Sean Wilson chats to filmmaker Anthony Baxter about his film You’ve Been Trumped Too, the latest in his series of eye-opening Donald Trump exposés…
Barred for four years by the Trump Organisation, documentary You’ve Been Trumped Too is now available on demand. Originally intended for a 2016 release, and filmed in the months leading up to Donald Trump’s successful Presidential bid, the film faced litigation threats and potential lawsuits.
That it’s now arrived is a testament to the struggle faced by director Anthony Baxter, who makes the third film in his series of Trump documentaries. In 2011, You’ve Been Trumped acted as a jaw-dropping examination of Trump’s efforts to build a golf course on a pristine area of natural beauty in Aberdeenshire.
2014’s A Dangerous Game picked up the thread of the saga, and now You’ve Been Trumped Too further highlights the human tragedy of Trump’s bulldozing efforts. Several years on from the events of the first film, elderly Molly Forbes is still, shockingly, left without water after a bulldozer severed a pipe to her house.
You’ve Been Trumped Too is, above all other things, a story of dignity under duress as Molly, her son Michael and a host of other residents contend with the devastation left by Trump’s workforce. That he’s running for President at the same time rubs salt into the wound.
I was fascinated to catch up with Anthony to discuss the ongoing fiasco, Trump’s residual character and what it means when absolute wealth brings you absolute power.
There’s a tragic irony in that it’s taken four years for your film to come out, and in the intervening years of Trump’s presidency, the element of surprise has lessened. There’s perhaps no longer anything truly surprising about what you depict in the documentary. Is that a reaction you’ve had from people?
Well, the interesting thing about the story in Scotland is that it’s a microcosm, really, for what’s happened across the world since Donald Trump became President of the United States.
We completed it in a very short space of time, from the spring of 2016 to just before the US election. At that time, you’ll remember that people were saying Hillary Clinton was going to become President, that she would win the election, that she would have it in the bag. Donald Trump was seen by many as a bit of a joke figure, at least in Europe. Obviously, he was well known as a presenter of The Apprentice in the United States, but here, he was seen as a bit of a buffoon by some.
Of course, over in the United States, he was very cleverly building a huge mass of support. And that’s essentially what he did in Scotland when he first came there to build his luxury golf course. That was the focus of my first documentary, You’ve Been Trumped in 2011. Donald Trump promised the Earth: 6,000 jobs, £1 billion worth of investment and a luxury hotel. And all of this was going to be built on a site of scientific interest, a protected site.
But in the years that followed, he failed to deliver on those promises. And in many ways, the residents of Scotland called him out on that early on, for example Michael Forbes, the farmer whom Trump branded “a pig” and said that he lived in a slum. Trump’s reaction when Michael refused to sell his property was to build huge mounds of earth around it, and other homes as well. They saw this as a precursor, really, to what would happen if he was elected. They noted that he loves to build walls. And, of course, the very first thing he started doing was building a wall between the United States and Mexico.
You know, he doesn’t carry through on his promises, and they have experience of that. In many ways, what’s happened hasn’t shocked or surprised me, because I’ve seen it all before, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale in Scotland.
Water takes on a particular significance in the narrative of the documentary. You use the subject of water, or, more specifically, the lack of it, to bridge the divide between yourself and Trump’s supporters. Did you find that to be a particularly effective technique?
Well, water is of course a basic human necessity. I was in Flint in Michigan making the documentary ‘Flint’, which I’ve only just completed this year. That’s a story about greed and complacency amongst politicians. In that case, the city of Flint was deprived of a clean, reliable, safe water supply. And that’s essentially what was happening to Molly Forbes, an 86-year-old woman when I first started filming with her.
In 2016, I learned that despite the fact that Donald Trump’s workers had cut off her water supply, and promised to make it the best system she’d ever had, they failed to follow through on that promise. I called her and she told me that she was still without a working water supply, at the same time that Donald Trump was criss-crossing the United States telling people he was going to be the greatest President ever.
There seemed to be a very powerful story there. Here was a basic thing that he’d failed to get right, and in the eyes of Molly Forbes, he’d always been a liar. Her son, Michael, was probably the first person to call him out on his lies. He had ‘No more Trump lies’ graffitied on his farm. So yes, the water situation was incredibly powerful because it’s something that he should have sorted out. The Trump Organisation claim they did try to fix it, that Michael Forbes’ “slum-like” property was standing in the way of progress, that he lived like a pig, that he was an embarrassment to Scotland and so forth.
The main thing is, the people who have watched the first film, and also the second one I made in 2014, A Dangerous Game, have real sympathy for the plight of these local residents. Because these aren’t people who asked for the spotlight to be shone on them. Donald Trump came in on his 737 to Aberdeen airport one day and said he wanted this land, and no-one would stand in his way. That bullying and harassment of the local residents became very apparent over the course of his development, and people saw the reality of how he treated people.
