'Agents of Chaos' Breaks Down Exactly How Russia Helped Give Us Trump - 2020-09-22
We're so inundated with evidence of Donald Trump's fascistic villainy—these days, largely related to the pandemic he's neglected and mismanaged to the tune of 200,000 dead Americans and counting—that it's sometimes easy to forget that he's also a traitorous puppet who won the 2016 election with Russian assistance. Enter Agents of Chaos, a two-part HBO documentary from the insanely prolific Alex Gibney (debuting Sept. 23) which reminds Americans that their commander-in-chief achieved his illustrious post thanks to interference from a strongman despot who saw, in Trump, an ideal tool he could use to undermine Western democracy.
Serving as the film's narrator, Gibney states at outset that he won't make his audience relive the entirety of the 2016 election. While that's welcome news—even the intro credits' montage of clips from that period are enough to raise one's blood pressure—the investigation conducted by Agents of Chaos is nonetheless upsetting and enraging in equal measure. Or at least, it is unless you're like Margarita Simonyan, and believe it's all fake news, and that Trump wasn't aided by, or in bed with, Vladimir Putin. The editor-in-chief of RT, Russia's state-run news network, Simonyan opens the proceedings by saying that Trump's ascendancy was a "very optimistic" development ("That is how democracy is supposed to work"), thereby figuratively scoffing at the fact that her nation sowed seeds of U.S. discord through a scheme of online disinformation, hacking, and wink-wink, nod-nod collaboration with the Trump campaign. By the conclusion of Gibney's damning four-hour inquiry, only the willfully blind—or those with a vested interest in denying cold, hard reality—will agree with her bogus and agenda-driven attitude.
Doubt, however, is central to Agents of Chaos (whose second part is co-directed by Javier Alberto Botero). Wielding his usual array of talking-head interviews, TV news and archival footage, and digital screens and headlines, Gibney's film makes plain that Russia preferred Trump to his rival Hillary Clinton, since he was an easily-controlled asset who revered Putin and cared more about himself than democracy, and she was a former Secretary of State who'd chastised Russia for its interference in Ukraine's 2011-2012 election. Still, the overriding thesis of the director's latest is that Russia's larger strategy in 2016 was to exploit social media platforms—and the theft and dissemination of electronic data—to amplify existing schisms in American society, with the hope of undercutting public trust in, and the basic operation of, its democratic systems. That such efforts led to Trump's victory was a beneficial outcome for Putin, to be sure. Yet the portrait painted by Gibney is of new-world warfare designed to destabilize by playing opposing social/cultural/political sides against each other, leading to inflamed tensions and cynicism about the values, and structures, governing our lives.