Apr 25, 2019
Movies that Predicted Trump: Citizen Kane (1941)
As of this writing, we here at the Agony Booth have covered 16 films and TV episodes in our Movies that Predicted Trump series. Sixteen films and episodes that have, in various ways, been spookily prescient about the election of a Trump-like figure as President of the United States. Admittedly, some of these films only predicted Trump because they were basically allusions to certain historical events that bear uncanny similarities to Trump’s rise to power. Still others were only able to predict Trump because they were literally inspired by Donald Trump in the first place. But this may be the first entry in this series that predicted Trump because the film in question may have, in some small way, played a role in making Donald Trump the man he is today.
You see, with the dozens of interviews Trump has granted since becoming a famous real estate tycoon back in the early 1980s, it would only follow that, given his obvious (and ongoing) obsession with the entertainment industry and Hollywood, occasionally he would be asked what his favorite movie was. And without fail, Trump would always say Citizen Kane.
Understandably, you may doubt whether Donald Trump really does consider Kane to be his favorite movie, or if he’s even actually seen it; after all, there was a time when saying that your favorite movie was Citizen Kane was a bit like saying your favorite book is the Bible. But actual favorite or not, there’s no denying the obvious parallels between the real life of Donald J. Trump and the fictional life of Charles Foster Kane. And what’s most eerie of all is how those parallels appear to have only grown stronger over time. It’s almost as if Trump, early on in his life, actually aspired to become Charles Foster Kane, and succeeded beyond his (and everyone else’s) wildest dreams.
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Citizen Kane was the first directorial effort for Orson Welles, who three years prior had come to fame by allegedly scaring the bejeezus out of half of America with his faux-newscast radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. He soon parlayed his infamy into a two-picture deal with RKO Pictures, and the first to go into production was Citizen Kane, loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate-turned-politician William Randolph Hearst.
Welles directed, produced, co-wrote, and starred in the film as Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper publisher who shortly before dying drops a snow globe and makes one final utterance: “Rosebud.” When Kane’s last word makes headlines, a reporter named Jerry Thompson sets out to discover who or what this mysterious “Rosebud” is. He interviews former associates, former employees, and at least one former wife of Charles Foster Kane, with each interview accompanied by appropriate flashbacks to different points in Kane’s life.
We see Kane as a young boy living in poverty in Colorado, happily riding his sled in the snow. But a gold mine has just been discovered on his mother’s property, and the boy is quickly sent away to live with a New York City banker in order to receive a proper upbringing and education.
When we next see Kane, he’s a young man who’s just gained full control of his trust fund and is using it to buy a newspaper called the New York Inquirer and indulge in what many of his colleagues see as yellow journalism. Kane frequently stretches the truth in the pages of the Inquirer to sway public opinion about the Spanish-American war, in much the same way Hearst did with his own New York Journal.
Kane then marries the niece of the President of the United States, but their marriage quickly falls apart over irreconcilable political differences, as well as his wife’s dim view of his salacious journalistic tactics. That’s when Kane meets Susan Alexander, an aspiring opera singer, and the two begin a secret love affair that echoes Hearst’s affair with film actress Marion Davies. Still later, Kane decides to enter politics and run for governor of New York, much like Hearst’s own failed gubernatorial bid. Alas, Kane’s opponent Boss Jim Gettys gets wind of his infidelity and leaks it to the press, effectively ending Kane’s candidacy.
In the wake of the scandal, Kane divorces his wife and marries Susan, encouraging her dreams of becoming an opera singer, even going as far as to build an opera house just to further her career. Unfortunately, Susan is talentless and gets savaged by the press, including a scathing review in Kane’s own Inquirer. She attempts suicide, whereupon Kane finally allows her to give up on being a singer. But by this point, Kane has built a sprawling estate in Florida which he calls Xanadu, where Susan lives in total isolation. The loneliness alongside Kane’s controlling behavior takes its toll and she eventually leaves him, resulting in a violent episode where Kane singlehandedly destroys her bedroom. But he ends his assault upon seeing a snow globe and uttering, “Rosebud.”
