VANITY FAIR: During his first inaugural address, on January 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan launched 40 years of Republican strategy. “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem,” Reagan said in his remarks. That conservative ideology has gotten even more, let’s say, aggressive in the decades since. For instance: Republican strategist Grover Norquist infamously suggested that he’d like to shrink government down to a size so small, he’d be able to drown it in a bathtub. But the dogma perhaps reached its final form on April 3 of this year, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic—the worst public health crisis to face the nation in 100 years.
“You have instances where, in cities, they’re running out, but the state still has a stockpile,” White House senior advisor Jared Kushner said about shortages of life-saving personal protective equipment in states where COVID-19 cases had pushed hospitals to the brink. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile; it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”
Kushner’s eyebrow-raising comment and his shadow task force—which operated alongside the actual coronavirus task force inside the White House, and tried and failed to use the private sector to source PPE and testing equipment—are but two of the dominos knocked over by filmmakers Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger
in their new documentary, Totally Under Control.
“The idea of a government that’s there for the people is utterly absent from this administration,” Gibney
said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “The government is a piggy bank to be raided on behalf of private corporations, even in the midst of a pandemic. And so it was shocking, really, to see that play out, because that goes beyond just bungling—even though there was a lot of bungling and a lot of ineptitude. It goes to a general philosophy, which is: if we purposefully make terrible mistakes, we will continue to show everybody just how bad the government works. And then we can say, ‘See? The government doesn’t work.’”
“It turns out,” he added, “if you destroy government from the inside out, it’s not very effective. If you torch a building, you can’t live there anymore.”
Shot in secret over the course of five months, Totally Under Control tracks the avoidable missteps and errors President Donald Trump and his administration made during the early months of 2020, as coronavirus cases exploded around the country. (Nearly eight million people have been diagnosed with the disease, including Trump himself; more than 214,000 Americans have died as a result.)
But beyond generating a wealth of justifiable outrage and despair—before a closing montage and song selection that leaves room for a glimmer of hope—Totally Under Control also provides viewers with a crash course on how Trump supercharged a restructuring of the federal government in the aftermath of President Barack Obama, up to and including Trump’s gutting of the pandemic preparedness systems.
“When he was running for president, what he was saying was, ‘I will run this country like a business.’ And people liked that, and people voted for that,” Harutyunyan said. “And, as it turns out, maybe having the government be a business is not such a good idea. Because businesses don’t care about a lot of things that the government does. And so, I think when he was saying that we’re cutting all these unnecessary spendings on these agencies—as it turns out, those agencies were needed. I think, in a way, people voted for something that they didn’t quite understand they were voting for.”
“Trump likes to make people believe that he’s a developer,” Gibney added. “And so, he knows what it takes to get stuff done and how to develop businesses. Imagine a developer who says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be efficient and I’m going to cut staff to the bone.’ And you’re sitting there in a smoking hole about to build a skyscraper, and you fired everybody except for one carpenter.”
In an interview with CNBC on January 22, just one day after the first case of coronavirus was reported in the United States, Trump said the government had the budding crisis “totally under control”—the soundbite that gave Gibney and his team their title. His tone and choice of words made Trump sound like every fledgling corporate CEO who has ever briefed his or her staff during a company town hall amid a major crisis.
True to form, Trump only expressed half the story. Just days before, as detailed in the film, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had spoken to Trump while the president was golfing at Mar-a-Lago to brief him on the coronavirus. During that conversation, Azar reportedly explained the severity of the disease—which Trump later admitted he spent months downplaying—and expressed confidence in how it would be handled. Trump, it seems, only internalized the second part of their conversation.
“It’s one thing for a CEO to lie to basically save their companies But for a president to do that when he knows that they’re going to be lives lost—I mean, that should be illegal,” Harutyunyan said. “That’s criminal.”
With the country increasingly divided along political lines and cynicism running rampant, it might be easy or comforting to think any administration would have fared just as poorly as Trump when faced with the coronavirus. But Totally Under Control makes the point that although Trump certainly leaned into the more corrosive Republican policies of the past and present, things didn’t have to be this bad.
“You can look back at both the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, and when they didn’t know the answer, they turned to the career scientists who had been in place, who had decades of experience to say, ‘Hey, what could we do?’” Hillinger said. “That is something we saw the Trump administration do the opposite of. In fact, when a career scientist like Nancy Messonnier rang the bell in late February and said, ‘This could get really serious. It could drastically change your lives,’ in response, Trump basically shut down all messaging and sent it through his vice-president instead of allowing the scientists with all of the experience and knowledge to speak.”
“I don’t think it’s about a Democrat or Republican. It’s about Trump,” added Harutyunyan. “I don’t think we can say, ‘If there was the Democratic president, it would have been better.’ It really is, if there was another person who believed and listened to science, it could have been different and it has nothing to do with which political party you were affiliated with. It really just is about this person who just does not believe in science and does not listen to scientists.”
“Ultimately, it’s about competence,” concluded Gibney. “There’s an interesting remark that Tom Frieden, who was head of the Centers for Disease Controls under Obama, makes in the film. He says, ‘Look, we all make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. The importance is you learn from them. And also, it’s important that they're not unforced errors.’ In the case of the Trump administration, they made mistakes on purpose for political benefit.”
Totally Under Control ends with a post-script: on the day the film was finished, Trump received a positive diagnosis for coronavirus. In two weeks since that moment, Trump was hospitalized and released and has made a number of dangerous claims, such as that Americans shouldn’t let coronavirus “dominate” their lives. This week, he’s scheduled to begin in-person rallies while still recovering from the deadly virus. (On Saturday, Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, who previously admitted to painting a rosier picture of the president’s health, released a memo that claimed Trump was “no longer considered a transmission risk to others.”)
But while Gibney said that his team may continue to cover this unfolding story via other means, including a potential podcast, the filmmakers also want this film to stand on its own beyond the ever-evolving news cycle.
“One of the many realizations we had making this film is the news travels so fast, and there’s new information coming out all the time, and that can get really overwhelming,” Hillinger said. “I hope what we did with this film is condense it into a period where you can sit down and really understand the trajectory of things. And I hope that’s maybe a tool an audience can take with them as new decisions are made, and new information comes out over the next few months. And we can continue to try to not get lost in a lot of the misinformation, and know who to turn to trust for the truth.”
Read the full review here