A boisterous braggart is given a TV show, where his unfiltered coarseness soon makes him a star. His audience, primarily hovering around the poverty line and predisposed to mistrust, regard him as a straight-shooter and man of the people, even as he looks down on them from his penthouse, where his personal wealth and circle of aristocratic supporters grows. Soon, his popularity is such that he begins to entertain political ambitions. At first, he’s just a tough-talking mouthpiece for an establishment candidate—the guy who says what the “responsible elite” aren’t able to say, but surely would if they could. But his ego cannot be contained. Soon he’s no longer under their control, believing that his is the true power behind the power. And nothing—not his own inexperience, his spotty personal record, nor his own scandalous dealings with women—will stand in his way.
I’m far from the first to remark on the parallels between Donald Trump and A Face In The Crowd. Elia Kazan’s 1957 film about a media-spawned megalomaniac has long been the go-to movie reference for explaining Trump’s rise from NBC reality shows to far bigger, much less amusing reality shows. In September 2015, a mere two months after Trump announced he was running, The Washington Times’ Cal Thomas pointed out the eerie similarities before he barely had any to work with, noting that both the film’s antagonist, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (played by Andy Griffith in a revelatory—and very loud—performance), and Donald Trump were narcissistic, trophy wife-collecting womanizers who trafficked in rabble-rousing bluster, blowing right past facts and reason to appeal directly to their audience’s lizard-brain fears. In turn, both became, as Thomas put it, “the dictionary.com definition of demagogue”: a leader whose popularity depends on playing to people’s emotions and prejudices. Twenty-five years earlier, Kazan himself had suggested the film “anticipates [Ronald] Reagan,” a list to which others have, over the the years, added other populist, shrewdly dumbed-down figures like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.
Like all of those people (and their mutual shadow advisor, Roger Ailes), Rhodes laughs off outdated concepts like “preparedness” or “actual beliefs in things” that the soundbite age finally made obsolete, declaring, “Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want slogans. ‘Time for a change!’ ‘The mess in Washington!’ ” (“Build the wall!” “Drain the swamp!”) But once you add in the open pandering to the rural disenfranchised, the scandalous personal life, and the misogyny, the resemblance to Donald Trump in particular is so uncanny that many, many pundits picked up on it the second he entered the race—most of them inevitably quoting Walter Matthau (as the cynical, rumpled head writer on Rhodes’ show) in his pithy summation: “I’ll say one thing for him, he’s got the courage of his ignorance.”
But while Kazan may have linked Rhodes to Reagan, A Face In The Crowd isn’t explicitly a political movie. Like its spiritual successor, Network, A Face In The Crowd is primarily a darkly comic satire about the corrosive influence of celebrity and mass media—particularly television—on public opinion, and the dangers of allowing the people who talk the loudest and excite us most to run roughshod over the quieter, duller things that actually matter.
The screenplay hails from Budd Schulberg, the Hollywood-bred son of a successful movie producer whose novel What Makes Sammy Run? tells a similarly dark, rags-to-riches tale about an unlovable social-climbing mogul whose chief tools are lying and manipulation. Schulberg’s other collaboration with Kazan, On The Waterfront—though characterized by Kazan himself as a rejoinder to the outcry over Kazan and Schulberg, reformed Communists both, “naming names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee—was first and foremost, Schulberg insisted, about downtrodden longshoremen standing up to their underhanded union. Schulberg was fascinated by stories about the damage inflicted by bullying men who are corrupted by power. And in 1957—particularly in the wake of the televised McCarthy hearings that Schulberg and Kazan had both sat for—the potential of television for creating that power was only beginning to be understood.
Over the years, plenty have remarked on the movie’s prescience, but mostly it’s been hyperbole—the same way we spend every election year wondering whether some candidate we don’t like is a “real-life Manchurian Candidate.” Though he’s certainly had echoes in plenty of dangerous, catchphrase-spewing empty suits over the years, there’s always been a tacit understanding that Lonesome Rhodes is just an exaggerated, extremely pessimistic caricature. Like The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther scoffed in his dismissive 1957 review, if a Lonesome Rhodes really came along, “This type would either have become a harmless habit or the public would have been finished with him!” And besides, as we were reminded by most of the pundits who have used the film to try to explain Trump in the past year, even the movie offers us this glimmer of “it’s just a story” reassurance: Lonesome Rhodes loses.
In the film, Rhodes becomes so untouchable, so cockily certain of his popularity, he begins to openly refer to his followers as his “flock of sheep,” boasting of his base of “rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers” that he owns them completely. “They think like I do,” he says. “Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em.” Rhodes’ contempt for these lowest-common denominators who are too bowled over by his alpha-male confidence to question him is mirrored not only in Trump’s blatantly simplistic policy proposals (Build walls! Get rid of Muslims! Kick ISIS’ ass! Win more!), but in Trump’s own, comparable remarks, such as calling Iowa voters “stupid” or musing about how much he loves “the poorly educated.” Though Rhodes, at least, hails from the backwoods poverty he sneers at; unlike born millionaire Trump, there’s no innate, wicked irony in Rhodes’ keeping up his “man of the people” shtick until at least halfway through the film.
Eventually, Rhodes’ scorn for his fans becomes so great that he unleashes on them while prancing around during the closing credits of his television show:
Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got ’em like this… You know what the public’s like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.
