Discerning observers of the current political scene who are familiar with the culture and sensibilities of early 20th Century America understand something the millennials cannot. We have seen this move before.
Before Bill Clinton coarsened American culture with his womanizing, Donald Trump would likely not have survived his own self-inflicted his wounds, according to political commentators who appear in a new documentary.
Robert Orlando, a Hollywood filmmaker, producer, director and author draws a direct parallel between Trump’s political rise and the biographical trajectory of the main character from Citizen Kane, which the former president has identified as his favorite film.
Trump’s Rosebud is replete with observations and commentary from key figures in his administration and prominent conservative columnists sympathetic toward his policy goals.
The equivalent of an Access Hollywood tape would certainly have doomed Trump in early 20th century America where Citizen Kane is set. But as Jeffrey Lord, a former CNN commentary informs viewers in the film, “the culture of America has changed…it’s not like the 1950s.” That’s for sure. The business tycoon’s dying words of “Rosebud” are lost in the drama that unfolds in the 20 years leading up to the lead character’s death in 1941.
While Kane’s story ends in tragedy, it’s yet not evident how Trump’s second attempt to gain the presidency will fair against intense opposition from a hostile press and the Washington D.C. establishment. But it is evident that Trump is tenacious and enduring in a manner that the fictional character is not.
“You’re not just going to bring him down,” former Attorney General William Barr says in the film. “He will keep marching ahead and that’s an admirable trait.”
Barr, who served as attorney general under Trump and George Bush Sr., offers a savvy and insightful perspective into the current media and political cycle.
“I would still vote for him given all his flaws,” Barr says at the outset of the film. While he credits Trump’s policy achievements, Barr also finds that Trump can be “petty” and “juvenile” in ways that undermined his administration.
Young Americans voting for the first or second time in the Trump era will need to become acquainted with the black and white cinema era to fully appreciate the subject matter and the historical parallels that may be coming full circle in the next presidential election.
Citizen Kane is the fictional character created by Orson Welles, the American filmmaker known for his unconventional and creative narration techniques. Kane’s story draws heavily from the life story of William Randolph Hearst, the New York businessman, newspaper publisher, and politician who served in Congress at the turn of the century from 1903 to 1907. Charles Foster Kane dies alone and in obscurity at the end of the 1941 classic that Welles directed, produced, and starred in as the title character.
In the film, Kane was brought down by an extramarital affair his political opponent publicly exposed while Kane was running for governor of New York. The comparison with Trump breaks down here since the former President has already endured highlighted publicized reports of his affairs that are far more graphic and sensational than the media stories that torpedoed Kane’s political career.
Trump’s Rosebud is partially based on Orlando’s book “Citizen Trump,” published by Simon and Schuster, and an unfinished film of the same name. In an interview, Orlando described how this previous effort was censored on Amazon.
“My social media team informed me that Amazon was blocking friendly reviews,” he said. “There was no toleration for any material that remotely favorable toward trip, but I also took in criticism from his supporters. The current and previous film are fair, but not uncritical of Trump.”
Orlando’s film does beg an important question?
Is Trump, unlike Kane, more than a one-trick act. In 2016, he was remarkably well suited to dismantle Hillary Clinton in a manner that perhaps the other Republican candidates could not. Instead of imploding in the face of the Access Hollywood tapes, Trump turned his “locker room talk” back on his opponent.
“Trump’s career was rife was scandal; it was part of who he was, and everyone knew it,” Orlando says in the film. “Trump was unfazed by the headlines [with the Hollywood tape] and his campaign was full speed ahead. He even managed to turn the scandal back on one of the media’s darlings in Wild Bill Clinton.”
What was the difference between Trump and Bill Clinton and their behavior toward women?
In his media comments, Trump made the argument that his crude comments did not translate into abusive behavior.
“Hillary Clinton and her kind have run our country into the ground,” Trump is quoted as saying in the film. “I’ve said some foolish things, but there is a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women.”
Trump’s Rosebud delves back into his childhood in Queens, New York, explores the setbacks he experienced in the real estate industry, his triumph as a Reality TV star, his policy wins as president, and his missteps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What exactly was Trump’s Rosebud?
The film reaches a critical turning point as it probes into Trump’s early life to see if there is an equivalent to Kane’s Rosebud to be found. The answer is compelling and helps to explain Trump’s conflict with the media, the Biden administration, and the unfolding legal drama.
“Rosebud” is the opening line of Citizen Kane and is Kane’s final word as he lay dying in his bed. In an effort to uncover its meaning, a magazine editor sends an investigative journalist to interview people who’d known Kane well. It’s through their recollections and newsreel footage that we learn about Kane’s life from diverse perspectives. Yet, we never really hear Kane’s side of the story – and so far we have not heard Trump’s.
The Reality TV star turned politician has never received more 50% of the popular vote. Therefore, it’s not clear that he can prevail in 2024 without a foil like Hillary Clinton or her husband. Typically, the Republican candidate has to be so good that they defeat the news media and the Democrat. Trump did not beat the media in 2020.
A flawed candidate like Joe Biden could potentially cancel out some of Trump’s negatives. Moreover, there is always the possibility his antagonists in the media could unwittingly play into Trump’s hands enabling the impeached president to be re-elected.
“The media has become less substantive, but more ubiquitous,” Barr says in the film. “There’s an element of trivializing things and taking complex issues and make people think there are simple answers.”
If so, the constant drumbeat of indicyments against Trump that keep him in the media while pushing his political opponents to the side will be key in 2024.
“In making Trump’s Rosebud I was not trying to pick a candidate, but ask if we can have a president without the media show.”
Right now, it would seem the answer is no.