Citizen Kane popped up on Turner Classic Movies the other night. Having nothing better to do at 1:30 in the morning, I ended up watching the whole thing, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed the first 20 or 30 times I’d seen it.
As it happens, there was. See, although I’ve returned to Citizen Kane on a regular basis throughout my adult life, this was my first interaction with Orson Welles’s magnum opus in the era of Donald Trump—a man, oddly enough, who has cited Kane as his all-time favorite movie. Bearing those two facts in mind, I found myself viewing Welles’s 1941 film through a new lens—namely, a Trumpian lens—which resulted (improbably enough) in an altogether fresh and provocative experience of this great picture, which can roughly be summarized as, “Kane equals Trump.”
To be sure, I am hardly the first cinefile in 2016 to notice some glaring, eerie similarities between Charles Foster Kane—the movie’s fictional hero—and Donald J. Trump. Indeed, it requires no great intellect to gaze upon Kane—an ambitious, wealthy, vulgar, narcissistic, philandering media tycoon—and recognize elements of the current Republican presidential nominee.
Just a few months ago in the Boston Globe, movie critic Ty Burr did exactly that, observing that Trump’s apparent affinity for this most highbrow of classic films clearly springs from an identification with its title character—a hypothesis more or less confirmed by Trump himself in a fascinating 2002 interview with Errol Morris, during which Trump describes Kane’s arc as comprising “a great rise and […] a modest fall,” adding, with surprising candor, “In real life, I believe that wealth does, in fact, isolate you from other people. It’s a protective mechanism.”
That’s a startling admission from a man who seems to value the accumulation of wealth above all other things—a sign, perhaps, that Trump is not quite as thick as he appears. But then, right at the end of the interview, Morris asks him, “If you could give Charles Foster Kane one piece of advice, what would you say to him?” Trump’s response: “Get yourself a different woman.”
So there you have it, folks. Kane’s fatal flaw wasn’t his ruthless pursuit of money and power; it wasn’t his cold dismissal of friends and colleagues who ceased being useful to him; it wasn’t his patronizing attitude toward the public that he wished to serve; nor was it his loose and irresponsible attitude toward basic truth and facts.
Nope. According to Trump, Kane’s only real problem was that tramp of a wife, Susan. You know, the one who tried to kill herself because her husband forced her to pursue his interests rather than her own. The woman who dared to seek her own happiness and be her own person. Yessiree, if only she had understood her place as her husband’s dutiful slave, then everything would’ve worked out just fine for good old Charlie Kane.
No doubt this is how many men secretly (if not openly) think, and Trump would not be the first rank misogynist to totally misunderstand what Citizen Kane is really about. However, because this particular misogynist has become such a culturally significant figure, it’s a wee bit scary how very wrong he is.
As Exhibit A, I present the famous speech where Kane, a populist newspaper publisher running for New York governor on an anti-corruption platform, pledges, “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys.”
Gettys, you’ll recall, is the sitting governor and Kane’s main opponent in the race, meaning that Kane is promising to literally jail his vanquished foe should he win the election later that week.
Does that possibly ring a bell for you? It should, because that was—almost word for word—what Trump vowed to do to Hillary Clinton during their most recent debate, should he prevail on November 8—a promise, we might add, that no other real-life candidate has made in the entire history of presidential campaigns.
I wonder: Did Trump re-watch Kane the night before the debate, taking copious notes in the hope of reenacting its most memorable bits? And when that barn-burning speech occurred, did a light bulb illuminate above Trump’s head and a big, stupid grin materialize across his face?
I wouldn’t be too surprised if that were the case. And if so, did Trump also notice how Kane’s campaign ultimately crashes and burns after Kane is found to have cheated on his wife and is too pig-headed to face it head-on? Or how, the morning after he loses, the headline of his own newspaper defiantly reads, “FRAUD AT POLLS!”? Or how, after the unwelcome results have filtered into Kane campaign headquarters, Jed Leland—Kane’s one and only friend—looks him in the eye and says, “You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. It’s something to be played your way according to your rules.”
They say that art imitates life, although I’ve often found it to be the other way around. That Trump views Kane as a noble character who is worth emulating in real life just goes to show what a genius Welles was in evoking the timeless allure of acquiring great fame and becoming a great man—and, more brilliantly still, in demonstrating that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. No wonder the movie’s original working title was, simply, The American.
Trump, who has never been especially good at nuance, seems to view Kane strictly through rose (or rosebud)-colored glasses, not grasping the essential sadness of Kane’s life story, which—as any well-rounded person can see—is the result of having an ego several sizes too big and a heart several sizes too small.
That Trump doesn’t get this is to the benefit of no one, although it’s in perfect alignment with what we already know about his character. Indeed, Trump’s very obliviousness to what makes Kane a tragic figure is, itself, proof that the two men are cut from the same genetic cloth: Both are born into great wealth but also great insecurity, and as a result, they spend their entire lives trying to prove themselves to a public that ultimately dismisses them as petty, cruel and ridiculous.
The lesson of Citizen Kane may be that you can amass all the money in the world but you still can’t make people love you, and self-love can only get you so far in achieving inner peace. By the time Kane figured this out, it was too late. How much more will Trump need to humiliate himself before he comes to the same, sad end?