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Billy Ray: Movies and Messaging

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Billy Ray: Movies and Messaging

Billy Ray is an award-winning film producer, director, and writer whose credits include The Comey Rule, Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games, and a project in development titled J6, about the assault on the US Capitol. In his free time, he works with Democratic candidates to improve their messaging and communication, specifically as they relate to independents and disillusioned republicans.

Ken Harbaugh:

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Billy Ray:

As recently as a year ago, people were talking about the radical left. It's very clear that that doesn't exist anymore. And if I were a Democrat, I would not use the word Republican for the next 10 months. I would say to my voters, "You have a simple choice. It's me or the radical right. Me or the party of Trump, corruption, and QAnon," which are all code words for chaos. I think that's the way to talk to people now.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Billy Ray, an award-winning film producer, director, and writer whose credits include The Comey Rule, Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games, and a project in development titled J6, about the assault on the US Capitol. Billy, I can't wait to hear more about that. Welcome to Burn the Boats.

Billy Ray:

Thanks for having me. It's an honor.

Ken Harbaugh:

Before we get into the Hollywood stuff, I should let people know that you and I met a couple years ago on the campaign trail. And I recently heard you describe yourself as no longer just a check-writing Democrat, but a full-time Democrat. What do you mean by that? What drove you to it?

Billy Ray:

Well, prior to 2016, I literally was just a check-writing Democrat. If a candidate appealed to me, I would try to help them out. But it was usually on the federal level. It was presidential candidates. After the election of Trump, I was pretty flattened. I've never had that kind of reaction to an election in my lifetime. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I was kind of a mess. And I decided I could never again wake up the morning after an election thinking, "I could have done more," or, "I should have done more." So I looked for a lane in which I thought I could be helpful, and I chose House races in 2018. And I started working with candidates, Democratic candidates running in red districts. You were one of them. And my attempt was rather than just help them out financially with fundraisers or phone banking or anything like that, all of which I was happy to do, and I had a bunch of town halls. I wanted to work with them one on one on messaging. I wanted to learn more about why people voted the way they did, and communicate that to candidates in a way that I thought would be useful. But specifically, I wanted to help them learn how to sound less like Democrats, how to make the kinds of arguments that an independent voter could hear. So working with some very, very smart people who were political messaging experts, I learned as fast as I could, and wound up working with 30 candidates in that cycle, again, all running in red districts, and 21 of them won. I can't take credit for those wins. Those were great candidates. But I know that in some of the close races, we helped, and that put me on the radar of the party. So I'm now at a place where I'm regularly doing messaging for about 65 elected members of the House and Senate, and another 30 that are running in this next cycle, all for the same low, low price of zero. It's about half my day, but I don't know how not to do it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you give us an example of specific ways in which language, in which particular semantics actually make all the difference when it comes to persuasion? I've heard you change a few words around and completely shift the way a political audience might respond to a particular message. Do I need to prompt you, or do you know kind of what I'm talking about?

Billy Ray:

No I do. I mean, I'll give you an example. The day after January 6th, I sent an email to all the electeds that I work with. And I said, "Please, don't call it an insurrection. Don't use the word coup. Don't reach for any rhetorical flourishes, like 'temple of democracy.' Just talk about it as a crime. Everybody understands what a crime is, and nobody likes crime. Everybody knows trespassing is bad. Everybody knows battery is bad. Everybody knows destruction of property is bad, and everybody really knows that assaulting a police officer is bad. So don't frame it like a coup, which is a word that no American can possibly understand. Just talk about it like a workplace lockdown. Everybody knows that if you're working in an office and a bunch of armed people are coming down the hall, and you have to barricade behind a door, that's bad. So just talk about it in those terms, in terms people can understand. They'll reach their own conclusions about how high up it went, but just make sure that people understand that you're not politicizing the event, that you are just talking about it in its most nuts-and-bolt way. That's an example of using language to message in a very, very specific way.

Ken Harbaugh:

And is the goal any more, persuasion? Because I know you have strong feelings about, I guess, the psychological underpinnings of what makes someone a Republican or a Democrat. Are we past the point where there's a large enough middle that persuasion matters?

