Years from now, when the presidential campaign of Donald Trump is a distant memory, it’s more than likely that someone will try to make a movie out of it — a truth-is-loonier-than-fiction satire like “Primary Colors,” or maybe a gonzo, 21st-century version of “The Candidate.” (I say: Cast Alec Baldwin and expect box office gold.) Yet if you really think about it, a movie version of Trump’s candidacy could end up seeming a bit redundant. In so many ways, the Trump campaign already is a movie. It’s that riveting, that crazy and funny, that horrifying and suspenseful, that jaw-droppingly “Only in the movies!” surreal.
Trump, of course, isn’t the first creature to emerge from the swamp of entertainment culture and make a serious bid for the presidency. That would be Ronald Reagan. But Trump, who acquired as much fame as a reality-TV superstar (on “The Apprentice”) as he did for being a real-estate developer, is the first nominee to treat his very candidacy as entertainment. It’s not just a campaign, it’s a show, it’s performance art, it is — yes — a movie. Why, it’s even a remake!
For the fascinating truth is that Hollywood predicted the rise of Trump a long time ago. Just go back and watch Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd.” It was made in 1957, and it stars Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, a good ol’ boy with a guitar and a pompadour who rises up, through the medium of television, to become a hugely appealing monster of populist malevolence.
It’s shocking how deeply — and prophetically — Kazan’s film understands the way politics and pop culture were starting to merge. Lonesome Rhodes suggests a fusion of Elvis, Roy Rogers, Reagan, and Mussolini — which means that today, 60 years after the film was made, he looks startlingly like an early version of Trump.
|“In many ways, the Trump campaign already is a movie.”|
The other movie that prophesied Trump was “Network.” You’ll recall that Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, becomes a cult-like preacher who goes on TV and makes himself a lightning rod for people’s rage. Night after night, he diagnoses the problem: that the system is rigged, that it’s all a bunch of lies, and that we should all be “mad as hell” and say “We’re not going to take this anymore.” But Howard has no solutions; he’s a false prophet because, even as he’s diagnosing the problem, he is part of the problem. He pretends to be a rebel, but he’s really just another piece of entertainment. Sound familiar?
I don’t mean any of this to trivialize what many observers would characterize as Trump’s racism, his sexism, or his “jokey” threats of violence. But to point out that his candidacy was foretold by the movies — and that, to an outrageous degree, it plays like one — is, in fact, to take him deadly seriously. It’s a way of trying to grapple with the mystery of how we ever wound up with a presidential candidate who is this removed from reality. Political columnists have been tying themselves in knots to make sense of this for the better part of a year, but it’s the movies that really have a bead on it. It’s the movies — because they are pop culture — that lay bare the insanity of how pop demagoguery works.
The other thing predicted by “A Face in the Crowd” and “Network” is the pickle in which Trump now finds himself. Suddenly, his hate shtick is fizzling; his campaign is in trouble. Is it because he hired the wrong people and made tactical mistakes? Or is it because, with his shameful comments about a Muslim gold-star mother and Second Amendment devotees opposed to Hillary Clinton, he finally went too far? All of the above. But what “A Face in the Crowd” and “Network” crystalize is that “leaders” who are actually building shrines to themselves will always go too far, will always fly too close to the sun. For that is their nature. It’s too early to predict the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, but if this movie — the Donald Trump one — remains true to form, then Trump almost has to crash and burn. No audience would demand anything less.