Ken Burns – 5 Observations on Trump

You might not be familiar with the name Ken Burns. He is the highly acclaimed documentary maker who has been nominated for Academy Awards and has also won Emmy Awards for his documentaries. Perhaps the most famous, which I personally found fascinating and really enjoyed, was his 1990 work The Civil War

The Interview

Ken Burns was interviewed within the Daily Beast last year, and while obviously he was discussing his films, he also had a few things to say about Trump and the age we now live in. As a documentary maker who astutely observes, records and crafts narratives about the past, it is interesting to gain his perspective. Yes OK, it was last year prior to the election, but the points he makes are still wholly valid and even more appropriate now.

I’ve plucked out 5 specific observations he made. He had lots more to say of course, I’m simply underlining these because they are rather important insights into the now prevailing Trumposphere.

The Central Park Five

One of the films included in the retrospective is The Central Park Five, which holds a special place for me as a New Yorker. A lot of young people probably don’t know that Donald Trump took out a hysterical full-page ad at the time calling for the now-innocent kids to receive the death penalty, which inflamed public opinion.

He shamefully took out a full-page ad in all of the New York dailies asking for a restoration of the death penalty for two 14-year-old, two 15-year-old, and one 16-year-old innocent children. While New York State laws would not have permitted their execution, just the fact that there was a rush to judgment ought to be complete evidence of how temperamentally unsuited he is for the office he now seeks.

Do you feel Trump’s rancor was racially motivated? Even when the city recently settled with the kids for $41 million for their wrongful convictions, Trump penned an op-ed calling the settlement a “disgrace” and writing “these men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.” Of course it was [racially motivated]


I find Donald Trump more of a super-predator. This idea that he can attack and attack and attack whole groups of people, and that we live in a media culture where that’s permitted to be tolerated—it’s the spectacle and not the truth of it. An amoral internet permits a lie to travel around the world three times before the truth can get started, and we live in a place where lying is OK—where a lassitude develops where it doesn’t matter what the truth is—and that’s how it’s possible for someone like him to be advanced who is so clearly temperamentally unsuited and has no idea about governing.

The Media

The problem with our media today is we have no perspective. History provides the ability for calm perspective and rational thinking. Nowhere in the history of the United States has their been a more unqualified person—just ask a historian. And yet, everyone within media gave him all the oxygen that he’s been so starved for.


In our Prohibition film—which is not part of this—Pete Hamill talked about how metal and alloy is always stronger than its constituent parts, and Americans have known this in their guts that we are strengthened by the energy of new immigrants. Whether it’s the Irish, Germans, Catholics, Jews, or others, new immigrants have always had to face the opprobrium of those who are fearful, but what we’ve allowed in this 24-7 media culture is for that to get out of hand—for the pitchforks to be raised, for the torches to be lit, and for the mob to be assembled. And that is pretty scary. It has always been the tactic of the very rich to get opposing groups of people who are struggling to be against each other rather than to be with each other. If the white blue-collar Americans of the world understood that they had common cause with the large immigrant population—documented or undocumented—as well as African-Americans, that power structure would be incredibly nervous.


The Republican Party has been extraordinarily successful at getting many groups of people to vote against their self-interest. Evangelicals are voting for Donald Trump. What part of Donald Trump reminds you of Jesus Christ? Trump lusts after his own daughter on national radio, talks about women’s bodies and breasts in such a disparaging way, and mocks them. How is this in any way Christian? When you make the “other” the enemy, how is that Christian?

Mr Burns is perhaps best known for his ability to document what has happened in the past and to craft a story that engages with the public. I do however find that this ability is not restricted to the past. He is equally insightful when it comes to making observations about the times we now live in as well.

Obviously the above are five small extracts that resonated with me, and so I can happily recommend reading Marlow Stern’s full interview with him as well. Yes it is from last year, but the observations he makes are still wholly valid and appropriate.

[Side note: No, I’m not being paid to promote either the Daily Beast, or the specific article. I’m simply highlighting something that resonated. I made a decision sometime ago to write what I want to write, not for cash, but simply because it is what I want to express and articulate]

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