Remember, of course, that Molly Forbes, who has been a land girl during the war and had genuine insight into people, said that he’d never really grown up. She also said that if he became President, there would be a world war. She had very gloomy predictions about him being in The White House. OK, we haven’t had a world war, but we have seen extraordinary ways of dealing with world crises, not least, of course, the coronavirus situation and America’s response to it. People have been dying in their droves across the country.
For me, one of the most powerful things in the documentary is the intercutting between Scotland and America. It makes one realise that, in terms of the Scottish residents, there’s real happiness in humility, whereas in Trump’s case, it shows that with great wealth comes isolation and paranoia. Did that come out through the edit, or was that something you intended from the start?
Yes, it did come out in the edit, and we had very little time. I was in Flint and making a film on the water disaster there. Donald Trump was campaigning to become President of the United States. I was torn, really, because I wanted to make the Flint documentary, but I also felt a real need to get the story to the American people about what Donald Trump had done in Scotland. While he was making decisions about becoming their President, they would learn more about the way he had treated people in Scotland. Specifically, how he had treated someone who, he said, reminded him of his own mother.
Whatever side of the political debate, I felt it was important to try and get that message out. The intercutting, as you say, between the Scottish and American stories was an important one. It does, in some ways, perhaps feel obvious, but we had such a limited window and this took us through to October 2016. And we had to get the film out ahead of the election. We then hit a brick wall in trying to get it out to people in the United States.
Yes, you subsequently faced a David and Goliath battle to get the film released, which is not too dissimilar to what the Scottish subjects of the documentary faced themselves. Like them, you came up against the machinery of the Trump Organisation. By going through that, do you feel more kinship with individuals like Molly and Michael?
Yes, we were trying to the film out and soon as the trailer was released, the Trump Organisation put out a press release. It stated that anybody who repeated the allegations made in the film about Molly Forbes’ water would be sued. They would feel the full wrath of the organisation. Molly had experienced her own legal battle with Trump – he had pursued her when she refused to sell her property. He started talking about bringing in lawyers and so on. So they had already experienced such things.
Then, when newspapers began to run stories about the film, they were instantly hit with legal warnings. So several of them took their stories down within hours of publication. Then our distributor in the States said he could no longer go ahead with the planned coast to coast release we were having. That was because our insurance costs had gone up so much, we weren’t able to afford errors and omissions insurance to cover the film. Most of the time, you would expect to pay a few thousand pounds for that kind of insurance, but our quotes were coming in at eye-watering levels because of Trump’s legal threats.
So, when the distributor pulled out, we were left with just one cinema in New York that had already been booked. We were also left with the prospect of an American channel called NowThis, to play over the weekend ahead of the election. They pulled out as well because they were concerned about the effects of Donald Trump were he to become President, and how it might play out for them. We were in a situation where we just couldn’t get the story out, so I felt just like the residents.
One thing about Donald Trump, as we know, is that he has to every airwave, whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. He can also tweet whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. The residents of Scotland have never had that privilege. They’ve just had to be at the receiving end of his bullying and harassment without the opportunity to tell their story. We, therefore, were in a position to tell that story, but were unable to, because of the legal threats.
It’s taken us four years to get the insurance that we needed back then, now at a reasonable cost. We’d already raised £75,000 on a Kickstarter campaign, so we didn’t have much appetite left to pool resources to pay huge legal bills. Now, we’ve also got a distributor who’s willing to take the risk and put the film out on digital platforms, iTunes, GooglePlay and others, so we can hopefully get the film out and allow as many people as possible to see it. That way, they can make their own mind up about the film, about whether they agree with the situations that Trump has put himself in, or not. At the end of the day, when Trump claims that the film is defamatory, a lot of those claims of defamation are all related to the way he comes across in the film.
When he tried to sue the BBC for showing You’ve Been Trumped, the claim then was defamation. We, of course, had had lawyers go over this with a fine toothcomb, on the first film, the second and then the third, on both sides of the Atlantic. There was nothing more we could have done to make it legally watertight. But somebody like Trump, who has a history of litigation, which obviously we’ve seen recently with his niece Mary and also John Bolton, has a habit of just threatening legal action. He’s taken to Twitter previously to say that I’m going to be sued, and touch wood, that hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t believe there’s any grounds for it anyway.
I feel if he ever does choose to take legal action, he’s not on a sure footing because we’re fortunate to have lawyers who have worked hard to get the film out.
One of the great ironies is that you’ve managed to get the film out there in 2020, amidst possibly the most turbulent landscape the exhibition industry has ever seen. It also comes during a time where Trump is taking many lumps over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Has that amplified the sense of victory in getting the film out there?