With no other leads to follow, Thompson gives up and concludes he has no idea who or what Rosebud is, and exits Xanadu along with his fellow reporters, passing through a vast warehouse of the many possessions Kane acquired throughout his lifetime. Once they’re gone, we get the final stinger where workers casually dispose of Kane’s belongings in a furnace, and among them is his childhood sled, which we learn is named Rosebud.
In all honesty, if someone had asked me 15 years ago what my favorite movie was, I would have almost certainly said Citizen Kane, too. Back then, I recall watching this movie and being absolutely riveted by the intensity of the melodrama, and Welles’ performance in particular. But revisiting it now, I must admit it seems to have lost some of its magic.
I still think it’s a masterpiece, particularly given the times in which it was produced and the fact that it was made by a first-time director who was all of 25 years old at the time. Citizen Kane was revolutionary, if for nothing else than its groundbreaking special effects. The late Roger Ebert recorded a commentary track for the film where he asserted that Citizen Kane likely has just as many effects shots as Star Wars. In the case of Kane, those effects may not have been used to create settings as fantastical as a planet-killing space station, but they were every bit as elaborate: movie magic is used to show us an opera house that doesn’t exist, a palatial Florida estate that doesn’t exist, a newspaper building in the heart of Manhattan that doesn’t exist, and much more.
In this film, Welles and his visual effects team often come across as kids wanting to try out all the crayons in the box as they throw every cinematic trick in the book at us (matte paintings, miniatures, stop-motion animation, fake ceilings made of muslin, deep focus lenses to keep all elements of the shot in focus at the same time) to make Citizen Kane look like no other film being made at the time.
And the script is full of brilliant lines. “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” “Old age. It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.” And then there’s a speech from Kane’s business manager Bernstein about briefly catching sight of a girl with a white parasol that sums up Citizen Kane better than anything involving a sled. Ultimately, the film is a tale of deep loss, and of constantly trying to make up for that loss but never quite succeeding.
Still, I must admit that the film doesn’t quite get me the way that it used to. I’m not the only one to feel this way; when the BFI publication Sight & Sound released its 2012 poll of the 50 greatest films of all time, the big news was that Citizen Kane, after occupying the top spot for fifty years, was now runner-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was suddenly the best movie of all time. Of course, not a single frame of either Citizen Kane or Vertigo had changed in the prior 50 years, so why did one film suddenly become better than the other?
Could it be that after fifty years of witnessing endless real-life political scandals and public meltdowns, the downfall of Charles Foster Kane seems comparatively pretty tame? I can’t say for sure. But for me, here and now in 2017, it’s pretty likely that the impact of Citizen Kane has been dulled by the daily insanity that is the presidency of Donald Trump. After all, this is a film that hinges on a politician being brought down by an extramarital affair, which seems positively quaint in light of the election of a presidential candidate who (among many other things) was accused of, and then was revealed to have openly bragged about committing sexual assault.
Prior to his run for president, Trump’s appreciation for Citizen Kane was so well known that it nearly inspired documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Unknown Known) to make a film that would have been devoted in large part to interviewing Trump about Citizen Kane. Nothing came of the project, and to date the only piece of footage released has been a short segment of Trump talking about the film scored with Philip Glass’ music that made it onto a DVD of short films accompanying the magazine Wholphin.
Naturally, that clip of Trump talking about Citizen Kane resurfaced during his candidacy, which immediately sent bloggers into outrage overdrive, almost as if there were a competition to see who could most indignantly pronounce how badly Trump had missed the entire point of the movie. Here’s the clip:
Again, many accused Trump of not understanding the film, but from this clip I would say he mostly grasps the broad strokes: Citizen Kane is about the loss of childhood innocence, and about how great wealth doesn’t necessarily bring about happiness. Some have seized upon his comment that Kane had a “modest fall” as tone-deaf, considering Kane died alone and miserable, but I have to say Trump could simply be recalling the opening fake newsreel narration that talks about how Kane’s media empire teetered on the edge of ruin during the Great Depression, but recovered to some degree, thus making his fall “modest”, at least financially speaking.
Bloggers also focused heavily on Trump’s response when asked by Morris what advice he would give to Charles Foster Kane. To wit: “Get yourself a different woman.” Morris later gave an interview where he was apoplectic about this remark.
