Commentary

Donald Trump as Citizen Kane

By Kevin Mooney | August 27, 2020 | 4:21pm EDT
Featured are President Donald Trump and actor Orson Welles, who played Citizen Kane. (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images and Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Featured are President Donald Trump and actor Orson Welles, who played Citizen Kane. (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images and Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Donald Trump accomplished what Citizen Kane could not, despite the similarities in their background, their ability to persevere over early setbacks, and their assault on establishment figures.

But is Trump really a modern-day version of the fictional character who rose to fame during a more innocent and less divisive era?

Rob Orlando, a Princeton-based writer, producer and director, makes a compelling case that the answer is mostly yes in his new film, "Citizen Trump," which explores the parallels between the 45th president and Charles Foster Kane, the media maestro, business tycoon, and political figure at the heart of “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 classic that starred Orson Welles.

How well do these perceived similarities hold up on screen and what are the lessons for contemporary America?  There is no palpable “Rosebud” moment for Trump, but we can speculate that’s part of the challenge. Orlando offers some possible scenarios and explanations that are briefly discussed in the film. He also suggests one may be coming, but this is not the major focus of the film.

Trump and Kane both came from wealthy families, both were business tycoons, and both made smart use of mass media to establish national identities. But unlike Kane, Trump experienced greater political success. Orlando’s film tries to explain why Trump prevailed where Kane stumbled.

“To understand Citizen Trump, think less like a political analyst and more like a TV critic,” the film’s narrator advises audience members. The last episode of “The Apprentice,” Trump’s reality TV show, aired just four months before he announced his candidacy for president.  

Although the character created by Welles is often described as a composite, Orlando agrees with the consensus view that Kane most closely mirrors William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul who was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat. Hearst also ran unsuccessfully for mayor and governor of New York. Kane’s media savvy and his control of newspapers in particular, propelled him into national prominence. But Kane’s run for governor of New York was short-circuited by his political opponent’s exposure of the affair with the woman who would become Kane’s second wife. Jim Gettys, the political boss opposing Kane for the governorship, makes the comment in the film that Kane “could not be elected dogcatcher.”

Kane was crushed by scandal; Trump was not. Instead, the incumbent president has triumphed politically despite highly publicized divorces, bankruptcies, and well-orchestrated media attacks. Orlando seems inclined toward the view that in a different era, Trump would have perished just as Kane did.

Transgressions that were offensive to the sensibilities and values of the early to mid-20th Century consumed Kane, but Trump is seemingly the beneficiary of a coarsened culture. Fast forward from the 1940s to the 2016 election and Trump was able to sidestep and elude allegations of sexual misconduct and boorish behavior toward women that were more explosive and compromising than anything Gettys leveled against Kane.

“Whether you like Trump, or don't like Trump, whether you think he had to fight the battle he did, whether you need a showman or an entertainer to get enough juice in this modern media saturated world, I'm not judging,” Orlando said in an interview. “But I'm saying it can't be healthy for us as a country that it takes that level of media savvy in order to produce someone who could run the country. People should be able to come from other walks of life, other than entertainment, with huge media following. That's kind of the sentiment of the film.”

“Citizen Trump,” which can be preordered online , will premier noontime, Sept. 7. Orlando’s film is also available to any groups interested in hosting screenings.

“Trump is not checking all the boxes with Kane,” Orlando acknowledges, "but he’s checking most of them and Trump, like Kane, is certainly someone who knew the power of the media and how to use the media to launch a political career.”

The opening of Citizen Trump shows an aerial view of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida and makes the comparison to Kane’s fictional Xanadu estate. The film also highlights Trump’s failed ventures into Broadway and Hollywood.

Both Trump and Kane “rewrote” their “privileged beginnings” into “sagas of self-made men,” Orlando’s film says. For this reason, they were both able to posture as “enemies of the establishment and as protectors of the Middle America.”

Orlando also makes the argument that as a practitioner of “yellow journalism,” in the tradition of Hearst, “Kane had no interest in objective truth.”

Trump’s political opponents and media would say the same about him for sure. But Trump has turned the tables on the same critics with his Twitter and his own media megaphone.

But exposing and highlighting the “fake news” of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and legions of Washington, D.C. reporters, Trump operates very much like someone who believes in an objective truth that left-leaning media organs work to obscure.

“Trump is a genius at this media game whether the villains are real or not because he keeps himself in the spotlight,” Orlando said. “In a way, I think the media gave rise to Trump because they tried to destroy him even before he became president but instead, they just gave him more exposure. You’ll notice if the attention ever moves off Trump, he’ll find a new enemy. He knows how to pivot.”

Kane’s actual political views are not fully unpackaged in the film, although Hearst clearly identified himself with progressive causes. Aside from coveting power, Orlando’s not sure Welles envisioned Kane as someone who had core convictions. Trump himself has identified “Citizen Kane” as his favorite film and it’s also Orlando’s favorite film. Kane’s political run is actually a small part of the story, which is a point Orlando likes to drive home.

“I think we’ve lost the beauty of what filmmaking is and what it has done for all of us,” Orlando said. “I think at some level, this is my love letter to filmmaking and it’s more important than politics. We’ve forgotten the power of what one film can do by tapping into what's common in the culture and it’s not all about politics.”

But there’s no escaping the politics in "Citizen Trump," especially when viewers see Trump simultaneously dismantling the Bush and Clinton dynasties. Jeb Bush, who came from a more polite era, played defense in his debates with Trump while Hillary Clinton unwittingly opened the door for Trump to exploit her role in silencing and marginalizing women who had been victimized by her husband.

“We live in a culture where number one, infidelity is not going to bring down a political figure that way it did with Kane,” Orlando observed. “Hillary, by going after Trump, basically exposed her own role in covering for her husband’s actions. The advantage for Trump is that he wasn’t playacting. He could be a little shameless, but he wasn’t play acting and Hillary was.”

So, what happens in November? Orlando does not want to offer any predictions. But he sees Trump possibly fitting into the archetype of a certain hero in the tradition of Dirty Harry, who is rough around the edges and “comes in and shoots up the bad guys,” but you don’t want him sticking around afterwards.

Orlando is the president and director of Nexus Media, a Princeton, New Jersey filmmaking studio. Citizen Trump is his latest in a series of films that examine historical figures. Orlando does not come to any discernible conclusion aside from the fact that perhaps the way Trump and Kane make use of the media for better or worse says as much about us and our culture as it does about them.

In that sense, it might offer a media-weary world some catharsis.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter and journalist for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Penn. and the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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