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Four Films That Explain the Rise of Donald Trump

The unthinkable has happened. Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for President. While the establishment wing of the Republican Party has quickly cycled through the stages of grief, most Americans are left with feelings of shock, bewilderment and fear. But the ingredients necessary for the bloviating billionaire’s political ascension aren’t anything new. Trump has simply risen through the cult of personality, combined with a fractured and evolving media landscape, plus the ugliest aspects of populism by pandering to the crudest aspects of racial resentment, which remains deep-seated in the psyche of white males nationwide. Over the decades, cinema has dealt with the issues that have abetted the vulgar mogul’s path to the nomination.

Based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the character of Charles Foster Kane from Orson Welles’ classic “Citizen Kane” is the closest approximation to Donald Trump in the cinema. Both Trump and Kane are born into their fortunes, yet each carry themselves with the hubris of a self-made man. Earlier in his campaign, Trump famously stated that he got started with “a small loan of a million dollars.” In a similar fashion, Kane is self-assured in proclaiming that he’s “always gagged on that silver spoon.” Perhaps the scariest realization is that both actually believe it.

In the context of 2016’s election, any number of quotes about Charles Foster Kane could be applied to his modern day counterpart. “Spoke for millions of Americans,” the opening voiceover of the film proclaims about Kane, “was hated by as many more.” Later, the authoritative narrator says, “No public man whom Kane himself didn’t support or denounce. Often support, then denounce.” Think of this statement when viewing past pictures of Trump and his newfound political rival Hillary Clinton smiling together. Statements in “Kane” from Jedediah Leland, Kane’s closest friend, echo some of the attacks levied against Trump in the campaign—“I don’t suppose anybody ever had so many opinions. But he never believed in anything except Charlie Kane. He never had a conviction except Charlie Kane in his life.”

Both the fictitious Kane and the real life Trump have their own political ambitions, and each tries to frame themselves as fighting for the working man. In a stump speech, Leland calls Kane “the friend of the working man.” The film then takes to the iconic imagery of Kane giving an impassioned speech while standing before a massive poster of his own visage. Like Trump, Kane’s speech is short on actual policy and is more a string of attacks and insults on his political rival, Jim Gettys. Also reminiscent of Trump, Kane touts his polling numbers while lambasting the perceived corruption of his rivals. Kane’s political ambitions are destroyed by a sex scandal, something that could’ve possibly unraveled Trump’s candidacy had Republican voters not somehow abandoned their once-staunch stance towards infidelity and divorce in this election. Upon losing the election, we see Kane’s general manager Mr. Bernstein choose between two headlines for the morning paper: “Kane Elected” or “Fraud at Polls!” The image made the rounds on Twitter when Trump claimed fraud prevented him from winning the Iowa caucuses.

Speaking to the legendary documentarian Errol Morris for an abandoned project that found its way onto YouTube, Trump speaks candidly about “Citizen Kane.” Perhaps his personal connection to the subject matter allowed him to shed the layers of ego and bravado, as he speaks quite thoughtfully about the film. According to Trump, Kane’s life was about accumulation of wealth and property with nothing but heartbreak at the end. “I think you learn in ‘Kane’ that maybe wealth isn’t everything,” he says. “In real life, I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people,” he says shortly after. These two sentences are antithetical to the egotistical screeds that make up a Trump stump speech. When Morris asks Trump for what advice he would give Kane the character, the billionaire characteristically reached back to his old well of crudeness, saying, “Get yourself a different woman.”

Trump isn’t a traditional media mogul like Charles Foster Kane, but Trump has always been quite media savvy. So much of his persona is based around his ability to stare into the camera and confidently proclaim himself bigger and better than anyone. The media has received ample blame for their role in allowing Trump to dominate the nightly news broadcasts. However, the blame is slightly misplaced, as the role of traditional media has been undergoing a constant evolution over the past three decades with the advent of the 24 hours news cycle and the internet. Once upon a time, news divisions were a public service, never expected to turn a profit for their corporate overlords.

That tumultuous shift was the subject of Sydney Lumet’s classic drama “Network.” The cynicism that seeps through the pages of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay was remarkably prescient in its understanding that news and reality television would soon become one in the same, including the rise of the opinion-oriented news program. Each facet of the downfall of traditional media has been exploited by Trump. He’s been the figurehead of his own absurd reality show, and his constant appearances on various Fox News shows have aided his political ambitions.