Billy Ray:

Not at all. I think 30% of this country has always been crazy. I mean it. Go back and look at some of the writings from the Revolutionary War, or certainly pre-Civil War. 30% of this country was crazy. The day Richard Nixon left office, his approval rating was 29%. Those are people that cannot be dissuaded from their point of view. No amount of evidence is going to move them. The difference now is they never had the internet before to find one another. Now they do. So they seem like a more fused block of people, and in fact, they are. So let's put those aside. Those are not reachable people. But the number of people that actually move an election, that swing it one way or another, are always independent voters. That's always been true in America.

I think there are more independent voters now than there ever have been. And within that slice, 26% of those independent voters nationally are undecided, and they will determine every election, House, Senate, and presidential. And yes, they can absolutely be persuaded. Of course they can be persuaded, because they're independents. They may be conservative-leaning, and I suspect that they are, but my entire endeavor in this is to talk to candidates about how to frame things so that those independent voters can be moved. Shockingly, among those undecided independents, Trump is radioactive. With them, his approval is at 20, his disapproval is at 67. I saw a poll just this week that 73% of undecided independents think that Trump has made this country much crazier than it was only 10 years ago. Yes, of course they can be moved, and the whole point is to target them.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can they be moved in the right places? I mean, it doesn't matter a lot if they can be moved in California or... I mean, it matters if they can be moved in Wisconsin and in Ohio.

Billy Ray:

Okay, so let's take Wisconsin. I'm a little gun shy about Ohio, as I imagine you are too, because that state is getting older and Whiter. But in 2016, 6.2 million Americans who had voted for Obama then voted for Trump. So let's just call them flip voters. And whether they register as Democrat or Republican, they behave like independents. They are very much in play. If they could vote for Obama and then turn around and vote for Trump, they're just voting for change, right? So of those 6.2 million, 1.3 million were in just three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. No surprise. Those were the three biggest surprises that Trump carried on that day. So someone did a really deep dive study of those 1.3 million American voters, and here's what they discovered. They discovered that on average, those voters work two and a half jobs. On average, they commute three hours per day, and on average, they think about politics four minutes per week. So the trick is to find an argument that will meet that voter where he or she lives. I can tell you what that argument is not, for sure. You go up to that guy who's working two and a half jobs, commuting three hours per day, and thinking about politics four hours per week, he's probably got a mom in a nursing home. He's probably taking medication every other day to make 30 pills last 60 days. Maybe he's got a kid with special needs. You go up to that guy and tell him he's got White privilege and that you don't like his pronouns, he's going to tell you to go screw yourself. And he should. So Democrats are not going to reach that voter with that kind of argument. What Democrats need to do to reach that voter, as I said, is to meet him where he or she is, which means talking about the things that that voter cares about, and making sure not to step on the landmines, which are largely cultural issues, that Democrats seem so determined to step on.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think in this era of nationalized politics where every local race, every school board race seems to be about a national issue, be it CRT or whatever, that the messaging crafted at that local level can break through, can actually eclipse the messaging that that voter is getting from Fox news or wherever else? I mean, does the local one-on-one communication from candidate to constituent matter?

Billy Ray:

I think it does. Whenever I'm talking to a candidate, one of the questions I always ask them is, "How aware are your voters of where your district or your state fits in the national picture?" In Senate races, it's much more acute. In Senate races, I think people do think, "Okay, this affects the balance of power of the Senate," and so they start to think on a national level. But in House races, they really don't. No one in your district in Ohio is thinking, "Oh, this race is really critical because this could be the one that tilts the House in favor or against my political party." They're thinking strictly about local issues.

And what they're thinking about mostly, in my experience, is chaos. The thing that makes a conservative a conservative on a psychological level, the thing that fuses them together, is their shared fear of chaos. That's what's been aimed at every Republican voter for as long as I've been alive. You go back to 1988, the Willie Horton ad, which essentially said, "If you vote for Michael Dukakis, a black convict on furlough is going to come murder your family." Well, that's a straight up chaos ad. That is saying that Democrats equal chaos, Democrats are soft on crime. Then after 9/11, it became "Democrats are soft on terror." Then it became "Democrats are for open borders." Then it became "Democrats are socialists. Democrats are for defund the police." None of this was ever true, but it didn't matter, because it was a promise of, "We'll shield you from chaos. The Democrats equal chaos." Now, it's "Democrats are for burning cities," which is also not true, but that's not the point. The point is that if you give a conservative voter the choice between authoritarianism and what they perceive to be chaos, they'll pick authoritarianism every time. They will gladly sacrifice civil liberties in order to feel safe.