In the movie, this moment is his comeuppance: Unbeknownst to him, Rhodes’ spurned lover (played by Patricia Neal)—and the Frankenstein producer who created this monster in the first place—has a crisis of conscience and turns up his mic so everyone at home can hear him. By the time Rhodes returns to his apartment, he’s ruined. His show will soon be canceled. His politician friends want nothing to do with him. He is alone and unloved, attended solely by a lackey playing him canned cheers and laughter through an applause machine. Delivering the final blow, Matthau’s Miller tells Rhodes what will happen next—that sure, he will inevitably return to television after “a reasonable cooling-off period,” but it will never be the same. He will never again wield the popularity and influence he once did, and he will eventually be forgotten. It’s a stinging rebuke to a man whose entire livelihood depends on the currency of his name.
In most of the write-ups comparing Trump to Rhodes, this is meant to be the kicker: that Trump’s own unchecked hubris similarly predicts his own undoing, and that, at best, he might be back to hosting celebrity game shows by 2018. Although this time, he’ll be lucky to land anyone besides Scott Baio.
“A Face In The Crowd seems to be saying that the American public has the sense to turn away from a charlatan when they see one,” CNN’s Lewis Beale wrote in November 2015, although even way back then, he admitted that Trump was already defying that analogy. Beale pointed to voters shrugging off Trump openly bashing his opponents as evidence that the film might be proven wrong (“And that’s a very scary thought”), while noting that, in fact, Trump was even displaying some abhorrent behavior not even Rhodes would dare. While Lonesome Rhodes angrily dismisses a group of black butlers as “monkeys,” he at least has the decency to be a racist shitbag in private. By then, Trump had already publicly denounced Mexican immigrants as “rapists and killers,” said he would require all Muslims to register in a national database, claimed that he’d seen Muslims cheering the 9/11 attacks, and retweeted false statistics about black murder rates from a neo-Nazi. Surely this combination of impropriety and intolerance would not get him to the highest office in the land of a civilized, modern society such as ours.
Again, that was last November, when Trump was barely an orange glimmer on the political horizon. Since then, the number of terrible things he said and did only multiplied. He was accused multiple times of sexual assault, and dismissed his accusers as liars who were too unattractive to molest. He doubled-down on those white nationalist-baiting statements, releasing ads that trafficked in the least subtle anti-Semitism since the last Skrewdriver album. At his rallies, he encouraged violence against protestors, and hinted that Clinton should be assassinated. On the debate stage, when he wasn’t railing like some flashing text-laden, InfoWars-linking conspiracy page at her, he was threatening to throw her in jail and calling her a “nasty woman.” He wasn’t “caught” on a mic when he said these things. He leaned in. Yet still he rose.
He was also heard saying things that even Budd Schulberg would have dismissed as too ridiculous to be effective satire: laughing with Howard Stern about being a “sexual predator”; suggesting he’d like to fuck his own daughter; bragging that he could do anything he wanted to women, even “grab them by the pussy,” because of his celebrity. After all that, the only one who was cast into the cold penthouse purgatory with his applause machine was Billy Bush. In Trump’s most Lonesome Rhodes-esque moment, he even boasted he could gun somebody down in the middle of the street and his acolytes would only applaud his exercising his Second Amendment rights.
Besides, he’d been caught on the 24-hour hot mic that is Twitter for years, methodically working his way through the American population to call them all sad, ugly, stupid, pathetic losers, seemingly out of sheer boredom. Hearing him talk like this didn’t shock anyone. It only earned him more followers—the loyalty of a populace that loves to hate-watch the token dickhole on The Bachelorette, who rallies around the meanest, toughest kid on the playground and taunts his “butthurt” victims to “cry more.” Unlike Lonesome Rhodes, Trump didn’t even have the saving grace of a folksy, Will Rogers-like wit to offset his assholishness. The best he could offer is limp, Evening At The Improv-reject observations such as these:
Yet still, he won. There will be no comeuppance, no undoing of Donald Trump—and certainly no moment when some clever writer gets to walk up and triumphantly lay out the path of his future of failure for him. Rather than turn away from the charlatan who openly played them like high-strung, xenophobic fiddles, the American public has actually put him in the White House, where no matter how disastrous he may be, he will always be comforted in knowing that he won—again. Trump knew exactly how to manipulate the biggest deal he could possibly land, bartering with the cheapest fears and emptiest promises, and whether he flourishes or bankrupts us all like one of his casinos, he will never again need to worry about chasing power. He now has all the power he could ever want. And in one night of election returns, he completely upended the redeeming, resilient message of A Face In The Crowd, of which Schulberg once wrote:
A demagog [sic] with a commanding rating could menace our democracy. But a moment of televised truth, a single shot of conspirational whispering behind hands, can prick the conscience of a nation more effectively than a dozen righteous editorials.
Yeah, right. The only prick we feel is the one we elected. We now know that an entire supercut of truth, let alone one single moment of transgression, will do nothing to dissuade a nation who “just really likes” their tyrants—or at least, who suspects their tyrants’ opponents of so much more clandestine unscrupulousness, they’re willing to overlook the actual naked obscenity, sneering misanthropy, and blatant lies right there in front of them. In the aftershock of a Trump victory, how fitting it is that a movie once dismissed for being too outlandishly cynical, too overblown in its pessimism, now looks like quaintly guileless fantasy. In the real world, Lonesome Rhodes wins.