundits, covering all the twists and turns of the 2020 campaigns. Presented by Freddy Gray, topics range from China’s role in the election and whether Obama played a part in Russiagate. Guests have included Matt Mayer – President of free market group Opportunity Ohio, author and journalist John R MacArthur and The Spectator’s Economics Correspondent Kate Andrews.