So Democrats have to campaign in a way that makes it clear that they are in fact the antidote to chaos. Chaos is 30 cars backed up in a hospital parking lot, because there are no ICU beds available. Chaos is people showing up to polling places with AR-15s. Chaos is January 6th. Democrats are actually the opposite of that. Democrats are for effective, robust, competent government. And the whole purpose of government is to get the big things out of the way so that people aren't beset by chaos so that they can just go lead their lives, and Democrats have to sell that message. On a local level, it's extremely popular.

Ken Harbaugh:

But I take it that your position now is that an alarmingly high percentage of voters are opting for, in their calculus, authoritarianism over chaos.

Billy Ray:

Absolutely. I think that's really, really clear. Look, I don't think that is a very successful strategy long-term for the GOP. Republican self-identification is down 25% in the last 13 months. The party is certainly not growing, which is why the ranks of independent voters are swelling. And in fact, in a generic House ballot, Republican versus Democrat, Republicans have lost 8% just since last November. That's only two months ago. So the message isn't particularly inspiring. Trump going out there and whining about an election that he clearly lost, that's not inspiring. That's not going to bring down the price of rice, so I don't think it's a winner as a strategy. But again, if what they're selling is fear, there will be a certain percentage of the population that's going to respond to it.

If you take liberals and conservatives and expose them to the same personality tests, they will score differently. The brains of liberals and conservatives are wired in a very, very different way, and these things are fixed. You can't move somebody off of them. So Democrats have to learn an entire new language in order to speak to conservative voters. I think part of that is to stop calling them Republicans, because the Republican Party as you and I knew it, doesn't exist anymore. By 17 percentage points, Americans now believe that there are more extremists on the right than on the left. That's a seismic shift from where it's ever been before. I mean, as recently as a year ago, people were talking about the radical left. It's very clear that that doesn't exist anymore. And if I were a Democrat, I would not use the word Republican for the next 10 months. I would say to my voters, "You have a simple choice. It's me or the radical right. Me or the party of Trump, corruption, and QAnon," which are all code words for chaos. I think that's the way to talk to people now.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think our shared fear is that even though the numbers of Republicans might be dwindling, it doesn't take many among the hardcore... What was Rumsfeld's phrase? The ‘never-enders’ hanging on to burn everything down. I mean, you have 70% of Republicans, upwards of that now, saying that the election was stolen. You have low double digits, but still upwards of 10% of Republicans saying political violence might be necessary. They might be a minority even within their own party, but in aggregate, those numbers are terrifying compared to where they were just a decade ago, much less a generation ago. And it didn't take a handful to nearly take over the Capitol and hang Mike Pence, and put Pelosi on trial on live TV. I mean, that's a real threat.

Billy Ray:

It is a real threat. I don't mean to minimize it at all. What I'm saying is that politically, it's a loser. And Democrats need to be aware of what it is. They need to be aware of why it moves a certain percentage of the population the way that it does. And Democrats need to understand what they do to make the radical right's campaign slightly more believable, and slightly more appealing. And that is that if Democrats govern as if they are afraid of AOC's Twitter feed, then we don't deserve to lead. So we can't do that anymore. When the board of education in San Francisco does something as insane as saying, "We don't want to name schools after Abraham Lincoln anymore. He's not woke enough," well, that day, Democrats as one should have said, "That's bananas. That does not stand. That does not speak for us at all. That does not represent our values at all."

In the same way that when the BLM protests, which were 99.9% peaceful... When a few people showed up and things started to burn, Democrats needed immediately to say, "This does not speak for me. Violence and Antifa do not speak for me. I disavow them completely." If you do that, and you are running against a Republican, I'm sorry, a member of the radical right... I almost broke my own rules there. If you're running against a member of the radical right who refuses to disavow QAnon, well then you've given the voter a very, very clear distinction between how our party views things and how the radical right views things. I also think it's really important that Democrats draw a very sharp line between the extreme fringe of the right and the extreme fringe of the left, because they're not the same thing, and they're not the equivalent of one another. Their extreme fringe wants to end democracy and create fascism, and our extreme fringe wants everyone to go to college for free. So let's not say that they're the same thing, because they're not.

