The current political climate is as divided as any point in American history with the exception of the Civil War. Nearly 50/50, the country has been divided into red and blue states, left and right, liberal and conservative. But this march towards division didn’t just occur as Donald Trump announced his candidacy. It was spurred by the contested recounts in Florida that won George W. Bush the presidency. This was a long trek towards divisiveness, amplified by political decisions spanning back decades, and exacerbated by a shifting media landscape that prioritized political sensationalism over integrity and fact-based reporting.
Emotion has trumped thought and logic in the modern political discourse. Not only has this shift had disastrous effects on common decency but it there’s also a very human toll, with relationships destroyed by the political rage of the hour. Director Jen Senko saw this happen to her own father and has made a documentary about how the rage-fueled conservative media complex rendered her once mild mannered father, a former Kennedy Democrat, into a raging right-wing ideologue. The Brainwashing of My Dad is a bit rough in some aspects of its presentation, but Senko uses the personal angle to dive right into the creation of the conservative media empire and the deceptive tactics they employ to appeal to its emotional base.
Aside from just her father, Senko also introduces us to various people throughout the country that have had loved ones become unbearable and angry, incapable of operating with civility in the face of any form of political disagreement. However, these personal moments are anecdotal in nature and are among some of the weaker aspects of The Brainwashing of My Dad.
Where the film excels is when Senko goes deep into the causes and factors that led to the radicalized and factional media. As with much of the modern political landscape, it all started in the ‘60s. There was the John Birch Society and the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. But Goldwater’s campaign was a failure, losing in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson. But the political turmoil of the ‘60s wouldn’t start escalating until after Johnson’s reelection. Between the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, public demonstrations were on the rise and were incredibly unpopular among those in comfort within the status quo. In ’68, Richard Nixon would employ tactics that would appeal to those voters frightened by societal change. With the help of a young upstart named Roger Ailes, the future CEO and mastermind of Fox News, Nixon would fundamentally reshape the political strategies of the Republican Party.
Nixon employed what’s known as the Southern Strategy, employing coded language to appeal to racial resentment. The Southern Strategy has been the modus operandi for the GOP since Nixon, and is the key reason that the Democrats lost the South forever. Even today, the effects of the Southern Strategy are seen daily in the political discourse of conservatism.
But the floodgates were opened by the deregulation. Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations carried through their own crusades of deregulation that saw a consolidation of mass media, a handful of companies now owing a vast majority of outlets. Through a large number of think tanks and media organizations, a non-stop message of anger and resentment allowed the Republicans to win power, create distrust of government, and implement their agenda which would quite often be a negative for its voters. As strategy, it’s actually quite brilliant as a means to retain power. In reality, its had nothing but negative consequences for the American people and public discourse.
It may come across as if this movie is peddling some vast right-wing conspiracy, and it is. But it’s a well-researched film that speaks to a number of experts, all of whom will be written off by those within the bubble. It also doesn’t hurt that it features animation by Bill Plympton. Even when The Brainwashing of My Dad stumbles a bit, it quickly rights itself and continues to analyze this intricately constructed media bubble that defines the right. Also discussed is the typical manner with which hosts dismiss opposing views, which include repeating slogans and screaming down any opposition with faux-righteous indignation.
The Brainwashing of My Dad is mainly about the long-standing effects of these tactics. There’s been a personal cost in the relationship with her father, and Jen Senko finds many others who have bonds break over radicalized politics fueled by anger and resentment. I’ve seen first-hand within my own family distance created by the political obsession that descends into darkness. Right now, on the largest political stage of the land, we’re seeing the deleterious effects of these tactics, the Frankenstein’s monster of the right-wing rage industry in Donald Trump. This loathsome figure doesn’t just arise from an ideological fever dream, he’s the byproduct of a crusade that relied on nastiness and vitriol to gain and retain power. Now the party elites are realizing the monster they’ve created and their last-minute efforts can’t stop the beast they carefully constructed over decades. It just so happens that The Brainwashing of My Dad was completed as this vulgarian bigot is throwing the right-wing establishment in upheaval, but it’s fortunate for people to understand just how this ghastly creature was constructed. See how this particularly repellent brand of sausage was made.