Throughout 2016, a series of prominent stories emerged from news outlets such as Politico, The AV Club, The Daily Beast and The Guardian, comparing Donald Trump’s rise in business and the US presidential election to that of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film, Citizen Kane.
Those comparisons drew eerie connections between the lives of the two men, ranging from their inheritance of substantial wealth in their 20s, to the building of large and influential business empires, to their own vaunting populist political aspirations.
In comparing Trump to Kane and the real-life personality on which he was based, William Randolph Hearst, Politico’s Benjamin Hufbauer draws a connection between Trump’s palatial Mar-a-Lago estate, Kane’s Xanadu and Hearst’s own castle, saying that, “taking a tour of Hearst Castle is like looking inside of part of the mind of Hearst — or that of a Kane or a Trump.”
He goes on to note the mirroring between Kane and Hearst’s congenial dealings with Adolf Hitler, and the fact that “Trump has infamously praised Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying, ‘I’ve always felt fine about Putin. I think that he’s a strong leader’.”
The Daily Beast’s Brad Schwartz also points out that the “apex of Kane’s self-delusion is his 1916 run for governor. At an iconic rally in Madison Square Garden, Kane gives a speech that would not seem out of place coming from Donald Trump.”
Eerie as they are, these connections are evidently circumstantial, but consider that Trump has repeatedly stated that Citizen Kane is his favourite film. Could Kane’s life and exploits be a model for Trump’s own, or are they simply kindred spirits?
In an interview with Errol Morris, Trump’s fascination and connection with Citizen Kane becomes clearer. At one point in the interview, when Trump is reflecting on Kane’s descent into isolation estrangement from his wife as his riches grew, Trump notes, “Perhaps I can understand that,” and goes on to say that “in real life, I believe that wealth does isolate you from other people”.
We see here that Trump relates to and perhaps even respects Kane. A note of admiration for the figure shines through in the same interview when Trump notes that Kane experienced a “great rise” in his wealthy ascent, but his depressed retreat into hermitry was only a “modest fall.”
At this point we must consider recent, potent developments in Trump’s campaign to become the 45th US President. In the second presidential debate, Trump has intimated that he will use his powers as president to prosecute and convict Hillary Clinton, saying, “If I win, I am going to instruct my Attorney General to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”
Now compare this statement against part of Kane’s speech (given as he runs for election as Governor of New York): “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution of boss Jim W Gettys.”
Threatening to imprison one’s opponent is not a common feature of US elections. Could it be that Trump’s threat has taken inspiration from his own cinematic hero?
One crucial difference between the business empires of Kane and Trump is that Kane was a media baron, while Trump owns a property and hotel empire. Yet, Trump has dabbled in the media for decades. As noted in The Washington Post earlier this year, Trump allegedly manipulated the media through the impersonation of a publicist named John Miller in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and has regularly been a feature of television, radio and newsprint in his highly publicised career. Throughout the Republican primary race Trump also used the media to his advantage, garnering what some estimate to be hundreds of millions of dollars of free campaign exposure through his outlandish statements and talk-show appearances.
Kane’s manipulation of the media and cultivation of tabloid news is a key part of the biting satire of Citizen Kane. Stephen Bannon, the Chief Executive of Breitbart News, is Trump’s campaign CEO, and one cursory glance at the front page of the Breitbart News Network, where headlines make claims such as “OBAMA RIDICULES CHRISTIANS WHO FORGIVE DONALD TRUMP”, confirms the similarity in style between Kane’s empire and current Trumpian events.
Another recent refrain that has come to define part of Trump’s campaign is that if he loses, the election must have been rigged. Speaking at rallies across the US, Trump has intimated that “the system is rigged” and the only way he can lose would be through mass voter fraud. While his prospects have dwindled, his campaign CEO’s Breitbart News Network also regularly reports on the threat of fraud influencing the election’s outcome.
As Kane’s election hopes come grinding to a halt in his own race, his newspaper editors lament that they have “no choice” in what headline to run in response to the result. Between “KANE ELECTED!” and “FRAUD AT THE POLLS!” an editor gazes forlornly at the second headline and says “that one”.
Kane’s use of tabloid culture is his undoing in the film, as could be the case with Donald Trump at present. When Kane’s rival candidate Gettys makes public evidence of Kane having had an affair with a younger singer, his popularity plummets and he loses the gubernatorial race.
Compare this to the ongoing ‘Tapegate’ saga. The release of that tape (where Trump jokes about kissing and groping women without their consent) has had a disastrous impact on Trump’s campaign. Many Republican figures have now disendorsed his candidacy and recent polls show Hillary Clinton’s popularity accelerating in the nation-wide electorate.
It is yet to be seen how the rest of the presidential contest might mimic Citizen Kane. Will Trump will retreat into hermitry after an election loss and have his own ‘Rosebud’ moment? For this, we will have to wait and see.
While it is a neat rhetorical package to say that Trump is mimicking Citizen Kane, the parade of similarities and coincidences between a real and imagined narrative could be entirely circumstantial. Perhaps this all speaks more to the universality of Charles Foster Kane’s story and stands testament to the timeless nature of Orson Welles’ depiction of the wiles of money, power and the press.
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