Frontline's 'Divided States' tracks roots of toxic political culture

(CNN)To those stunned by the election of Donald Trump, "How did we get here?" is a question that can't be comprehensively answered in a tweet or sound bite. Frontline recognizes that with "Divided States of America," a four-hour, two-part deep dive into the toxic tone of American politics.

Despite interviewing a long roster of political figures and journalists, director Michael Kirk and his team don't yield any major surprises. What they have accomplished, in what feels like a public service, is to methodically trace factors that helped foster Trump's rise, and how Barack Obama's election and blowback against it sowed the seeds that made a Trump presidency -- what the New Yorker's Evan Osnos calls "a rejection of everything that Barack Obama stood for" -- possible.
In that regard, the signature player in the 2008 campaign is identified not as Obama but vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who provided an early window into the growing schism within the Republican Party and "an emerging group of rebellious conservatives."
Those impulses were fed by concerns about Obama that became more strident as the campaign wore on, to the point of even alarming GOP standard-bearer John McCain.
    The financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party fed into this environment. And while there are not surprisingly conflicting versions of what prompted the GOP's commitment to block Obama at every turn -- motivated, they contend, by his willingness to steamroll over them on initiatives like the Affordable Care Act -- it became increasingly clear that partisanship and dysfunction grew hand in hand.
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    Kirk does an especially good job of touching upon key inflection points, from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy to Glenn Beck calling Obama "a racist" to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling "You lie!" during Obama's State of the Union address.
    As Obama biographer David Remnick notes, the Wilson moment was "emblematic of a lot of the rage -- some of it racial, some of it ideological" being felt across the country.
    Subtitled "Rise of the Insurgents," the second night digs into how anti-elite anger was harnessed politically, from the 2010 midterm elections to Obama's "disbelief" that Congress refused to pass even modest gun control measures after the Newtown massacre. The latter, says the Washington Post's Dan Balz, served notice that in an age of perpetual politics, "Elections no longer settle things."
    Much of "Divided States" is punctuated by the angry voices of talkradio, while charting events like the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the conservative backlash against it.
    All that sets the stage for Trump, and the realization that far from Obama's promise to "change Washington and bridge divisions," those rifts have grown even more entrenched and more bitter.
    HBO's Vice aired a similar special report in December, and Frontline's take certainly won't be the last project to tackle this history. As Trump prepares to take office, "Divided States" reminds us that the "One America" theme of the 2004 keynote speech that launched Obama onto the political stage feels very far away indeed.
    "Divided States of America" airs January 17 and 18 at 9 p.m. on PBS.