This past weekend, Ken Burns, the renowned documentarian and creator of such acclaimed works as The Civil War, Jazz, and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, offered up a new meditation on the relation of the country’s past to its future. However, unlike his past productions, this involved nothing more than the man himself, standing in front of a microphone, delivering a speech—an exceptionally boring visual frame that forced his audience to instead listen to his words. In other words, the filmmaker delivered the commencement speech for Stanford’s 2016 graduation ceremony, and used the occasion to give a strongly worded critique of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Oddly, he did so without gently stirring music playing in the background.
While it may sound like a serious occasion upon which to deliver such remarks, a quick viewing of Stanford’s YouTube video of the event shows the students treat it more like Mardi Gras than a solemn rite of passage, with outfits befitting a stoned 22-year-old’s house party. Still, Burns did his best to treat it with gravitas: After reminding everyone that he’s spent his career trying to provide politically impartial and non-partisan historical accounts, he decided the hell with it, and went after Trump with the kind of fervor he usually saves for selecting archival footage of people frowning thoughtfully. Buzzfeed News excerpted the relevant Trump-bashing from his speech, and it includes some hardcore alliteration, like “a political paranoia that, predictably, point fingers,” so you know it’s good.
As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African-Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber-rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again—all happening at once.
That’s only a small sampling. He says much more, including his opinion that, “Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago,” as though John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and certain pop-culture websites haven’t already done just that, to sadly minimal effect. Still, it’s a surprisingly effective piece of rhetoric, one that earns big cheers from the crowd. “So before you do anything with your well-earned degree,” Burns commands, “you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process.” Much as he has been on just about every serious issue involving his party’s candidate for president, Paul Ryan could not be reached for comment.