Ken Harbaugh:

No, they're not. I like to invoke the ‘babysitter test’. If you want to compare... You brought her up, so AOC and Matt Gaetz. I might disagree with AOC on policy matters, but I'd sure as hell rather have her babysitting my kids than Matt Gaetz.

Billy Ray:

That's a no-brainer, and a very, very good way to put it. I like that. I'm writing that down.

Ken Harbaugh:

The babysitter test. Yeah, use that.

I want to shift gears to your current project, because I have a feeling that you see that as your contribution, one of your professional contributions, to this fight, the idea that we have got to describe January 6th as what it was. And I think people have already commented about your approach to this being journalistic in nature. If I can find it quickly enough... Yeah, there it is. One of the comments that stuck out to me was that your journalistic approach will make it more difficult for opportunistic politicians and pundits to rewrite history about what happened on January 6th. Your effort here isn't just about entertainment. You want to plant a flag, right?

Billy Ray:

Look, I've always made movies about my country. Captain Phillips was one of them. Richard Jewell was another. Since 2016, I've felt an obligation to make movies for my country. The thing that I did for Showtime in 2020 called The Comey Rule, which is about Donald Trump and James Comey, that was for my country. That was because I wanted people to see a different side of a news event that they thought they understood. This is the same sort of thing. If I were to ask you, "What happened on Apollo 13," your brain immediately goes to Ron Howard's movie. If I were to ask you, "Who shot JFK," your brain goes to Oliver Stone's movie. And I humbly would suggest if someone said to you, "What happened to Captain Phillips," your brain would go to my movie, or at least the movie that I made with Paul Greengrass directing and Tom Hanks starring, because I don't ever want to diminish their incredible contributions. My point is that movies matter. Movies make an imprint on people, and they stay in our collective memory.

I want to be the one chronicling January 6th, because I don't trust anybody out there to do it as even-handedly as I'm going to. I'm going to make a movie that has really no political content to it at all. This is an on-the-ground view of a handful of protestors who became rioters, and a handful of cops who fought them back. And that's all it is. It doesn't go into the White House. It doesn't have any political speechifying. Nancy Pelosi's not a character in this. Neither is Mike Pence. When I depict them, they will be stock footage. They'll be their real selves. I think that's really important. And what I'm trying to do is the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. I want to do something that is frenetic and breathless so that people understand the level of violence that existed in a couple different hotspots in the Capitol on that day.

Ken Harbaugh:

How has your understanding of that day changed as you've dived into the mechanics of what was happening, how the forces were being arranged? I mean, looking at the overhead, it really is like a battle map.

Billy Ray:

Oh, yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

And then also having the opportunity to talk to people on the front lines on both sides, which I know you've done, and you've talked about wanting to stay in the trenches of this story. Have you come upon new insights that have changed your thinking?

Billy Ray:

For sure. Well, let's start with one fundamental assumption. Nobody on either side woke up the morning of January 6th thinking, "I'm going to go do something evil today." They all believed that they were saving their country. Those protestors who became rioters absolutely believed that they were doing something righteous. They absolutely believed that an election had been stolen. And there's more than one anecdotal story about people who, as they were beating up cops, were saying to those cops, "Jesus forgives you." They clearly believed that they were doing something right. They were wrong, but I don't doubt their sincerity. By the way, I'm putting White nationalists in a separate bucket, but I'm saying 99% of the people that were there thought they were saving their country. By the way, as did the cops.

