Review by Keith Watson
Anyone who wants to better understand the rise of Donald Trump—a cartoonish blowhard whose politics are a largely incoherent mishmash of populist hand-waving, nationalist rhetoric, authoritarian aesthetics, and cult of personality—would do well to check out a low-budget crowdfunded essay-documentary called “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” about the history of right-wing media in the United States and its pernicious effect on the psyche of those who consume it. Though Trump’s name is never uttered—and, indeed, the film premiered well before anyone in the mainstream media was treating Trump’s campaign as anything other than a narcissistic sideshow—the film plays almost as an origin story for Trump, a tale of how right-wing media spent decades creating a vast network of institutions to inflame popular prejudices while slowly dragging the country to the right only to find that the end result is the successful candidacy of a billionaire celebrity who may very well tear the conservative movement apart.
Director Jen Senko was inspired to make “Brainwashing” as she watched her father, a largely apolitical moderate Democrat, turn into a radical right-wing zealot through constant indoctrination from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. In Senko’s telling, not only her father’s politics changed but his very personality. He mutated from a kind, caring man into a bitter hothead. And as Senko formed a Kickstarter for her film about this transformation, she found dozens of others who contacted her with their own stories about disturbing changes in family members owing to the right-wing anger machine.
Senko spends much of the film laying out a contemporary history of the American Right, from the failed candidacy of Barry Goldwater to the famous Powell Memo to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the success of Fox News. This history will not be new to readers of people like Rick Perlstein, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, and Claire Conner—all of whom are interviewed in the film—but Senko condenses these developments as clearly and concisely as any film or book I know of. She also connects them to real-world policies that enabled conservative media, namely the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the deregulation of telecom. Senko then transitions into an analysis of the psychological impact of how right-wing media operates and its psychological effects on those who consume it. Senko, provocatively, views right-wing media, whose primary objective is to gin up anger among the white working class, as a kind of cult which taps into deep resentments and directs anger at various liberal targets: “feminazis,” “moochers,” and the Democratic Party at large.
It seems unlikely that “Brainwashing” would convince a listener of, say, The Mark Levin Show that he should turn off the radio and go attend a Bernie Sanders rally. But that’s not really Senko’s intent here. Rather, in her (perhaps overly) earnest and genuinely concerned way, she is trying to understand why the right-wing media and its beneficiaries in the Republican Party hold such sway over so many white middle-aged Americans. Why, in other words, are so many people so angry? And why do they direct that anger in all the wrong directions?
As a director, Senko is unpolished. The editing is sometimes clunky, and she is fond of some weird texturing effect that makes much of the footage look cheap. But she has put in the time, interviewed lots of smart people, and assembled her argument in a very compelling way. Still, it would have been nice if Senko had engaged more directly with the people she is making a movie about, i.e., the people who actually listen to Rush Limbaugh. We hear from Senko’s dad, one former dittohead (perhaps the only person ever to be weaned off right-wing radio by “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”), and one middle-aged conservative, but it would have been helpful to hear from a broader range of conservatives about their experience with right-wing media. For the most part, right wingers are talked about, not talked to, and that can give the impression that “Brainwashing” exists in a liberal bubble just like the right-wing one.
Perhaps in some ways it does, but Senko’s genuine concern for her father’s happiness, and the utter bafflement and dismay of many people who appear in the film, speaks to an important issue: that conservative media is not a problem simply because it’s conservative but because it’s so damn mean. Figures like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly have spent years stoking White America’s anger and resentments, playing on both popular prejudices and legitimate grievances, and in so doing they have created a politics of anger and fear that has breathed life into the campaign of Donald Trump. As “The Brainwashing of My Dad” shows, you can only keep the fire of resentment raging for so long before you start to feel the heat.