Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Donald Trump will likely have a second act on the national stage either as a political figure or as a spokesman for “America First” policies.
For all those millennials out there, “Citizen Kane” is the fictional character created by Orson Welles, the American filmmaker known for his unconventional and creative narration techniques. Kane’s story is largely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the New York businessman, newspaper publisher, and politician who served in Congress at the turn of the century from 1903 to 1907. Kane dies alone and in obscurity at the end of the 1941 classic that Welles directed, produced, and starred in as the title character.
In the film, Kane was brought down by an extramarital affair his political opponent publicly exposed while Kane was running for governor of New York. That’s small stuff by contemporary standards. Moreover, Trump has already survived highly publicized comments about his dalliances that are far more graphic and compromising than what ultimately ended Kane’s political career. So, does the comparison hold up?
Robert Orlando, a Hollywood filmmaker, producer, director and author, makes a strong case that there is a strong parallel between Kane’s rise to power and Trump’s transition from his real estate business into reality TV and from there into politics. In some ways Trump is a beneficiary of the era he lives in while Kane was a causality of his.
If Trump doesn’t run for president again, he’s well-positioned to emerge as a media mogul and a foil to the “Deep State,” “Big Tech,” “Fake News” and the anti-Americanism that infuses left wing pressure groups.
Earlier this month, Orlando, president of Nexus Media, released a director’s cut of his film “Citizen Trump: A One Man Show” that describes how the media enabled and advanced Trump’s presidential candidacy despite its hostile coverage. The director’s cut includes fresh insight into the 2020 elections as does a book version of the film that was released Tuesday. Orlando also comments on why Trump was able to withstand negative press coverage. The coarsening of the culture has over time maximized the public’s threshold of tolerance for scandal, Orlando reasons. Moreover, he finds that Trump is a master of the “find-the-villain strategy” that enabled him to link Hillary Clinton to her husband’s scandals and to her own high-profile failures as President Obama’s secretary of state.
But the media strategy that served Trump so well in dismantling his political opponents and in combatting unsubstantiated allegations of Russian collusion along with partisan impeachment exercises, fell flat during the COVID-19 pandemic in part because, as Orlando explains in his book, Trump could not get out of his own way.
The director’s cut of Citizen Trump and a new book version with additional details building on the film, ask an overarching question: Can Trump succeed and persevere through political setbacks where Citizen Kane and his historical antecedent in the form of Hearst fell short? Orlando is inclined toward the view that the answer is yes.
While that doesn’t necessarily mean Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2024, Orlando anticipates that at the very least Trump will reacquire his media megaphone. There’s an argument to be made that Trump would have more flexibility and dexterity to advance the domestic and foreign policies he championed in office as a media critic and TV personality than he would as a reloaded presidential candidate.
In his book, Orlando suggests the self-inflicted wounds that were palpable during peculiarities of the 2020 election cycle might also be temporal. The scandals that beset Citizen Kane during a more puritanical period in American history may not have much staying power where Trump is concerned. In the absence of COVID-19, Orlando suspects Trump would have been re-elected on the back of a booming economy.
“In light of Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, in what might have otherwise been a landslide victory without the virus, worldwide riots, and the loss of millions of jobs, we now have our stepping off point,” Orlando explains in his book. “The lesson of Kane and Trump is that during a time of personal crisis, it is no longer about power, but people; not about self-interest, or party, but the common trust. Trump was a symptom not a cause of a much more insidious disease even worse than the virus or the media: a nation that loses its moral pact between power and people. Trump, even after a lifetime in rehearsal, misread the room. Where the people wanted caution, Trump showed boldness: when they wanted empathy, he gave them hope; and when they need the real thing, he gave them reality TV.”
There are biographical similarities between Hearst and Trump flushed out in the film that bolsters Orlando’s thesis that Trump’s path to the presidency and use of the media closely mimicked the political journey of the historical figure standing behind Citizen Kane.
Both Hearst and Trump came from affluent backgrounds but found ways to appeal to Middle America. Both men created notoriety for themselves as business owners even as they experienced business failures. But probably the most interesting comparison is one most applicable to contemporary challenges. Both men moved further to the right as they became more politically ambitious, and both embraced the concept of an “America First” foreign policy that take a jaundiced view toward foreign interventions that may not be in the national interest.
In the film and book version of Citizen Trump, Orlando is neither reflexively critical of Trump nor is he full of effusive praise, which is one reason why they stand out from the avalanche of media material exploring the Trump presidency.
But Orlando does hold out the possibility that Trump as an “anti-hero” can do an enormous amount of good in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, or John Wayne’s Ethan Edward’s character in “The Searchers,” who are both aptly described as individuals who are willing to make moral compromises to confront greater evils. At a time when American freedom and independence are under assault domestically and internationally, Citizen Trump’s view of “America First” might find renewed expression.
The films and books are available on Vimeo and Amazon Prime, and more information about them are available here.