So if we look at it that way, we all had a very different idea of what had happened in the 2020 election than those people, and those people were fed an incredible amount of misinformation and disinformation that led otherwise reasonable people to do some very, very unreasonable things. So let's just start with that as a fundamental assumption. In that way, there are no bad guys in the story. There are a lot of Americans approaching something very fundamental with fundamentally different assumptions, and half of them were just incorrect. So there's that. Then on a more macro level, the thing that was so shocking to me as I investigated the event was how on every level imaginable, the leadership of the United States Capitol Police let down the rank and file of the United States Capitol Police, and got a lot of people badly hurt, and some killed. And I know there's a lot of suspicion about "Were there like-minded individuals in the Capitol Police who actually allowed this riot to happen." I have not seen evidence of that. What I've seen is a lot of evidence that people in the Capitol Police believed that a White mob could never really be a mob. They just viewed it in a fundamentally different way. So they weren't running around with their hair on fire, even as intel was coming in from several field offices of the FBI and the headquarters of the FBI that there was a real problem coming. You wound up with less security on that day than you would have for a normal July 4th concert at the Capitol. I mean, that's insane.

Harry Dunn, who became sort of famous as a result of January 6th, he was sent out the night of January 5th with a van to go pick up helmets for his fellow cops. He was sent to the government printing office, which is a depot for Capitol Police. And when he got there with the van, he was told that the FedEx truck had been late, and so the helmets hadn't been scanned into inventory yet. Can you come back tomorrow?

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you remind our listeners about the Harry Dunn CCTV shot, who he was. They'll immediately remember if you paint the picture.

Billy Ray:

Harry Dunn is a six-foot-seven African American Capitol Police officer who performed heroically on the day, and wound up having kind of a meltdown moment in the rotunda at the end of the day when the building had been secured, and when he found that there were caught cops who were still sort of coddling rioters. He's the guy who broke down and said, "Is this America? I got called an ‘N’ 15 times today. Is this America? I'm so tired of this. This was essentially a race riot, and we've got White cops that are still supporting Trump. How is that possible?" And he just slid to the ground next to a statue of Gerald Ford in the rotunda, and just started crying. And his testimony about that was so powerful that he became kind of quasi-famous.

But the night before January 6th, he was just a guy in a van sent out by his sergeant to pick up helmets, only to be told that those helmets weren't ready. So it's a very micro example of the ways in which the Capitol Police brass did not have the backs of the rank and file of the Capitol Police. And the last thing to think about is who helped to make this possible. And from what I'm being told by people who have been investigating this at the bureau at various old offices and at headquarters, is that there is absolutely predication to file charges against several sitting members of Congress for aiding and abetting in the planning of this riot. And I believe that's coming. I believe those charges are coming, and I believe charges are coming for Mark Meadows and Steve Bannon and several other people in the White House. I'm going to stop short of saying that I think charges are coming for Donald Trump, because although I am absolutely convinced and have been told that there's adequate predication for those charges to be filed as well, there's a real cost benefit analysis that has to go on before the United States government decides that it wants to establish the precedent of charging a former president with a crime, especially if that former president is going to be charged with crimes in Georgia and the state of New York, both of which I think are going to happen.

Ken Harbaugh:

For the members of Congress who aided and abetted for Mark Meadows, can't they just run out the clock?

Billy Ray:

Sure. That'll be the attempt. That's why the committee has to move fast, and the committee has to provide plenty of information to the FBI, which is all going to happen. Oddly, the FBI is much more limited in its scope in terms of how it can investigate crimes like these than the committee is. The FBI has to get warrants and all kinds of things that are controlled by judges, and they have to be very specific in terms of what they're investigating. The January 6th committee does not. It's not handcuffed in that way at all. So the January 6th committee can investigate in a very, very broad fashion, and it can uncover information that it can then hand to the DOJ so that the DOJ can file charges.

Ken Harbaugh:

What's your prediction for the 2022 midterms?

Billy Ray:

