If you’re looking for someone to blame – or perhaps congratulate – for Donald Trump’s meteoric political rise, you might want to look to the people behind America’s super PACs.
PACs, or political action committees, are controversial entities made possible by a 2010 ruling by the US Supreme Court.
They are able to raise and spend unlimited money donated by individuals, corporations or unions who can choose to remain anonymous.
“It’s created quite a bizarre landscape where billionaires can influence the political process on a whim and strange candidates can run for president,” says Luke Walker, the UK-born, Melbourne-based director of the documentary PACmen.
Walker was fascinated by the phenomenon and seized the opportunity to go behind the scenes of two major Republican PACs in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
Looking to shake things up and reclaim the White House, the PACs identified political fledgling Dr Ben Carson, a black paediatric neurosurgeon with an impressive career and a compelling backstory.
Carson rose to fame in 2013 when he spoke at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington and offered a scathing conservative critique of then-president Barack Obama’s policies – in front of Obama himself.
“This man can save us,” declares one amped-up Republican in PACmen, as others describe Carson as a “game-changer” and an “unparalleled powerful force”.
Two PACs – the 2016 Committee, also known as ‘Run Ben Run’, and Extraordinary America – made it their sole purpose to get Carson into the White House, spending millions of dollars in the process.
To whip up support for Carson, they screened across America a made-for-TV movie about his life starring Cuba Gooding Jr and promoting his rags-to-riches journey from poverty-stricken childhood to world-famous doctor.
Carson had no choice but to oblige, despite a lack of political experience and a clear discomfort in the spotlight.
“He was Shanghai’d into the whole thing,” Walker explains. “He was a reluctant saviour.”
Shortly after announcing his run, Carson began slipping up – his stories of childhood violence were difficult to corroborate and he made several public gaffes, including pronouncing Hamas as “hummus”.
Plus, while Carson’s campaign was busy creating an anti-establishment sentiment, Donald Trump swooped in and claimed it.
“What was ironic was that this Tea Party movement, this dissatisfaction whipped up by the super PACs, ended up being hijacked by Donald Trump,” Walker explains.
“He just had to walk in and steal this revolution they’d spent hundreds of millions creating.”
Carson was more than happy to bow out of the presidential race, asking the committee to stop campaigning for him to be vice-president. He later accepted a role as the US Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Meanwhile, there’s a fascinating scene towards the end of the film that captures a group of super PAC leaders sitting around a table in one of their mansions, reluctantly coming to terms with the fact they’ll have to switch their allegiances to Trump.
“He’s not perfect, he’s not consistent … but he wants to destroy elite opinion,” one says.
Another criticises “his ego”, but all agree he will “prevent the socialists from taking all our money”.
It’s a poignant yet depressing moment that captures a political system on the verge of a complete overhaul.
And Walker’s decision to make a documentary that goes inside the Republican party during one of the most memorable Republican victories of all time was purely coincidental.
“I’m an accidental documentary genius I think,” he laughs.
PACmen is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival.