By Jim Downard
In “Back to the Future” Doc Brown was incredulous in 1955 when Marty McFly told him that Ronald Reagan was president in 1985. What would be the reaction of 1985 audiences, to be told who would be Chief Executive in 2019?
We’d have no trouble explaining what sort of person Mr. Trump was, though. Not if they’d kept up with the movies.
Start with Charles Foster Kane. The spoiled rich kid from Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” was based on the newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who between them invented the yellow journalism that all too often sacrificed the journalism for the yellow (circulation gold dollars).
But Welles’ amalgam was someone we know all too well from our Man-Baby President: an overbearing narcissist who thought he had ethics, but never let that get in the way of his political ambition or personal lust. Kane demanded loyalty and craved love from everyone, even as he was incapable of giving it in return, and ended up a friendless recluse sulking in an opulent seaside mansion (apparently in Florida), nursing his grudges to the end.
Kane and Trump
Does the third Mrs. Trump know how to while away her hours putting together picture puzzles like the second Mrs. Kane? Hmm.
Like Kane, there’s an odd infantile honesty about Mr. Trump, someone who lacks a filter. Just as Kane joked that no one should expect him to keep his promises, Donald Trump once blurted out that if his policies go bad, he’ll just find someone else to blame. Duh.
And there’s a stack of blame piling up, isn’t there?
Not even the patriotic Kane would have been so feckless to betray an American ally as Trump did the Kurds in his mini-Munich. But then Trump has an ignorance that tramples boundaries far and wide. His scientific illiteracy flips off decades of climate science, mortgaging our environmental future as easily as he bankrupted a trio of casinos (and got a reporter fired for honestly forecasting that, incidentally).
While the American heartland hasn’t reached “The Grapes of Wrath” level yet, there are tillers of the soil going bankrupt from Trump’s tariff policies. “The Wizard of Oz” has all the characters for that: mix the brainless Scarecrow with the heartless Tin Woodsman, a dash of cowardly lion (prone to firing subordinates now by long-distance tweets), and veneer with a lot of bluffing Wizard.
Wizard of Mar-a-Lago
Trade wars are easily won, you see, as the Wizard of Mar-a-Lago assures us while waddling back to one of his expensive golf resorts, their lagging attendance pumped up a bit in the off season by diverting some Air Force planes for convenient layovers, or having the Vice President detour hundreds of miles to Oz when on a foreign trip. Such are the perks of a corrupt President, Warren Harding with gold plate and marble accessories. Emoluments Clause be damned, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
Though here again there’s that odd swirl of honesty, as Trump has claimed he’s been losing money as president—though, we suspect, hardly the five or six billion dollars he’s bragged. That’s Trumpian hyperbole. It’s doubtful he’s ever had that many billions to lose. Recall how Trump cast himself as the master of Manhattan business in the 1980s, all while flushing over a billion dollars down the drain (as easily as Marty McFly taking out half of the Twin Pines when he kicked that Delorean up to 88 mph). No wonder the self-proclaimed King of Debt is terrified to let the people see his tax returns.
Which brings us to Donald Trump the shameless political panderer, a professed “Christian” who visibly fails to live by that spirit, who can promise (and occasionally deliver) all manner of things that foul up other people’s lives, but not his own. Donald Trump doesn’t have quite the strut for “Elmer Gantry”—and clearly not even a shred of decency sufficient to pull off Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” At least there the kids got the band instruments and uniforms; all we’re getting are MAGA hats (Made in China).
But remember just a while ago Trump was just a TV celebrity, lording it over a parade of would-be entrepreneurs in “The Apprentice,” where he could satisfy his Solomonic urges by commanding “You’re fired!” to someone every week.
We’ve been there, too, back when Donald Trump was only a bratty child. Arthur Godfrey was more avuncular and folksy, though. At least in front of the cameras. But behind the scenes he was a vindictive tyrant. Elia Kazan based his “A Face in the Crowd” on him. Andy Griffith (before his Mayberry Days) brilliantly played “Lonesome Rhodes,” a country & western singer who became a popular TV star.
Trump can’t play an instrument or sing (a blessing for Civilization, that), but he more than casually resembles Griffith’s manipulative demagogue, holding his audience in contempt as he played on their prejudices to maintain his audience. That is, till one day when a fed-up producer left the mic on during one of his tirades.
How we’ve moved on from the innocent Eisenhower era. In our time, the amoral Teflon Trump appears impervious to such exposure or shame, from pussy-grabbing interviews to brazenly bragging how he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing the support of his sycophantic base. (Speaking of which, who can pass up noting the ironically apocalyptic former street address of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared: 666 Fifth Avenue.)
Trump has the ultimate response to charges of fraud or lies, of course: it’s all “Fake News.” Here the Donald has taken a leaf from someone else who haunted 1950s television: Roy Cohn, the embodiment of Joe McCarthy paranoia and corrosive false accusation.
Long before Michael Cohen came along to ferry hush money checks to porn stars (one of the long line of Trump associates taking the “Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go” option of the Trump Monopoly Game), in the 1970s Cohn was among Donald Trump’s lawyers, teaching the real estate huckster the fine art of the Bigger Lie: when accused of something (like racial discrimination at a Trump apartment block), strike back to accuse your accusers of the same only more so. And if you have to lose (which Trump did), settle out of court, preferably with non-disclosure agreements, and brag afterward how you’d actually won.
Donald Trump is the Roy Cohn president, stirring up fear and division as he brazenly steals money from Defense Department projects to build a Wall Congress has never approved. Though it can’t be said Trump’s fear-mongering is new. Xenophobia has all too often been as American as lynching and jingoism.
But Trump adds his own special mix to it: an incompetent braggart who proclaims his genius even as he fumbles at the prompter (this may be due to dyslexia, undiagnosed as a youngster, accounting for his marginal reading skills, rambling improvisational speeches, and overall disinclination to learn a damned thing).
Decaying since then into Dunning-Kruger in a red tie, Trump is someone who can’t abide being told he’s wrong. And his limitless ego has at last found a Glee Club, supplied by the throngs cheering at his rallies, doing Charles Foster Kane and Lonesome Rhodes one better by not only being able to lie his way out of every scandal, they’ll chant for more. Imagine a whole stadium of Tony Perkins clones, all waving Mulligan excuse slips as fast as they can.
There’s a Movie For That
There are a few movies for that. Want your demagogues domestic? “All The King’s Men” was a fictionalized account of Louisiana’s Huey Long from the 1930s. He didn’t end up well, though (Google it).
Or you can go for a vintage import, guaranteed to leave a bitter taste in your mouth. “Triumph of the Will” is all about impressive rallies, way over the top compared to amateur Trump, filled with enthusiastic thousands who wouldn’t have been out of place at a 2017 Charlottesville Tiki Torch parade. The star of that film was a real outsider, someone who showed just how much you could shake up the establishment if you lacked all moral brakes, and replaced it with bags of paranoid prejudice and the power to shoot or gas anybody that disagreed. One way to Make Deutschland Great Again.
Hitler and his creepy press spokesman Goebbels complained strenuously about the “lying press” of their day by the way (“Lugenpresse” as the German language put it). Turns out the press wasn’t doing the lying, though by the time the corpses settled, press failures were the least of the Reich’s problems. Charlie Chaplin gave him a comic sendup in “The Great Dictator” just as the war broke out, but it turned out mirth was never going to be the Fuhrer’s long term legacy.
So we don’t have the klieg lights or Albert Speer to market Donald Trump’s “perfect” Piece For Our Time. But there’s “All the President’s Men” to refresh our memory on what whistleblowing means, how vital that is for the health of a just Republic, and how exposing and thwarting abuse of power requires people in and out of government to take their Constitution seriously.
A shocker for people lacking historical memory. Back then there were Republicans like Barry Goldwater who had the ethics and fortitude to speak truth to corrupt power, and advise Richard Nixon that the jig was up. Are there any in the GOP capable of that today? Or is that party of Abraham Lincoln now nothing more than the Trump Vanity Party? That would be quite a sad end.
A Final Note
But let’s conclude on a Grand Guignol note, with one final film character who shows a remarkable number of intersects with the Donald.
He definitely loves gold just as much as Trump. He even has a Rolls-Royce made of it, bigger than the gold toilet at Trump Tower, which doesn’t have wheels (that we know of). There was a Trump Edition Cadillac stretch limo back in the 1980s, but it was a cheesy thing, and they’re not worth much now—one auctioned off this year for less than a ’58 Chevy. Like Trump University, Trump Airline, and Trump steaks, the Trump brand is not exactly blessed with the Midas Touch.
But back to our gold-loving bully. Like Donald Trump, he likes playing golf, owning his own course. And is so petty that he cheats at it, just like Trump. In fact, he hates losing, to the point where he’ll casually conspire with a foreign power to get what he wants. And if you get in his way, he won’t hesitate to throw you under a bus. Or in a car crusher, 1964 Lincoln vintage.
Yep, Auric Goldfinger is a truly Trumpian personality, someone you can Bond with. Or maybe not.
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