Too early to tell. I see a lot of fatalism inside the Democratic Party, people saying that because it's an off year election with a Democratic president, that we're fated to lose seats. I don't think that's true at all. I think you can take every rule that you knew to be true about politics pre-Trump and just throw it out the window. I don't think any of those rules apply anymore. I think the election of 2016 so totally changed the norms and the game itself, but I just don't think we can take old maxims and assume that they're going to be true. Also, Democrats were so freaked out about gerrymandering, but gerrymandering nationally is kind of a wash, so we're not going to lose seats to gerrymandering. We have to get some version of voting rights legislation passed. That's really important. You cannot have a circumstance where partisan members of the radical right are in charge of counting ballots. That has to be fought in the courts, and we'll win there. And then the Democrats have to now pivot, and Ted Lieu is sort of leading the charge on this. Democrats now have to start saying to Democratic voters, "Yeah, your vote's going to matter. Your vote's going to matter more than ever, and your vote is going to be counted. No, no one can bring you a bottle of water if you're waiting in line for six hours in Georgia. That's against the law," although personally I'm planning on going to Georgia and doing that. But yeah, your vote is going to count. It's going to be harder to vote. You can't mail it in, and there's all sorts of impediments put in front of you, but yeah, you can still vote, and you have to. And if we get that message out, I expect us to gain seats in 2022. I think that other party's in a death spiral.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you worried about the counting of ballots more than ballot access?

Billy Ray:

Sure. But again, that's a fight we just have to win in the courts. I mean, again, take out that 30% of America that's crazy. Just eliminate them. People who have considered themselves conservatives and Republicans for a long time, they don't want a world in which Republicans count all the ballots. They actually believe in democracy. They feel fundamentally differently than I do about tariffs and policy. Remember, in 2000, which is not that long ago, when Gore was running against W, the gap between them was that one was saying that the tax rate should be 39%, and the other was saying, the tax rate should be 34%. And they were both saying, "Oh my God, your version is the end of the world." That was the delta between two presidential candidates 22 years ago. We're not that far removed from that. There's some basic assumptions about our democracy that both sides agree to still. And again, I believe that if we can fight in the courts what everybody knows to be anti-democracy and just straight up authoritarianism, I expect us to do really well.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think it was Stalin... I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like, "I don't care who votes or how. I care who counts the votes and how."

Billy Ray:

Well, I don't think Americans want to live in that world. The majority of Americans do not want to live in that world.

Ken Harbaugh:

No, they don't.

For that persuadable independent in the middle, is January 6th an issue?

Billy Ray:

I haven't seen a ton of data on that, so I don't want to pretend that I know more about that one than I do. The GOP is trying to make it seem like the Democrats are just making a big fuss over nothing, and I suspect that undecided independents know better than that. If Trump has a 67% disapproval with them, my guess is they have some pretty hardened opinions about what January 6th represented. You can't make people unsee something that they saw for themselves.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is it true on that day that the insurrectionists, at least those on the front lines, were convinced that the cops were going to join them?

Billy Ray:

Oh, yeah. I mean, that was central to everything. You see people were being interviewed on their way out of the Capitol on that day as they were trying to get their eyes washed. The thing that they said over and over again was, "The cops were fighting us." They were just incredulous about it. The whole plan was that like-minded cops were going to aid and abet the rioters on that day. And by the way, 90 to 95% of the people who rioted on that day were completely unorganized, with no plan. They were just people who got swept up in a moment. I would say conservatively 5, to maybe the end of the spectrum being 10%, of the people who were at the Capitol on that day were organized in any fashion, and a lot of those were Oath Keepers. And we can have a whole conversation about the Oath Keepers that is especially pertinent to you, because the center of that was the Ohio Oath Keepers. But yes, of course those people believed that the cops were going to help them. Because if you would've walked into the break room of the United States Capitol Police, which is four stories underneath the floor of the Capitol, if you would've walked into that break room on January 6th, you would've been walking into South Africa. Half the room was White cops with shaved heads watching Fox News, and the other half of the room was Black cops watching ESPN. And you had White cops on that day who were wearing Trump t-shirts underneath their uniforms. So yeah, you'd have reason to believe if you were in MAGA nation that those White cops were absolutely going to join forces with you. What they didn't realize was that some of those cops wearing those Trump t-shirts, those were the biggest ass-kickers of the day. Those were the people that were fighting the rioters the hardest.

