“Here’s a man who could’ve been president. Who was as loved and hated and talked about as much as any man in our time.”—Citizen Kane
No single movie can explain a man’s life. Nevertheless, it’s extremely telling that Donald Trump’s favorite movie is Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ masterpiece about “America’s Kubla Khan.” If there’s anyone in the country who could find real, personal resonance in the film—as opposed to viewing it as a cautionary parable; its original title was the more overt American—it’s Trump.
The parallels between Trump and Charles Foster Kane are significant—more significant than the ones between him and the film character he’s usually compared to, A Face In The Crowd’s Lonesome Rhodes (which is more of a Glenn Beck story). Most obviously, there’s the incredible wealth, a fortune half-earned, half-given. (Kane’s family lucked into the deed of a huge gold mine, though his real empire stemmed from his management of a newspaper he happened to own; Trump was born rich, but made his mark in real estate after a “small” million-dollar loan from his father.) Both suffered devastating familial losses—Trump’s brother died from alcoholism; Kane’s son and first wife died in a car crash, and he was also ripped from his parents at a young age. There are the gaudy tributes to themselves, Kane with his Xanadu (“since the pyramids, the costliest monument a man has built to himself”), Trump with his towers. Both put their names on everything, a byproduct of their shared egoism and megalomania. “Few private lives were more public,” Citizen Kane says of its subject, and Trump follows in the tradition of highly publicized divorces and outsize reactions to petty personal spats. Both form and break alliances out of convenience, as in the way Trump has waved off his one-time support of the Clintons, or how Kane would “often support, then denounce” figures like Hitler. (Perhaps we can expect a similar about-face with Trump’s praising of Vladimir Putin.)
They are endless self-promoters and expert manipulators of the media of their age—Trump with Twitter and “winning” media cycles, and Kane, the ultimate yellow journalist. (He was based on William Randolph Hearst, though modern-day tycoons like Rupert Murdoch give off less of a Kane vibe than Trump.) When a majority of Trump supporters agree with his demonstrably false statements—that President Obama was not born in the U.S., that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered on 9/11—it is hard to not hear Kane’s voice: “People will think what I tell them to think.”
And of course, both ran political campaigns that were highly populist and hugely divisive. This is where the parallels between the two diverge, but also where they’re the most revealing. (The fictional campaign even took place in 1916, giving this a nice bit of historical symmetry.)
The film’s opening newsreel reports that Kane “spoke for millions of Americans, [and] was hated by as many more.” That description applies just as readily to Trump, whose candidacy resonates strongest with those alienated by the political process—those who felt no one was speaking for them. Early in the film, we see Kane derided as both a communist and a fascist; while the former charge hasn’t been levied against Trump (though it wouldn’t be surprising for one of his GOP rivals to do so, given his old statements in favor of universal healthcare), the latter has—repeatedly and not hyperbolically.
Both men essentially tout themselves as the solution to society’s problems, by dint of their wealth, power, and intelligence, as opposed to whatever policies they’d enact. The campaigns are ego trips, the crowds they draw viewed as personal validation; both trumpet their domination of polls in stump speeches. Given the endless controversies and ugliness that surround him, it’s difficult to imagine Trump’s campaign being derailed by something as pedestrian as an infidelity (as Kane’s is), but his sky-high disapproval ratings suggest that if he is defeated, the voters’ view of his character will be a major factor. (If Trump was accused of having an affair with a terrible singer, it’s easy to imagine his response as, “No, she’s a great singer,” as opposed to, “No, I’m a faithful husband.”)
The differences between Trump and Kane arise in what the two men would do if elected, and whether that would be any good for the country (or New York State, in Kane’s case). Viewers of the movie don’t get a lot of specifics about Kane’s platform, but given his independent campaign occurred in the Progressive Era, it seems safe to assume that his candidacy was centered around worker-friendly reforms and a pledge to ferret out government corruption. He’s described as a “fighting liberal, the friend of the workingman,” a label that would be hard to affix to Trump, even though he draws most of his support from a lower-income and less-educated constituency. Kane’s “shameful, ignominious” defeat—he evidently feels the same way about losers that Trump does—is said to “set back for 20 years the cause of reform in the U.S.” That line suggests Kane would have been a strong public servant. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign is seen as frankly dangerous; his losing would obviously not be seen as a regressive disaster.
