Welcome to ElectionLine’s A View From Abroad series, in which we speak with media figures who don’t live in America but keep a close eye on its politics. Every few weeks, these smart observers will provide a unique perspective on what promises to be a fraught and unpredictable campaign for the White House. This week, our interview is with Matt Frei, who serves as an anchor and Europe editor for Channel 4 News. He is nominated for the network presenter prize at the Royal Television Society Journalism Awards, which take place on February 28.
Donald Trump is building a wall. Not the concrete border between the U.S. and Mexico that was partially erected during Trump’s first term, but a metaphorical one of hardened electoral support.
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That’s the view of Matt Frei, the veteran UK journalist who has chronicled Trump’s GOP career. “He’s building himself a wall that is not getting any higher in terms of electoral support, it’s just getting a lot more solid,” the Channel 4 News anchor explains.
The former BBC Washington correspondent has been fascinated by Trump since he interviewed the ex-president in New York City. The 2013 sit-down was a sometimes playful, often enlightening encounter. Frei poked Trump over “bikini diplomacy” after he boasted about taking Miss Universe to Moscow. Trump called Frei “stupid” for acknowledging China’s status as a factory for the world.
It’s the kind of exchange you don’t see a lot of these days: Trump being challenged robustly by a journalist on a nonpartisan news service. Looking back on the interview, Frei sees Trump with all his sharp edges, but ultimately believes that his rhetoric was softer.
He argues that Trump’s anger has gotten the better of him; that his American ideals have curdled. “It’s like an American figure that’s seen through the filter of Tarantino. Something has gone slightly wrong,” he muses. “Here’s someone who’s come along who’s very good at being bad.”
Frei, who has presented eight documentaries about Trump and his family, says that for all the former president’s lies and “insane” pronouncements, he represents authenticity to his supporters. It calls to mind a quote Frei once heard about Trump from a U.S. historian. “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” Frei smiles. It would not sound out of place in a Tarantino movie.
On the other side, Frei sees a Democratic party “hostage” to the fortunes of an 81-year-old man’s cognitive health. We’re speaking after two clips of an uncertain President Joe Biden have gone viral, including one in which he confuses French President Emmanuel Macron with his long-dead predecessor Francois Mitterrand. “He sounds so doddery that you wouldn’t trust him to organize your mortgage, let alone the most powerful nation on Earth,” Frei says.
Entrenched support for both candidates is symbolic of a tribalism in U.S. life that means “a lot of Americans just want to be reassured in what they already believe.” It’s a “zero-sum game,” Frei says, in which “the other guy’s victory is my defeat.”
The Channel 4 News presenter is critical of U.S. news networks for reinforcing these divisions, stoking fear, and failing to challenge their audiences. It’s a very British perspective on the U.S. media landscape, given UK broadcasters like Channel 4 have legal duties to impartiality. Frei would not be surprised if Mark Thompson, a former BBC colleague now running CNN, unshackles the network from any political allegiances — perceived or real.
“He genuinely talks a good public broadcasting game. And I think his view is that the only way CNN can survive is if it does what it does best, or used to do best, which is to report, observe, inform,” Frei explains. “Then you [might] find that the public service audience, that was slightly cowed in the shadows when the two galleries were screaming at each other, suddenly grows exponentially.”
Frei says it is the job of Channel 4 News, which won a BAFTA last year for its reporting in Ukraine, to interrogate individuals who may repulse its audience. He says he doesn’t “care too much” if viewers are less tolerant of other belief systems. “We have to have the courage of our convictions,” he says. “If I only told my audience what they want to hear, it would be an incredibly boring program.”
Frei thinks the issues facing America are so grave, they raise questions about the foundations of the country’s democracy. It’s fertile territory for his next Channel 4 documentary, in which he intends to ask: is the most powerful republic on Earth about to die? The presenter, who doubles as Channel 4 News’ Europe editor, is planning to travel to the U.S. this year to shoot the film with Passion Pictures, the producer behind Netflix’s Wham! documentary.
At the heart of this question is the former president. Frei thinks that Trump, campaigning from the courtroom and without any of the restraining qualities of his daughter Ivanka, could be restored to the White House amid civil unrest, or be the architect of his own downfall. “Trump untrammeled is potentially quite dangerous, but also, it might kill his candidacy because the thing that has always defeated Donald Trump more than anything else is Donald Trump himself,” he says.
Trump might be building his metaphorical wall and the election may be retreading ground from 2020, but Frei thinks it will be far from boring. “The republic really is on the line here,” he says.
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