And I can think of a couple examples in particular where at the end of the day, those cops who were wearing Trump t-shirts that were now soaked orange because there was so much bear spray that they were sweating out, those cops were saying to the Black cops, "Don't ever say the name Trump to me again, ever. That MF got friends of mine killed today." And they stopped being Republicans on that day. So the rioters were counting on help from those people. And I think there were several members of the GOP congressional caucus that were pretty sure that cops were going to aid and abet the rioters on that day, and I think that was the bet. And once they saw that that wasn't happening, then you saw the Boeberts and the Gosars and the Biggs of the world, they sort of ran for cover. But I think had the cops done what they expected, what the Boeberts of the world expected the cops to do, I think we would've had a very, very different outcome.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is there anything we can learn from the experiences of those cops who had the Trump t-shirts on, and having lived through what they lived through now disavow that? I mean, you spent a lot of time with Michael Fanone who voted for Trump as well, or was a Republican. I mean, it's impossible to simulate that experience for the average Trump voter or insurrection-adjacent Republican, but is there some way to package and share the visceral experience of someone like Michael Fanone so that other people kind of experience that conversion without having to suffer the way he did?

Billy Ray:

Well, yeah. I mean, that's why I'm making the movie.

Ken Harbaugh:

There you go.

Billy Ray:

That's the point of it. But look, if you can think back to a moment when you were in a fraternity in college, or any organization, any institution that was larger than just yourself... I can remember distinctly being very gung ho about my fraternity in college, and then seeing my fraternity do some things that were a real turnoff to me, and it made me feel differently about them. Sometimes, you need to get a belly full of the thing that you said you wanted and then find out, "Oh, that's not at all what I wanted." I think that's what happened to those cops on that day. I think they saw a very, very ugly side of MAGA, certainly a very, very ugly side of the militia movement, and it was not what they thought it would be.

You feel very differently about people that you thought you agreed with when they're hitting you in the face with a hockey stick, or the pole of a flag, or a baseball bat. And remember, we now know as much as Louie Gohmert, the Congressman from Texas, likes to lie out loud that there was no one armed there that day, forgetting the baseball bats and the machetes and the Molotov cocktails, there were plenty of firearms there. The latest number I've come to is at least 50. 50 firearms there. So of course these people were armed. Well, if I'm a cop, I'm going to take that personally, and it's going to make me question all that I thought I knew about a movement that I had been proud of as recently as that morning.

Ken Harbaugh:

Your film is scripted, right?

Billy Ray:

It's scripted, but it's not fictionalized. It's dramatized.

Ken Harbaugh:

Got it, dramatized. I need to familiarize myself with the terms of art. Is that because that's your comfort zone, or it's hard to get the right interviews to make the documentary? Or do you think that a scripted treatment is what's going to reach the people you need to reach?

Billy Ray:

I think you have to have a healthy respect for what you're not good at. I've never made a documentary before. There's no reason to believe that I would make the best documentary about January 6th, and I think a lot of people are going to attempt who have a lot more experience there than I do. But I feel capable of making this as a narrative film. I feel like I do know how to do that, and I think I know where to shine the light. And I think people will be stunned that the movie is as even-handed as it is. And I can promise you, I'm not going to put anything in there that I can't prove.

Ken Harbaugh:

As careful as you are, and as respectful as you are of the material, people are going to say this is just leftist propaganda.

Billy Ray:

That's fine.

Ken Harbaugh:

That's going to happen.

Billy Ray:

Yeah. And then by the way, I'll get slammed by the left, who will find in it rightist propaganda. That's okay. That's what happened on The Comey Rule, too.

Ken Harbaugh:

There is a dominant narrative, though, that the left dominates the cultural conversation.

Billy Ray:

That is an absolute joke, just an absolute joke. I think it's one of the biggest lies in existence today. Are you telling me that in one of the zillions of truck stops in America, that the New York Times has more sway than Fox News? I mean, can anyone say that with a straight face? There's nothing funnier to me than Marjorie Taylor Greene, who violates the rules of Twitter and gets banned from Twitter, then going on Fox News to say, "I've been silenced." If you're on Fox News, you're not being silenced. You're being seen by all of America. And it's adorable that people make this claim that somehow the Washington Post has anything to do with anything when someone runs for Congress in Kansas. They just don't. Now, where I think the left has an oversized impact is certainly on college campuses across America, where it seems like we are just running the woke Olympic, and I think education is suffering for that. That's absolutely true. But to say that the media itself is controlled by the left is just demonstrably, empirically untrue.

Ken Harbaugh:

We've got two Senate candidates here in Ohio that complain ad nauseam on Twitter that they're being silenced right on Twitter.

