Sep 11, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: A Face in the Crowd (1957)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series: Idiocracy, Bulworth, and Bob Roberts!)
What is the measure of a successful politician? Representing their constituency? Advancing an agenda? Getting laws passed? Supporting their party? Standing up to crookedness and dysfunction? Getting lots of donations? Winning races?
To answer that question, we have to think about the real function of politics. Humans are essentially social creatures, primed by evolution to survive by creating social bonds and using them to maintain a community that stands strong against outside threats. For most of human history, the people we chose to lead us were people who lived in our same tribe or village, whom we knew our whole lives, who knew our ways, thought like us; whom we trusted, who had just as much at stake in the community as we did. People who, in short, we loved.
The problem we have these days is that we live in communities that are much, much bigger than our primate brains were ever equipped to handle. We no longer have the luxury of having leaders that we know personally, or who can relate to us; but on some instinctual level, we won’t accept a leader any other way. The modern politician, therefore, must somehow create the illusion that they know you intimately, are familiar with everything you’re going through, and have a personal stake in what happens to you. In order to succeed in their work, a politician needs to make themselves part of your mental “group”. They have to market and sell a version of themselves that they can get you to think of as an older relative, or neighbor, or co-worker, or trusted friend—someone who really gets you.
In short, the measure of a politician’s success is the degree to which they are loved.
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If something in you rebels at this description, if you say, “that sounds more like a celebrity than a leader,” and you inwardly protest that the business of politics is too important to run on the basis of personal charm, then you fall into the same trap as everyone else who underestimated Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Because, for better or for worse, politicians are celebrities: their job is to be adored, and if they’re already adored, then any other consideration (principles, knowledge, experience, temperament, or character) matters only insofar as the individual politician believes it matters, which—surprise!—not all do. We pretend that the game is more principled than that at our peril.
We don’t even have the excuse of lack of warning, because we have the film A Face in the Crowd. In this 1957 cautionary tale, an idealistic young radio producer named Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) stops by a rural Arkansas jail with her tape recorder to get some salt-of-the-earth interviews for her program. She stumbles upon Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a penniless guitar-slinging boozehound with an outsized smile and a bottomless well of downhome anecdotes. Impressed by his irreverent charm and folksy plain-talk, Marcia parlays this initial interview into a regular spot on a local morning radio show, where he displays a singular talent for relating to regular folks and swaying them to do his bidding.
One day, on a whim, he encourages his listeners to prank the unpopular local sheriff by dumping all their stray dogs on his lawn, which they do by the dozens. Marcia asks him how it feels, “Saying anything that comes into your head and being able to sway people like this?” Lonesome chuckles, “Yeah, I guess I can!”, then his laugh dies down, he fixes Marcia with a gaze, and says, more soberly, “Yeah, I guess I can.”
From that moment, he’s hooked. He’s had a glimpse of the power he holds, and he’ll never again settle for exercising it at half-throttle.
Lonesome uses his notoriety to land a local TV hosting gig, and then a national TV hosting gig, where his influence metastasizes beyond any reasonable expectation. He jumps into ad campaigns, speaking engagements, and charity telethons; his fame (and his ego) grow faster than anyone around him is equipped to handle. It isn’t long before he’s courted by political leaders, wanting him to sway his huge and devoted audience to their advantage, culminating in a central role in a presidential campaign and a possible cabinet position, all on the strength of his rapport with the working-class goon. “Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers… they’re mine. I own ‘em,” Lonesome boasts. “They think like I do. Only they’re even stupider than I am, so I gotta think for them!”
The parallels between Lonesome’s rise and Trump’s are both numerous and chillingly precise. Lonesome appeals to the common man in large part because of his status as an outsider. He’s unpolished and crude, a man with an independent streak who talks from the very bottom of his gut, who won’t follow directions, who derides the elites as out-of-touch phonies, who goes off-script and says outrageous things that land him in hot water with his corporate masters but endear him to the unwashed masses.
Sound familiar? Like Lonesome, Trump established himself quite early on as a picker of fights and a rattler of cages. He yelled and insulted his way through the Republican primary debates, during which he made insinuations that Megyn Kelly had PMS and that his dick was huge. He shouted and rambled and babbled through his famously unscripted rallies while an adoring public gobbled up his every half-formed sentence fragment. He lashed out in public feuds with newspaper reporters, TV networks, and pundits, accusing anyone who didn’t tow the Trump line of being crooks in the bag for the opposition.
The political establishment and the media looked at all that and said, “Look at this trainwreck. He’s doing everything exactly wrong; there’s no way he’ll last.” But what looked like unprofessionalism and incompetence to them played as authenticity to his voters. These are people predisposed to believe that the political establishment doesn’t want or need anything to do with people like them. Trump’s refusal to speak and act like those establishment figures was interpreted as a show of solidarity with ordinary folk, a signal of his membership in their “group”.
