Mar 26, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: The Candidate (1972)
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, Bob Roberts, A Face in the Crowd, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, The Dead Zone, and All the King’s Men.)
A long time ago, in another age of the Earth, a bunch of men in silly wigs decided that, seeing as how the previous most popular system of government (letting rich inbred goons do whatever they felt like until people got mad enough to kill them) wasn’t working out so hot, our system going forward would be built on choosing people to represent us based on merit. We’d make our selection by a simple majority vote, and invest whomever we selected with the power to make decisions on our behalf for a limited period of time.
Sounds great in theory, right? But you know what the worst part of voting for a person is? They’re just a person. People are, on the whole, selfish, greedy, petty, short-sighted, and not all that smart; the idea of investing a mere person with the power to make life-altering decisions on behalf of many thousands of people is almost too morbid to be laughable. That’s why candidates have to spend many consecutive months (and buckets upon buckets of money) on the campaign trail, kissing hands and shaking babies, just to convince anyone that they should let them do anything for anybody. They bite their tongue on issues of vital importance for fear of alienating a sorely needed bloc of voters, spend their campaigns issuing bland, inoffensive platitudes instead of real policy solutions, and arrive in office beholden to the financiers of their campaign who would very much like to see their investment pan out. What follows is a political class (class in the truest sense of the word) so blinkered, so money-driven, so image-focused, so constrained by unconstructive norms and taboos, and so insulated from the real needs of their constituents that they scarcely evince an appreciable advantage over the inbred goons.
It’s easy to become cynical in such a circumstance. And it’s easy for a voter faced only with choices they view as irredeemably compromised by their association to such a sordid system to find a certain appeal in throwing their support behind someone as far outside of the system as possible. Someone not beholden to outside influences, who doesn’t have any reason not to serve the interests they’re elected to serve. What’s a snappy name for such a person? “Outsider”? Yeah, that’ll do nicely.
The 1972 political dramedy The Candidate features just such a person. With a script written by Jeremy Larner, speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s failed 1968 presidential bid, it overflows with concrete insights into a process most of us talk and think about only in the abstract. And with the newly-minted election of a bona-fide “outsider” president, The Candidate has a lot to teach us about the dangers of fielding and electing candidates based solely on a wish to poke the established order in the eye.
Robert Redford cuts a dashing figure on film as Bill McKay, a young, left-wing, socially conscious lawyer toiling away on behalf of immigrants and indigents. He’s the son of a former California governor, but like many young Baby Boomers, he’s suspicious of the superficiality and moral compromise inherent in traditional politics. Also like many Boomers, he really doesn’t want to follow his father’s path. Enter Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a dumpy, bearded, unassuming elections specialist who hooks Bill on entering a US Senate race with a simple promise: Bill’s going to lose. The incumbent senator is tremendously popular and no one expects him to be unseated; thus, if Bill just makes a show of running, he can say whatever he pleases, however he pleases. He can use his campaign as a platform to spread ideas that traditional politics aren’t talking about, and thus grab a moral victory from the jaws of defeat.
McKay’s got outsider appeal in spades. He’s candid and unpolished. His hair’s too long. He stumps with dirty-looking young people and working-class rabble. He can’t put a platform together. His rhetoric is too incisive, too incourteous, and too focused on others without heed paid to bowing and scraping and accumulating political capital. Though he says things that exasperate his handlers (“That’s too much; I got union problems already,” Marvin says after McKay takes aim at oil drillers) and though he may be under-informed about his positions (McKay promises to fire a troublesome board of regents, which a senator can’t do, but which “sounds good”), his campaign staff is able to spin McKay’s naiveté as authenticity and sincerity, a sign that he’s willing play out a struggle in a mode which he has no aptitude in or affection for because he’s just that interested in the problems of his voters.
McKay’s campaign tries to downplay his inexperience. Donald Trump embraced his. Throughout the campaign, Trump hyped up the fact that he didn’t come from a political background. I’m not the product, he said, of the same old Washington machine that fields all those candidates who never work for you. I’m entirely free of compromising influence and I don’t have any allies to keep happy, so I can rattle cages and break rules all day long just for you. Supporting me is a middle finger to the establishment! And his supporters ate it up. Viewed through this lens, Trump’s many, many shortcomings as a candidate become positive assets. Your protest vote was all the more powerful when you could tell the establishment you’d rather vote for this yahoo than another one of their cronies.