And Donald says, “My advice to Charles Foster Kane is find another woman!” And you know, I thought, is that really the message that Welles was trying to convey? That Kane had made poor sexual choices, poor marriage choices?
And the problem that Charles Foster Kane is having is not because of a bad marriage choice. The problem is he’s an empty, hollow man, a simulacrum of a human being, a nothing, nowhere man who destroys the people around him, who’s incapable of love, incapable of compassion, incapable of self reflection, incapable of awareness of the world around him save that which suits his own slimy purposes of gathering wealth and power.
Look, I get it, it was clearly a bizarre comment. But it comes from a man who’s given us an endless parade of bizarre comments over his lifetime and even used them to get elected president. On the bizarro scale, I would rate “Get yourself a different woman” well below jokes about Megyn Kelly being on her period, comments about Mika Brzezinski’s bleeding facelift, and GIFs with the CNN logo pasted over Vince McMahon’s face. We’ve known for decades that this is a man who’s willing to say pretty much anything to generate controversy, so I don’t see why these particular comments about Citizen Kane should be worthy of any additional outrage.
And despite the less than flattering portrait of Kane presented by this film, it’s not exactly shocking that Trump would sympathize with the man. Both inherited great wealth; both had toxic relationships with their fathers. Both had marriages that fell apart due to charges of infidelity that made tabloid headlines. And both proudly boosted the singing careers of their second wives, which even caused Trump himself to openly acknowledge the Charles Foster Kane similarities, as documented at the time by the “failing” New York Times.
As applause rippled around her, Ms. Maples sang, twirled a giant branding iron, strutted and skipped across the stage, smiled and wiggled her nearly naked behind. She didn’t trip, and she dropped neither the iron nor a note.
When they arrived together at the Plaza, Mr. Trump had his arm around Ms. Maples and wore the proud, possessive look of a William Randolph Hearst presiding at the debut of his young protege, Marion Davies.
“‘Citizen Kane’ is my all-time favorite movie,” he confided happily. “I know, I know,” he said, mulling over whether there was any resemblance between his support of Ms. Maples’s career and the plot of the movie based on Hearst’s romance. Finally, he said, “I see no analogy between the two.”
There’s of course plenty more to the similarities between the two men: Both Kane and Trump eventually decided to run for public office despite having no prior political experience. In doing so, both claimed to be champions for working-class Americans. And both of them publicly promised, upon being elected, to prosecute their chief opponents—Kane with Boss Gettys, and Trump with Hillary Clinton (even to this day, it would seem).
But frankly, the only similarity between the two men that really matters is that they both used their inherited fortunes to acquire fame and notoriety, and proceeded to slap their names on everything they could, and yet, it apparently still wasn’t enough to fill the deep, dark holes inside of them and so they pressed on, determined to acquire even more wealth, more possessions, more fame, and more love from the general public.
Ultimately, Trump’s comments about Kane are pretty similar to his comments on just about any subject. He throws out buzzwords to push certain emotional buttons, along with a series of half-formed thoughts and sentence fragments that might lead you to believe you know exactly what he’s talking about, but really could mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. Trump is clearly a shyster, a con artist, a slick salesman who will say whatever he thinks you want to hear and quickly dance away from his own statements when called out on them. I can’t say the same is true of Charles Foster Kane; while he abandons most of his so-called “Declaration of Principles” by the end of the film, I’m sure that he, unlike our current president, actually believed in some part of what he was saying at the time he said it.
So did Citizen Kane predict Trump? It’s true that the movie presents a figure who, just like Trump, spends his entire life creating a world centered around himself, treating everyone around him as nothing more than servants to his own ego. But while Kane failed both in politics and marriage and died a lonely man, Trump followed nearly the same playbook… and won.
Yes, Donald Trump did just about everything this movie explicitly warns against, and was elected President of the United States anyway. Citizen Kane couldn’t have predicted that. No movie could have predicted that. In fact, that may be the true reason why Citizen Kane no longer resonates; its core message now seems particularly hollow and meaningless in Trump’s America.