I’m in a position of just finishing the Flint documentary and we were due to have lots of festival screenings across the States. They were all cancelled when the coronavirus pandemic started. Exhibition and release are so hard at the moment, and it’s hard to know when the situation will rectify itself. So being able to bring out a film, albeit one that’s four years old and not been changed in any way, it feels a liberating thing to do.
It’s also reassuring to know that, despite what people are going through with COVID-19, they are still engaged with the stories of other people. Whether it’s the environment, the destruction of the dunes in Scotland, opening a golf course that didn’t live up to expectations, or another important issue, people seem willing to engage with those issues, despite this incredibly turbulent time. I’m incredibly grateful to those people who are deciding to give the film a watch, and who are deciding to make up their own minds.
Whatever people think, it’s important to get the film out because it’s all about freedom of speech. It’s a very dangerous and worrying landscape if we’re not able to release a film just because someone is using bullying tactics and constantly reaching for litigation as a threat, in order to keep the story skewed to the one he or she wants to tell.
You’ve now made three films about Donald Trump as a subject. Do you think that he is aware of his own behaviour?
Yes, I do. I think he has traits of someone who enjoys it. He enjoys every aspect of power. He comes across, when I’ve met him doing an interview in Trump Tower, as perfectly charming when walking into the room. But as soon as the conversation turns to something he takes exception to, his whole personality changes. It’s something that anybody would recognise from seeing him in action at The White House when he takes exception to certain journalists and stories. He doesn’t like to be challenged. He loves to have people ask what he perceives as “very good questions”. They’re usually ones that are patting him on the back, from Fox or one of the other American networks. But if it’s ever a challenge to him, he really struggles to keep his cool. The danger of having that kind of personality in The White House, somebody who’s very volatile, is very worrying.
The movie also explores the generational malaise that sets in amongst the lower generations, particularly Donald Trump Jr. It’s almost like they’re conditioned to pick up that mantle of behaviour. Was it important for you to highlight that to offset the emphasis on Trump? To show his extending influence?
I think that’s true. His son, Donald Jr., is again an unusual personality in that he’s lived such a privileged life. He’s lived a life where he doesn’t have to think about anything other than spending the money he has. All he has to focus on is living in a world where he gets everything he wants. That comes across when you meet him. He seems oblivious to how ordinary people live their lives. He just doesn’t seem interested in the plight of people, generally. I worry also that at some point in the future, he will also make noises about wanting to become President and follow in his father’s footsteps.
Whatever one says about Donald Trump, I think he is an intelligent man. How he uses that intelligence is up for debate. But if you dismiss him as a buffoon, I’ve always felt it’s very foolish. He can give the impression that he’s doing something on the spur of the moment, but he’s actually doing it with a great deal of conviction and thought, sometimes. Donald Trump Jr. is a different kind of animal, really. I don’t know that he has that same intelligence that his father has. In a way, that makes it all the more worrying and dangerous.
You intended this film for release in 2016, and so much has happened in the four years since, not least Trump actually becoming President. So much must have happened in Scotland in those intervening years, so did you plan to pick up the thread of that in a future film?
Not a documentary necessarily, but perhaps a drama about the whole story of what happened. Like all filmmakers, when you can’t tell the story through documentary, you look at other ways of telling it. I’ve always felt there was a drama to be made of this, and that’s something I’d like to do in the future.
But the people never really leave you. I’ve been in touch with the residents throughout the years since I stopped filming, and I spoke to them just earlier this week. Fortunately, Molly Forbes, who is now 96 years old, doesn’t have to worry about the water anymore, as she’s in a home and doing very well. She’s in good form. Michael and his wife Sheila are still living on the farm and Susan Monroe and the other residents are still there, too.
There’s something reassuring about that, about the way they seem to be keeping guard over the land. They’re the most incredible local heroes, really. To be standing up against the huge might of a company like the Trump Organisation and saying it’s not right. And it’s not right because this environment has been destroyed. And they’ve been incredibly inspiring for the way they’ve responded with such dignity to being bullied and harassed by Donald Trump.
On a final note, with people like Molly and Michael in the world, are you optimistic about the future?
Yes, as we’ve seen with the coronavirus, there’s so much good that comes out of a horrendous situation. The way that people respond when they’re under huge amounts of pressure often brings out a side to human nature that is remarkable.
In the world we live in, we’re hit by doom and gloom 24 hours a day, and I know that the media has a part to play in that. We’re all addicted to our phones and looking at what the latest horror show is that’s unfolding. But it is reassuring to know that those people who have inspired so many others with their dignity are still there and getting on with their lives as normal. That’s all we can do isn’t it? Just take each day as it comes, despite what we’re hit with.