This type of campaign is attractive, even seductive. But it’s only ever even slightly constructive or justifiable in the face of certain loss. It’s literally what third parties are for. No one votes for a third party because they think they might actually win; these voters are simply resigned to their perception that no one who’s really looking out for their interests will win, and so they choose an option that’ll let them go on record as protesting the whole affair. The truth is, no one really wants an “outsider” to win. They want one to run, certainly. They want someone who can “shake up” the system. You know, “send a message”, by getting one or more of the major parties to look in their direction. But not someone who might possibly win the race. It’d be like you, feeling shafted by your friends continually overruling your vote for pizza toppings, picking an “outsider” choice like, say, sawdust, when it came time to vote. It’s justifiable as a way to protest the unfair mechanics of the pizza topping-picking process, and may draw attention to your needs, but if you thought for one second that you might actually get sawdust on your pizza, you’d probably go for a more moderate choice.
That was Trump in this election. Though he was running on a major party ticket, few thought he actually stood a chance to be the next president. I mean… look at his polling numbers! Look at his unfavorability ratings! For Christ’s sake, look at him. Did all, or even the majority, of people who took up his banners genuinely want him to be president? Or were they just crying out for attention that they felt the major parties were withholding from them? Did Trump even want to win? More than a few op-ed writers have speculated that Trump’s whole candidacy was a publicity stunt that spiraled out of control. His total lack of interest, then and now, in doing or saying anything approaching the bare minimum of traditional presidentiality would seem to support that. I can only guess that people felt safe using him as their protest vote, because they didn’t think he would win… and enough people felt that way to allow him to win. And now we all have to eat sawdust on a pizza.
But it doesn’t really matter why he ran, or why people supported him, because the electoral system doesn’t accommodate such subtleties. It’s a zero-sum game with a single standard of success and no prizes for second place. And one thing it is literally designed to do is to turn outsiders into insiders at blinding speed.
If you run as an outsider, as Bill McKay did (and Trump may have), not to win, but to communicate a “message”, how do you know the extent to which you got your message across? Ironically, you do it through the only means of measurement available to you, the very means you eschewed in the first place: the ballot box. If it turns out that your message isn’t popular or inspiring enough for people to vote for, then the very same platform you used to get it out there could end up undercutting it through objective proof of its unpopularity.
McKay coasts to an easy primary victory on the strength of his name recognition and his frankness of style, but when he gets to the general, Marvin tells him his loss margin will be too large. The party, and everyone else, expects Bill to lose, but if he loses by too much, he and the party will be humiliated. Thus, he must moderate himself, and start paying more attention to his TV spots, and start spouting the traditional empty political slogans that people expect to hear, compromising and eroding his own integrity, without even the comfort of a victory at the end of it, just a loss that’s less bad than it would’ve otherwise been. It’s pure tragicomedy.
Actually, I take that back. Pure tragicomedy would be the opposite scenario: too many votes. Despite the guarantee that he wouldn’t win, and despite his total lack of interest in winning, McKay neuters his rhetoric and attracts enough swing voters to end up winning. So did Trump, and yay me for staying on theme here. Regardless, McKay’s upset victory precipitates one of the most powerful and enduring scenes in The Candidate, one which gets brought up by nearly everyone who talks about this movie: McKay, thronged by radiant, celebrating people, pulls Marvin aside, and asks in a hushed tones, “What do we do now?” Marvin is whisked away before he’s able to supply an answer, but it’s not clear whether he even intended to.
“What do we do now,” indeed. It’s been quite a banner year for “what do we do now?” Across the pond, the UK held a referendum on the EU, millions voted “leave” mostly in symbolic defiance of the forces of creeping globalism, and once they got what they said they wanted, they responded with, “What do we do now?” Here in the US, Republicans who have made a comfortable habit of railing against the ACA and vowing to block Obama’s SCOTUS nominee are unexpectedly in a position to make something actually happen on these issues, and they are now saying, “What do we do now?” Millions of people who wanted to stick it to America’s political class by saying, “I’d rather have Donald Fucking Trump as President,” now have Donald Fucking Trump. “What do we do now?” It seems like every week, another unthinkable line is being crossed, and we don’t know what to do about any of it.
Because that’s what happens when an “outsider” gets enough to support to break “inside”. Outsiders define themselves by reaction; proactivity isn’t their provenance. Whatever harsh and undoubtedly deserved invective you can throw at “insiders”, you can’t deny that they come to the job prepared. I mean, governing is seriously hard and complicated work, and it’s not like they have on-the-job training. Outsiders are great for drawing attention to problems that need addressed, but are they really equipped to make any constructive headway on those problems? In most cases, absolutely not. Criticism is easy; positive action is hard. Shaking up the system should by no means be equated with making a better one. With this election, however, it seems that the former is all anyone has the will to do. So what do we do now?