Oliver Laughland, Chief of the Southern US Office: It was somewhere along the 700-mile overnight journey from Tampa, Florida, to my home in New Orleans, that I realized that filming the Anywhere But Washington series was becoming one of the most difficult tasks of my career. .
Hours earlier, my colleague Tom Silverstone and I had interviewed a conservative radio host who was spreading unfounded conspiracy theories about Covid-19 to a crowd of at-risk seniors who supported Donald Trump. We were forced to make a sharp exit and were caught in the middle of a powerful storm that drenched us. Fortunately, we managed to keep the camera dry and preserve the footage, but the whole day became a precursor to the rest of our two-and-a-half month trip across America.
Fiery interactions, widespread misinformation, and gigantic car trips became normal. Along with countless nasal swabs, hundreds of disposable face masks, and seemingly endless nights editing Zoom movies on ever tighter deadlines as you prepare for shots in the days ahead.
It was not only an immense logistical challenge and a constant battle to establish the facts, but a revealing journey into a bitterly divided country during the most important election in a generation.
Tom Silverstone, Senior Video Producer: For many months, I was confined to making short videos on Skype – fuzzy webcam interviews that make it difficult to delve into a story. So it was with some relief, and a little fear, that Oliver and I, along with our fellow video editor Noah Payne-Frank, who lives in London, got the go-ahead for the series.
Trying to cover how an entire country feels about its choice is tricky at best. America’s deep complexities, size, and diversity have always made singular narratives hard to find. But the pandemic made everything that much more difficult. As we traveled from state to state, we found empty streets and canceled public events, and few political events to attend, particularly on the Democratic side, as the party followed a tighter and more secure line on the pandemic.
This meant that capturing public opinion became a more difficult task and we had to organize almost every element of each episode, days, sometimes weeks, in advance.
OL: Throughout our journey it became clear that two forces diametrically underpinned this choice and it was vital for any viewer seeking to understand the state of American politics to find both in our films.
We pledged to visit as many diverse communities as possible to examine what Joe Biden’s candidacy looked like and to interrogate his platform as best we could. We were interested in how progressive politics and rapid population diversification into once-conservative strongholds could tip the outcome of the election, prompting trips to Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina.
But we were also determined to energetically engage with the post-factual and conspiracy-tinged world ushered in by the Trump presidency, as well as hold him accountable for the numerous political failures of his tenure.
TS: Four years ago I filmed our 2016 version of the show and watched as Trump successfully he motivated his base with cultural and racial narratives to create anger and division.
This time, what Oliver and I found was even more extreme. At major Republican events we came into contact with groups like the Proud Boys, the far-right “western supremacists” who now patrol Maga. [Make America Great Again] marches across the country. We interviewed Republican candidates running for Congress who promoted unsubstantiated conspiracy theories linked to QAnon.
After years of Trump repeating cries of “fake news,” his rallies have become hostile venues for reporters, and we are often met with deep mistrust. On one occasion, a small group of his followers followed us back to our car, labeling us “troublemakers” as we tried to film his public event. He didn’t always feel safe.
But far from these rallies, we found people who were curious about two reporters who roamed the country, eager to tell us about their lives. We met unemployed factory workers in Ohio, disappointed by Trump’s broken promises; Evangelical Christians from North Carolina, loyal to the president despite his transgressions; and progressive Latina Democrats seeking to change a historically conservative Texas. After four years of Trump, this is a country in a passionate and frequently angry debate about what it was, what it is, and what it could be.
OL: We ended the series when the news networks finally called for the election Joe Biden, well aware that this was far from the end of the story.
The shocking events in Washington last week, a mafia invasion of the United States Congress, only serve to emphasize this even more. Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud coupled with four years of extremist rhetoric and politics have fundamentally altered the fabric of American democracy. And the end of Trump’s presidency is far from the end of Trumpism.
So Tom and I will continue to produce new episodes of Anywhere But Washington, starting with Biden’s opening later this month. We want to examine whether the 46th President will deliver on the communities he promised, what efforts he is making to restore faith in institutions, and what the long-term legacy of Trump’s four years in office will be. It all starts from day one, when Biden’s desk will be affected by a public health crisis, a humanitarian disaster on the southern border and a host of other national and geopolitical problems stemming from the past four years.
We have been amazed at the support from Guardian viewers in the US, UK, and around the world, and we appreciate the dozens of encouraging emails and direct messages sent to us throughout the series.
We’d love to hear more suggestions on where to visit next, the kinds of stories you’d like us to get involved with. We look forward to visiting new areas of the country and revisiting many of the communities we spent time with last year, and we hope you will continue with us throughout the journey.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism