What Donald Trump and other 2016 candidates can learn from Hollywood
Before reality TV and Donald Trump, there was Charles Foster Kane and Sen. Bulworth.
No matter how high Donald Trump flies in the polls, pundits continue to insist he has no chance. Usually they cite as evidence previous novelty candidates whose campaigns withered after enjoying their moment in the sun.
But maybe the experts are secretly assuming Trump’s plot will play out like those of so many political demagogues depicted in Hollywood.
These characters speak powerfully and charismatically to the concerns of their time, whether it’s the rise of mass media or big money in politics. But – spoiler alert – they are almost invariably exposed as frauds or, in some cases, assassinated. The same forces or individuals that create them take them down.
“The lesson for Trump to learn from these films is that in politics, friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate,” says Beverly Merrill Kelley, a retired communications professor at Cal Lutheran University who has written a series of books about political ideology in film.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some past films featuring Hollywood demagogues, and the key takeaways for those running in 2016.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Among other pursuits, the wealthy Kane runs for governor as a friend to the working man and “slum children.” His sole motivation, he says at one rally, is to expose and prosecute “the dishonesty, the downright villainy of Boss Jim Gettys’ political machine.”
How it plays out: Gettys exposes a Kane love affair and Kane loses badly.
Lesson for 2016: Don’t sleep around during election season.
All the King’s Men (1949)
Like Kane (and Trump), Willie Stark claims to be too busy bringing about change to craft detailed policy proposals. “You are the state and you know what you need,” he tells a crowd. Stark, once described by film historian David Thomson as a “hollow ranter,” rises fast railing against corruption and promising to be a friend to his fellow “hicks.”
How it plays out: Stark becomes corrupt and a philanderer himself, eventually gunned down by his girlfriend’s brother.
Lesson for 2016: See above.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
After waking up in a drunk tank, Lonesome Rhodes shows off his gift of gab and guitar playing on a local radio show. Long before YouTube, he goes viral, becoming a top-rated national TV star and a potent product flack. He soon gets mixed up in politics, schooling a stiff senator on how to fake down-home appeal.
How it plays out: Afraid of his ascent into real influence, the woman who had discovered Rhodes turns a hot microphone on him as he derides his audience as morons, stupid idiots and slobs, bringing his career to a sudden halt.
Lesson for 2016: You can call the nation’s leaders “losers,” but not your fans.
Bob Roberts (1996)
Like Rhodes, Bob Roberts achieves popularity through the power of song, a self-made conservative millionaire offering up folk ditties with titles like “The Times They Are A-Changin’ Back.” The movie is a study in the cynicism of modern campaign and candidate marketing, with Roberts going so far as to stage a fake assassination attempt on himself.
How it plays out: Apparently confined to a wheelchair, Roberts wins affection and goes on to defeat an incumbent senator.
Lesson for 2016: If all else fails, come up with a big stunt to win sympathy.
Sen. Bulworth, sick of his own canned slogans, hires a hit man to kill him the weekend before a primary. Feeling free, he goes out of his way to insult audiences at a black church and a Hollywood fundraiser. Although his offensiveness is played for laughs, speaking freely helps Bulworth recapture his inner liberal. He starts making up rhymes about how politics is corrupted by the influence of major corporations.
How it plays out: Deciding life’s worth living after all — he gets to make out with a lollipop-sucking Halle Berry — Bulworth tries to call off his self-sponsored assassination attempt. But an insurance executive he’s double-crossed guns him down on the night of his primary win.
Lesson for 2016: Telling the truth can win you fans, but you can only piss powerful people off so much before they strike back.