Can a Secret Trump, COVID-19 Documentary Sway the Election?

Totally Under Control is premiering on Netflix at a moment when it's revelations about the Trump administration have serious potential to change minds.

In the lead-up to a presidential election in the US, there is always a rush among authors and documentarians to share a perspective on one candidate or the other.

Whether they're driven by pure opportunism—making a cash grab amid the nation's political fervor—or by a sense of moral duty to expose important truths to the voting public, there is always a question of whether these efforts can really make a difference in an election's outcome.

Of course, the reality is that the audience for these exposés is predetermined. In our increasingly polarized political climate, most people have their trusted sources of information, and it's rare for any of these books or films to preach their messages to anyone who is not already a member of the choir.

From Bob Woodward's recent book Rage to Peter Schweizer and Steve Bannon's hit Clinton Cash, these projects promise to shift our system's razor-thin margins in one direction or the other, but tend to generate more headlines than they do changed votes.

With that said, 2020 has been an exceptional year, and Totally Under Control may prove to be an exceptional case.


Written by Alex Gibney (The Inventor, Going Clear)—and directed by Gibney alongside Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger—Totally Under Control was produced in secret over the course of five months, and is set for release on Netflix on October 13.

It tells the story of the Trump administration's gross mishandling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, pieced together from a blend of publicly available information as well as interviews with administration insiders.

Critics who have been allowed early access to the film have lauded its sober and authoritative presentation of events, but that's beside the point. Will it actually change anyone's mind?

Generally speaking, Totally Under Control seems like the kind of politically motivated film that—however truthful—would be handily dismissed by Trump supporters as "fake news." At any other time, it would be foolish to expect anyone who didn't already despise the president to even watch the movie.

But in the last week, something happened that has managed to shock some of the president's less devoted followers when even the death toll of over 210,000 Americans could not: Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19.

At 74 years old, and well above what's considered a healthy weight, Donald Trump is in one of the highest risk groups for the COVID-19. The fatality rate for men in President Trump's age range is over 5%—compared to less than 1% for the general population—yet he seemed to be taking few precautions to avoid exposure to the virus.

Through last Thursday—when the president reportedly received his first positive test—he continued holding a mix of indoor and outdoor fundraisers and rallies where crowds were packed tightly together and facemasks were a rarity, and reportedly he even scolded advisors for wearing masks inside the White House.

Trump Tulsa Rally

These habits have contributed to a sense among the president's supporters that concerns over the virus were overblown, and that the precautionary measures advocated by medical authorities were unnecessary. "It's a hoax," said his supporters. "It's no worse than the flu," "I'll wear a mask if I feel sick," and so on.

But then came the revelation that the president's lax attitude had finally produced its inevitable consequence. Currently at least 34 people with close connections to the White House have been confirmed as infected. And some steadfast supporters may finally be questioning the president's approach to the coronavirus crisis.

According to a morning consult poll taken in the days after the news broke, 48% of Republican respondents described themselves as either somewhat or very surprised by the news, compared to just 37% of Democrats. And 63% of voters—including 35% of Republican respondents—said that Trump did not take proper precautions to protect himself from the virus.

While that number should be a great deal higher, it represents a surprising share of the party that has remained consistently loyal to the president. Trump's approval among Republicans has remained in the mid-to-high 80s throughout his tenure. Even when the topic was narrowed specifically to the president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, 80% of Republicans voiced their approval as of mid-September.

Does this mean that this 35% of Republicans may be open to new perspectives on Donald Trump's handling of the crisis? Will they be willing to take the message of Totally Under Control seriously?

That depends largely on how successful Donald Trump is at controlling the story. He has already taken some big, potentially risky moves in an effort to assuage his voters' fears—downplaying the severity of his case, going for a highly criticized drive among his fans, returning to the White House to finish his treatment and pose for staged photos, and touting an experimental antibody treatment as "a cure" which he has promised to make available for free to every American (a prospect which is likely impossible).

Donald Trump breathing

If these and other measures are enough to solidify the narrative that Trump has quickly recovered from a severe viral infection, and that the pandemic will soon be handled, then it's unlikely that Totally Under Control will make much of a difference at all.

But if, by next Tuesday, recent uncertainty and skepticism remain in effect and people who would otherwise be resistant to this kind of exposé are desperate for a peak behind the curtain, this documentary has the potential to grab the country's attention and maybe even persuade a significant percentage of voters who would otherwise have ignored it.

For the time being, the race remains tight, and Donald Trump's underhanded tactics have the potential to erase Joe Biden's narrow lead in key states. But if enough people see what administration insiders have to say about Trump's chaotic and deadly approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, the balance could shift solidly to a Democratic victory.

Only time will tell.

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