Billy Ray:

Right. Well look, Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance are two of the most disingenuous, cynical pricks in American politics today. And that is no small boast, because there's a lot of competition out there. They are such performers. They're such liars. The corruption, the moral corruption runs so deep with those two guys. I'm not sure that they actually believe a word that they say. It may all be performance art. But even if it's not, even if they actually believe some of the crap that they are spewing, it is incredibly dangerous, and I think they're going to get their asses kicked by Tim Ryan, personally.

Ken Harbaugh:

We don't have a ton of time left, so I want to get inside your head on the writing process, something that has always fascinated me. And I recall you saying at one point when you were writing The Hunger Games that you did it from a frame of mind that believed it was actually happening, that a government was doing this to children. Talk to me about that frame of mind, and how it feeds your creativity.

Billy Ray:

Look, nobody wants to feel like a fraud. Nobody likes to feel like they're telling something that's inauthentic, and therefore unworthy. Pablo Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that tells us the truth," and I thought that was pretty profound. There are experiences that are just outside the width of my knowledge, and some of them I can write about, and some of them I cannot. I've never been to Iran. I've never been to Iraq. I've never been to Afghanistan. I could not and would not under any circumstances write a movie that was set there, because I would just feel like a fraud, and anything I wrote would be completely derivative of things other people had written.

I did feel that I could go to the FBI or to The New Republic magazine when I was making movies about those things, and I could learn the rhythms of that and make it feel real. Well, when I was doing The Hunger Games, I just put myself in the mindset of "This is actually happening," and "How dare a government do this to children." And I wrote it from a place of complete moral outrage. And it could be because at that time, my kids were 14 and 9, so it was easy for me to plug into that kind of outrage. It doesn't happen in every movie, but when it does happen, you write it in a different way. At this moment in my career, they all have to feel true to me, or I just can't get excited to write them.

Ken Harbaugh:

I loved Shattered Glass, by the way.

Billy Ray:

Thank you.

Ken Harbaugh:

There is a dystopian, even apocalyptic through line in a lot of your writing, all the way back to Earth 2 in the mid-90s, which worries me given your current project and what it portends for American society. Where do you land on the pessimist-optimist scale for our future?

Billy Ray:

I need to be optimistic. I just have to be, or I can't get through the day. I can't be a good parent if I'm not encouraging my kids that things are going to be okay. And that doesn't mean that I'm blue skying them. It doesn't mean that I'm deluding them about the challenges that face our country and our democracy, but I cannot allow the negativity that I see around me to seep into my lungs, because the prospect of that is so bleak. I won't be able to function. As I said, I provide messaging for a lot of elected members of the House and Senate, and another 30 people that are running as hopeful members of Congress in this cycle. I can't sell them on what I feel their messaging needs to be if I don't believe that it's going to work, if I don't believe that this country can be saved.

What happened in 2020 that actually saved our democracy, forgetting January 6th, was that in November and December, Republican members of electoral boards in places like Michigan and Wisconsin and Georgia stood up and did the right thing when fascist members of the radical right decided to just fabricate stories and to try to steal an election that had been lawfully won by Joe Biden. It was Republicans who stopped them from doing it. That streak is very strong in America. That sense of public service is very real. One of the reasons why I wanted to make The Comey Rule was because I knew that Trump had unfairly, and I think cruelly, called a bunch of people the deep state, when in fact they were just public servants who cared a great deal about our country's democracy, and cared a lot about the apolitical intentions of the institutions that make that democracy possible.

Well, I think all those people are still out there. The challenges facing them are great, but I think they're still there. And I think that a vast number of Americans want an apolitical institution to determine our elections. And as long as that's true, and as long as the American military takes seriously its oath to the Constitution, which I believe it does, I believe this is a fight we're going to win. But we got to do our part.

Ken Harbaugh:

Indeed. Well, Billy, it's been fantastic having you on. I can't wait to see J6 when it comes out…

Billy Ray:

Thank You. And thank you for the babysitter test. That's really good. I'm going to use that.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'll look forward to hearing it out there on someone else's campaign trail. Keep up the work, helping out those incredible candidates. Thanks again.

Billy Ray:

Thank you, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Billy for joining me.

You can find him on Twitter at @BillyRay5529

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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