Candidate Kane suggests a Trump with Bernie Sanders’ philosophy. At a campaign rally, he boasts that “the workingman and the slum child know they can expect my best efforts in their interests,” and says he’ll do everything in his power “to protect the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” Even Kane’s theme song, the melody of which we hear in the rally scene, touts this issue in its opening lines:
There is a man, a certain man
And for the poor, you may be sure
That he’ll do all he can!
This all comes in stark contrast to current conservative dogma, which holds deregulation as the one-size-fits-all solution to all economic issues and is heavily intertwined with the interests of big business. Trump admittedly isn’t bound by the orthodoxy of his adopted party, but his tax plan, at least, indicates more sympathy for management than labor.
Trump’s key election issue is the idea that America is sliding into decay; his takes on immigration and the economy all stem from this. In his view, other countries are unacceptably laughing at our weakness, as seen in the opening lines to a song played at one of his campaign stops.
Cowardice (Are you serious?)
Apologies for freedom (I can’t handle this!)
The more optimistic Kane seems unlikely to espouse anything along these lines. Where Trump sees every other country beating us, Kane is asked how he found business conditions in Europe and chuckles, “with great difficulty.”
There’s also the issue of Trump’s history of racist and sexist comments, perhaps the key fact of his campaign, given how much of his popularity appears derived from his attitude and persona rather than his policies. (Circus though this election season has been, articles linking Trump to a rise in white supremacist interest have been a sobering reminder of what rhetoric means outside of soundbites). Race or gender are not themes of Citizen Kane—like most Hollywood films of the era, it is basically all-white—but it’s hard to imagine Kane making statements that are in any way similar to Trump’s. One version of the script has a character describe Kane as “tolerant,” adding, “‘Live And Let Live’—that was his motto.” The line doesn’t appear in the film, but would be consistent with Welles’ portrayal of the character he wrote.
That speaks to another fundamental difference between the two. Kane, for all his faults, seems genuine in his desire to help the less fortunate. That’s why his downfall takes on tragic dimensions. When he takes over the Inquirer, his voice breaks when he talks about being a champion for those who have none:
His motives are sincere, but not entirely pure, of course. After the election, Kane’s friend Jed Leland (played by Joseph Cotten) drunkenly deflates the “man of the people” posturing of the campaign, arguing that social progress was a secondary consideration to what Kane really wanted: power and respect. “You’re not going to like [organized labor] one little bit when you find out it means your working man expects something as his right, not as your gift,” Leland slurs. “When your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy, that’s going to add up to something bigger than your privilege and then I don’t know what you’ll do. Sail away to a desert island, probably, and lord it over the monkeys.”
Still, it shows character when Kane publishes critical items against a company he owns shares in, and he demonstrates a warped kind of integrity when he writes a scathing review of his wife’s opera debut. I’m not sure there’s an equivalent story to be told about Trump, who, for all his “telling it like it is” braggadocio, comes off as an opportunist more than an idealist.
After losing the election and losing much of his empire in the Depression, Kane retreats to Xanadu, where he then proceeds to lose his wife and all his friends. He spends his final days alone, pitied but not loved. It’s a fate he brought on himself, though he retains enough of his idealistic youth that there’s a reason “Rosebud”—a cryptic reference to purity and innocence—is the final word to pass his lips.
If Donald Trump fails to win the primary or general election, does a similar fate await him? Already high-profile extensions of his brand—his TV show, his deal with Macy’s and Univision—have dissolved, poisoned by how toxic he’s become with the broader public. [Note: The A.V. Club is owned by Univision Communications.] Rifts can be mended when there’s money to be had, of course, but it’s difficult to see why businesses would choose to associate with him when they could opt for other public figures who don’t have his baggage.
When Trump analyzed Citizen Kane with Errol Morris, he singled out the famous breakfast montage as a meaningful moment in the film for him. As Kane gets more powerful, his relationships with those around him grow more strained. “Perhaps,” Trump said, “I can understand that.” Will Trump Towers become their own type of Xanadu? What would his last word be, and mean? And will anyone be there to listen?