Lonesome likewise wears that signal like a badge—even as he hides other parts of himself from public view. Even as a nobody, he’s not the most honest or trustworthy of fellows. He displays an early talent for manipulation, particularly among the ladies, whom he continually charms into bed and throws out again. But he was born a small-time jerk; it isn’t until he gets handed the reins to his own media machine that his venality begins to reach villainous proportions. In his first TV spot, he takes a “principled” stand against reading the agreed-upon ad copy for a mattress store; we learn a short time later that he’s taking under-the-table kickbacks for plugging unsponsored products. Throughout the film, Lonesome continually tests the waters in this fashion to see what he can get away with, and as he grows in confidence with each successful stunt, his ego, ambition, and corruption slowly heat him from underneath and boil him away until there’s nothing else left.
Lonesome is able to edit out those less savory parts of his persona with the help of a new invention that would go on to radically change every election from that point on: television. A Face In The Crowd was one of the first films to explore the image-making power of this strange, unprecedented technology. Lonesome takes to the TV camera like a pig to slop. His voice, his image, his gestures, and his comically bad guitar playing get beamed into millions of living rooms every week, making it easy to imagine him as a friendly neighbor dropping over for Sunday dinner. People eat up what he has to say, not because he’s honest or knowledgeable, but because he’s so very good at playing the part of a person his audience wants to believe.
“Politics has entered a new stage: the television stage,” says Lonesome’s advisor. “Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. ‘Time for a change’. ‘The mess in Washington’”. If only screenwriter Budd Schulberg had known that some variation of that sentiment would be used in at least a couple dozen pearl-clutching op-eds per election season from that moment on. But in this movie, they’re not features of the medium, but features of Lonesome, which the medium just happens to be perfectly suited to reflect. He’s trying to connect to people who think of politics in terms of platitudes, buzzwords, and folk wisdom you can fit on a needlepoint or a bumper sticker. They’re sure that problems are simple, solutions are intuitive, and the way to fix everything is to stop muddying the waters with a bunch of unmoored fancy-blather and just talk plainly. Lock her up! Drain the swamp! Build the wall! Make America great again!
Like Lonesome, Trump knows how to use the media to his advantage. His one real talent, the only thing he can really claim as his true area of expertise, is showmanship. He’s spent decades on camera building up the Trump character and the Trump brand, and carefully using his wardrobe, his gestures, and his speech patterns to construct a reassuringly confident image that looks enough like true success and luxury to sell to people who don’t know any better.
And where Lonesome uses the unprecedented technological marvel of TV to sell himself, Donald does the same with his Twitter account, which he wields like a conductor waving a baton. The 140-character format creates messages that are about as long as Trump wants you to think about anything. Through it, he can issue marching orders, shout slogans, hurl a new insult, or shower praise on an ally, without complicating his message with context or nuance. It’s free, it’s open 24 hours, it’s available to everyone, and whenever Trump uses it, news is automatically made. What a tool! If Lonesome Rhodes had had a Twitter account, he’d have ended up ruling the world.
If there’s any part of the film that seems pat or unrealistic to modern eyes, it’s Lonesome’s hubris-fueled downfall. Marcia, personally spurned and horrified by the monster she’s enabled, surreptitiously turns his mic back on over his show’s closing credits, revealing to the audience what he really thinks of them: “You know what the public’s really like; they’re a cage full of guinea pigs. I could feed them dog food and they’ll think it’s steak. Good night, you stupid idiots.” It may seem surprising to us that this is all it took to fell such a giant, when Trump has had weathered gaffe after gaffe, scandal after scandal, with nothing sticking long enough to halt his climb.
The closest thing Trump’s had to a Lonesome Rhodes career-ending moment has to be the Access Hollywood “grab them by the pussy” tape, but I submit that the comparison isn’t a fair one. His base, by and large, doesn’t have a sophisticated enough understanding of sexual politics to recognize that clip for the grossly horrible admission of assault that it is. All they got out of it was that Trump said naughty words and tried to fuck married women. Neither was a deal breaker for them; they like Trump precisely because he’s rough around the edges, just like they are, and as for the adultery, well, you can’t expect a virile alpha male like Trump to keep it in his pants all the time, now can you?
Trump persisted through bonehead mistakes, shameless lies, and personal disgustingness that would have torpedoed any other politician, because he never committed the cardinal sin of betraying the love of the ordinary person. Maybe Trump watched A Face in the Crowd at some point and took that lesson to heart, or maybe he just genuinely returns the love of his audience in a way that Lonesome Rhodes was too cynical and self-aware to be capable of. If his love is fake, we can take comfort in the fact that he surely can’t keep up the façade for four years. If it’s real… then Trump might truly be unstoppable.