MAKING HISTORY:Citizen Trump? Dr Thomas Tunstall-Allcock and colleagues reflect on the Presidential candidate’s favourite film…

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The current presidential election in the United States is a cause of mixed feelings. As someone with family and friends in and from the U.S., the popularity of Donald Trump’s divisive, rambling, and often deranged campaign is a source of anxiety and frustration. As a historian of modern American politics and foreign policy though, it is both a source of fascination and, I’m reluctant to admit, something of a blessing in that it has prompted huge (or should that be ‘yuge’?) interest from people outside the U.S. keen to understand how and why a figure as nakedly unpleasant as Trump is able to garner enough support to challenge for the world’s most powerful office. This interest was reflected recently in an invitation to attend and participate in last week’s edition of Screened/MCR, a regular film and discussion night hosted at Texture in the Northern Quarter. The event, titled ‘Citizen Trump,’ featured three speakers from the University of Manchester, Angelia Wilson, Professor of Politics, and David Butler, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Screen Studies, as well as myself, before a screening of Donald Trump’s self-proclaimed favourite film, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

For anyone yet to see the film in the 75 years since its release, Citizen Kane follows the life of man who rises from nothing to a position of vast wealth and influence, revealing its story through a ground-breaking non-linear structure told from the perspective of multiple characters. Closely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Kane is portrayed as increasingly ruthless and acquisitive, ultimately dying alone and bitter, surrounded by the vast wealth of his ‘Xanadu’ estate. The night was kicked off by a wonderfully revealing video interview of Trump discussing what the film means to him. His ‘insights,’ such as noting that the film suggests the results of a life dedicated to accumulation at all costs may not be ‘necessarily all positive,’ are definitely worth a watch here. Angelia then provided a fascinating and admirably concise summary of the major cultural and political developments in American history that have enabled Trump’s rise, including the growth in political influence of the Christian right-wing and the continued relevance of the belief in American exceptionalism, before David provided some fantastic insight into the development, production, and legacy of Welles’ masterpiece. I’m unable to do their talks justice in a brief blog entry, but sandwiched between them was my own, more rambling, contribution, which considered some of the more striking parallels between Hearst/Kane and Donald Trump that the current Republican nominee may not be so aware of.

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Trump’s surprise candidacy has caused many observers who had confidently predicted that he would fail to even win the Republican nomination to desperately seek historical allegories in order to explain his rise. Articles and blogs of varied quality and historical accuracy have compared Trump to presidents Ronald Reagan and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, race-baiting former governor of Alabama George Wallace, failed Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and many more besides. Some, I believe, offer more enlightenment than others, Goldwater in particular, and I talked about this a little during the event.[1] In preparing for the talk and re-watching parts of a film I had not seen in full since a film studies class as an undergraduate many years ago though, I was struck by the ease with which it is possible to draw parallels between Hearst/Kane and the current Republican nominee, few of which are flattering to Trump. All three amassed great wealth and then built lavish, garish monuments to their own achievements. Hearst built his own castle in San Simeon, California, which inspired Kane’s Xanadu, while Trump ensures his name is plastered on as many buildings as he can. All are representative of a certain and familiar type of American, one who acquires great wealth and then seeks fresh avenues to utilise it, whether through philanthropy, founding colleges and schools (or “universities” in Trump’s case), or launching political campaigns. Both the real-life Hearst and fictional Kane used their fortunes to enter politics, running campaigns imbued with strains of populism and fascism, positioning themselves as the political ‘outsider,’ not part of a corrupt establishment, and as the friend of the working man, while shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. Trump too displays the same concerning combination, the man of vast wealth and influence claiming to be the political outsider, on the side of the working class, while continuously expressing his admiration for ‘strong’ leadership in the form of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Finally, for both Trump and Kane, with their personality driven, populist campaigns, politics is ultimately simply another avenue in which to feed vast egos.

The similarities should not be overstated though. Charles Foster Kane shows occasional flashes of charm, and his campaign is laid low by personal scandal. Trump on the other hand lacks basic interpersonal skills yet appears immune to controversies that would sink other politicians. More worryingly, in obtaining the Republican nomination he has already enjoyed more political success and certainly greater national prominence than Kane’s failed gubernatorial campaign, or Hearst’s occasional victories sandwiched between enough defeats to earn him the nickname ‘William Also-Randolph Hearst’ among some rivals. Trump’s revealing assessment of Kane’s life as a ‘great rise’ followed by a ‘modest fall’ is based on the fact that despite political and personal losses Kane remains financially wealthy. My hope is that Trump’s political career continues to oddly parallel that of the subject of his favourite film; that the voters reject his vicious brand of politics and hand him a humiliating defeat. It will surely be the best outcome for the United States, and the rest of us, if Trump’s rise is halted by such a ‘modest fall,’ and he can retreat to his own Xanadu, reassuring us all over twitter at 3am that his life remains a bed of rosebuds.

 

[1] Some of the better articles on the Goldwater-Trump parallels are: Fred Barnes, ‘Trump and the Ghost of Goldwater,’ Wall Street Journal, 26/06/2016, and Albert R. Hunt, ‘Why Trump Isn’t Like Goldwater’ 09/09/2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-09-09/why-trump-isn-t-like-goldwater

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