Almost no one outside of New York state noticed when in 2010, Carl Paladino, a superrich real estate developer, came out of nowhere to beat a cadre of drab Republican politicians and seize the GOP gubernatorial nomination. In fact, almost no one inside New York state noticed: Andrew Cuomo clobbered Paladino in the general election, beating him 63 percent to 33 percent.
Yet in hindsight, it’s self-evident that Paladino — now the subject of “Adversary,” a new documentary from Field of Vision — was a foreshock for the world-shaking earthquake that was the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. The degree to which Paladino is simply a miniature version of Trump is uncanny:
- Paladino is a New York real estate developer based in Buffalo, not Manhattan, with a net worth of merely $150 million.
- He swept many of New York’s western and rural counties – places disdained by the faraway glittering metropolis — but nowhere near enough to win.
- He is a famous longtime, local crank, but on the Buffalo stage, not New York City’s. He once declared, “The day [Obamacare] was passed will be remembered just as 9/11 was remembered in history.”
- He’s given to vile, newsworthy eruptions of racism and hatred, but on a monthly or yearly basis, rather than a daily one.
- He boasted he was going to fund his own campaign and then kind of did, often paying his own companies — but did so on a smaller scale, spending $8 million to Trump’s $66 million.
- His candidacy revealed that he’d cheated on his wife in a particularly degrading way, though less ambitiously than Trump did.
- He was advised by Roger Stone, but without the international intrigue.
- He occasionally tells the truth in ways that cause his party extreme dyspepsia, but on less significant issues. For example, he once went after Verizon and National Grid for gouging local customers, in contrast to Trump’s unorthodox attacks on the Iraq War and pharmaceutical prices.
- He was literally a part of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, though just as co-chair of its New York state branch.
- He was even born in the same year as Trump, 1946, but is slightly younger and physically smaller.
Most importantly, Paladino, like Trump, falls squarely in America’s most inexplicable demographic: old, wealthy white men who hold 94 percent of the power in U.S. society, and yet are filled with fury that they’re denied the remaining 6 percent. They are The Onion’s “shrieking, white-hot sphere of pure rage.”
“Adversary,” directed by Scott Cummings, is a subtle portrait of Paladino and his Buffalo milieu that should encourage everyone who’s frightened by the Trumpist flavor of demagoguery. It turns out that when the klieg lights are turned off, these men shrink dramatically and can be beaten by everyday people willing to engage in civics class-level citizenship.
What’s surprising about Paladino is that after losing the race for governor, he didn’t pour his energy into becoming a national right-wing media hero. Instead, in 2013, he ran for perhaps the least glamorous public office in America: the Buffalo School Board. And he won, becoming one of its nine members.
You don’t have to admire Paladino’s ideology or his rectitude (he appears to have personally profited from the charter school policies he pushed) to appreciate that Trump would be more likely to run the Boston Marathon than show up at a school board meeting. Unlike Trump, Paladino does, in fact, care about something beyond being on or watching TV.
However, what Paladino cares about is extremely unpopular when he presents it openly in the daily grind of local politics. At one point, “Adversary” shows Paladino speaking at a Trump campaign rally, asking the crowd, “Are we mad? Are we going to let the nation see how mad we are?” But that’s all he offers his epinephrine-addicted followers: thrilling permission to let their angry frustration loose on whichever targets Paladino names. When appearing at public school board meetings under the fluorescent lights, Paladino and his program appear as they actually are — pathetic, old, and exhausted.
Of course, people like Paladino can still win if everyone else just cedes the field. What “Adversary” depicts is what effective fighting back looks like: regular human beings getting the basic tools of self-governance down out of the attic and using them once again.
Most importantly, “Adversary” quietly implies, this process must be led by young people. By far the most vivid characters in the movie are two teenagers, 18-year-old Austin Harig and 17-year-old Jayden McClam. When Paladino ran for re-election in 2016, Harig nearly beat him just by going from door to door to talk to neighbors. McClam belongs to a local group of activists called Just Resisting and plays a prominent role in efforts to remove Paladino from office when he tops even himself right after Trump is elected.
In December 2016, a local weekly publication in Buffalo called Art Voice asked several notable residents, including Paladino, what they wanted to happen in 2017. Paladino’s answer:
Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret [sic], who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady [sic] cell mate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her. … I’d like [Michelle Obama] to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.
When criticized for this, Paladino convincingly responded: “It has nothing to do with race. That’s the typical stance of the press when they can’t otherwise defend the acts of the person being attacked.” (If you believe the second sentence isn’t even internally logical, you are correct.)
You’ll have to watch “Adversary” to see what happened next. But if you’re worried that Trumpism can’t be defeated, you’ll see that it can be and it’s not complicated to achieve. It just requires a lot of work.