There’s a local legend in the town of Doncaster, where I was born, about a place called Stott Hall Farm, an iconic slab of land that incongruously divides a small section of the M62 in the middle of West Yorkshire. British lore has it that when Stott Hall’s owners refused to pack up and sell off their 250-year-old plot, some clever engineers decided to simply build the motorway around the farm instead of diverging from their planned route. When you drive down the M62 between Ripponden and Huddersfield, you can see a 100-foot island of farmland cut off from the Pennine moors around it, eastbound and westbound traffic forever rent asunder. That motorway was built more than 50 years ago, but, as Anthony Baxter’s didactic documentary You’ve Been Trumped intends to illustrate, deceptive development deals and “creative” city planning continue across the inconveniently occupied British countryside to this day, much to the chagrin of local inhabitants who refuse to give up what are often generations-old homes. In this case, the homes pepper a long stretch of Scottish coastline in Aberdeenshire, where none other than Donald Trump himself has begun to transform 1,400 acres of rolling hills and sand dunes into what he claims will be the world’s greatest golf course, replete with an attendant 450-room hotel and 1,500 luxury homes. You’ve Got Trumped is the people of Aberdeenshire’s distraught shudder of a response.
Trump has spent years cultivating his self-styled image as a powerful but somewhat nefarious corporate overlord, so naturally he adapts readily to the role of the film’s principal antagonist, playing the elusive but gaffe-prone Roger Smith to Baxter’s ever-sympathetic Michael Moore. Like Moore’s Roger & Me, with which it shares an unshakeable affinity for—and one might even say a romanticized view of—the working class, You’ve Been Trumped assumes no pretense of objectivity, instead adopting an overtly anti-Trump position from the start and sticking to it fervently. Of course, taking a stance isn’t in and of itself problematic (one could call it, in the interest of fairness, an argumentative essay rather than a simple expository doc), and residents on the verge of forced eviction (the victims, in a sense, of politicians who may or may not have had the best interests of their constituents in mind when signing over the land) are underdogs who could certainly use some sympathy and support. The problem is that this particular land dispute, if it even qualifies as one, isn’t as exceptional or extraordinary a case as the film presumes it to be, and in a general sense the issues at hand are more complicated than the film wants to believe. Though Baxter seems driven by empathy rather than greed, his film is ultimately as reductive and misleading as the expensive Trump PR campaigns he righteously rails against. Perhaps that makes his case more persuasive, and perhaps it makes You’ve Been Trumped a more galvanizing call to action. But, frankly, it means he’s failed as a thinker and, maybe worse, as a filmmaker.
Take, for instance, his treatment of Michael Forbes, the longtime Aberdeenshire resident the doc takes as its valiant local hero. Forbes refused to sell his lot of land during the Trump buy-up, and as a result came to be a kind of icon for the working-class natives struggling to retain the sanctity of their heritage in the face of looming corporate oppression. It’s a familiar and appealing narrative, one the media (and of course Baxter) embellishes with glee: the salt-of-the-earth local proves that his dignity can’t be bought; the clueless billionaire fatcat can’t comprehend why anybody would choose a forest or some boring hills over a big sack of cash; and the knowing audience smiles and applauds what’s obviously unflappable natural heroism. (Baxter works in scenes from the 1983 sleeper Local Hero, about just such an attempted development deal in Scotland; you might recall that Brendan Fraiser’s Furry Vengeance also tells a similar story.)
People, or at least people who aren’t themselves tremendously wealthy, love to watch defiant ordinary folk stand up to the rich and powerful, and in Baxter’s hands nobody’s more defiant and ordinary than Forbes—and nobody’s more rich and powerful than Trump. The two men snap so easily into their clichéd molds that the emotional arc of the film sells itself: We’re inclined seemingly by default to align ourselves with Forbes and his quest to save his home, and if we don’t already regard Trump’s empire as inherently evil, ominous music politely underscores the point every time the man or his underlings roll up in black SUVs. (Forbes and his neighbors, on the other hand, are soundtracked by the earnest coos of Sigur Rós; the vibe is like a love-in.) Such cues underline an already obvious point in big, thick felt-tip marker, and if by the end of the film you remain unconvinced that Aberdeenshire is a precious natural idyll on the verge of annihilation by the sheer force of one tycoon’s greed, Baxter hasn’t been doing his job. The sentiment is bludgeoning.
Tellingly, however, the most damning thing said about Trump throughout the film comes not only from his own mouth, but from one of his own TV specials. In it we see him eye a property at the periphery of his land before flippantly saying, “I want to get rid of that house, it’s ugly.” Baxter’s mistake is assuming that anybody could confuse Trump for an even vaguely philanthropic or even especially sensitive figure; it seems obvious though that everybody is aware, and in fact Trump himself openly acknowledges, that he’s first and foremost a businessman, a savvy investor whose financial interests come before anything else. What’s interesting about this land purchase and development isn’t the specific impact it has on the lives of the handful of residents who are being displaced or inconvenienced (their story is common, muted, and too easily lends itself to emotional manipulation), but the broader implications of land-development deals the world over, like the long-term environmental and economic effects of a new golf course and hotel. Or, looking even broader, the film might have looked into the mechanics of municipal and national politics as they relate to obviating existing bylaws or decisions (Baxter explains that city council once rejected Trump’s proposal and then strongly implies that money helped overturn the decision, but it’s never explored further). These issues are complex, but You’ve Got Trumped has no interest in nuance or depth; it assumes, instead, that a juicy story and self-righteous indignation will suffice. But an attitude can’t convince anybody who isn’t already on your side, which makes this nothing more than a firm pat on the back for those who already agree with the fundamentals.