In the throes of a mental breakdown, veteran news anchor Howard Beale has his fragile mental state exploited and becomes the “latter-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time.” The character has become a template for the outraged host of ideologically driven opinion programming. Beale speaks in an apocalyptic fervor, something one could find on the air at Fox News at practically any given time during the Obama presidency. A political climate has been created where “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” has replaced typical left/right ideology, thus a void that could only be filled by a political outsider that appeals to rage.

Ratings and clicks have taken center stage. The opening voiceover of “Network” defines Howard Beale only by his ratings, and the powers that be at the fictional UBS only care about ratings, so they keep placing Beale in front of the cameras despite his fragile mental state. Similarly, the pundits at Fox News deflect any criticisms of their lacking journalistic integrity by pointing to their ratings, as if popularity absolves them of any and all responsibility for demagoguery and distortion of facts.

Of course, it’s hard to rail against political and media elites in a fine tailored suit while broadcasting out of New York City. Preaching the tenets of modern conservatism to its intended audience doesn’t require the northeastern intellectual smugness of William F. Buckley, Jr. Instead you need to tap into a more folksy sensibility, like the one present in Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd.” A hard-drinking misogynist, “Lonesome” Rhodes quickly makes the transition from a radio host telling southern-fried stories of home-cooked meals and eccentric relatives to a television host using his influence for political purposes. Like Howard Beale in “Network,” Rhodes doesn’t follow a script and his supposed authenticity earns him a loyal audience.

At first, Rhodes uses his newfound influence for a personal vendetta against the sheriff who had previously jailed him for his drunk and disorderly behavior. As his influence grows, Rhodes sees himself as a political kingmaker, a man willing to reshape the image of a senator to make him more palatable for a presidential run. Having sold the senator as a downhome fella with whom he goes hunting, Rhodes can have him on his folksy talk show where the senator can freely lambast the social safety net. The image of two powerful men putting on different faces for the public in order to implore the voters to vote against their own interests is timeless Americana, and the kind of thing you could see on any given night from Trump’s biggest cheerleaders.

Undoubtedly, the ugliest aspect of Trump’s campaign has been his blatant racism. Again, this isn’t anything new in American politics, having been effectively employed by conservative politicians since Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968. However, Trump employs blunter language than the dog whistles of old, appealing to a certain subsection of the white male population that sees themselves marginalized by the growing diversity of the nation’s demographics.

This ugliness has manifested itself in instances of violence, many of which have taken place at rallies for Trump. It’s almost as if Trump has focused his campaign to appeal to people like William "D-Fens" Foster, Michael Douglas’ character in Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down,” a man whose personal failings morph into a violent spree against diversity and modernity.

“Falling Down” is a movie that wades in some difficult waters of race and class, yet Schumacher isn’t the kind of filmmaker to bring its nuance to the forefront. At once, the film tries to make Foster’s rampage reprehensible yet understandable. Foster is a character that sees himself as purely middle class, and anyone above or below him in the class structure is subject to his violent whims—fast food workers, construction workers, or the affluent playing a round of golf each have to stare down the barrel of his gun for the mild inconveniences perpetrated against his mission of pure privilege.

Due to its being produced in close proximity to the L.A. Riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, “Falling Down” avoids having its lead character take a violent retribution against any black people. Instead, he takes aim at a Korean shop owner, lambasting the man for his high prices and accent while thrashing the store’s merchandise. Foster also has a violent encounter with some stereotypical Mexican gangsters, practically the kind of characters that embody Trump’s repulsive rhetoric about Mexicans as “killers and rapists.”

If there’s one aspect of “Falling Down” that doesn’t jibe with Trumpism, it shows when Foster is aghast to learn that his actions have earned him the respect and admiration of a neo-Nazi that runs an army surplus store. Meanwhile, Trump has earned the vocal support of neo-Nazis, and has retweeted their racist memes on more than one occasion. Regarding the inability of Schumacher to find the satirical edge of “Falling Down,” it’s not very difficult to find praise for the film on certain neo-Nazi message boards (though they all seemingly take exception to Foster’s murder of his neo-Nazi rival). Trump’s appeal is greatest to someone like William Foster, who feels that they’ve been pushed to the margins of society through multiculturalism—people want to dissolve the distinctly American concept of a melting pot nation. 

Donald Trump isn’t anything new. Donald Trump isn’t anything special. He’s born of affluence and driven by pure ego. Just because he portrays himself as something different doesn’t mean you have to play his game. With characters like Charles Foster Kane or Howard Beale, cinema informs us of the self-interested demagogues who would play on our darkest fears and ugliest beliefs for political gain. The movies have been warning us about characters like Trump for decades. When are we finally going to listen?

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