Can there now be any doubt that the political film of this year is 1957’s prescient A Face in the Crowd?
You may recall, this was director, Elia Kazan’s cautionary tale of what happens when a non-politician captures an American moment. Sound familiar? The maniacal but charming Dusty Rhodes, is played by a potently malignant Andy Griffith, who discovers that his personal art is the ability to use his relatability to deride politicians, and lead an enraged and willfully ignorant electorate to do his will.
Although Trump’s celebrated rule breaking had no precedent in U.S. politics, this outline of a small screen star swaying the masses presents the Trump candidacy in amazing relief near sixty years later. And this week, the tyrant’s downfall from a hot mic capturing his unvarnished contempt brought reality in to alignment with fiction.
“This whole country, just like my flock of sheep,” Rhodes exclaims at the height of his power. “They’re mine, I own them, they think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am, so I got to think for them.”
– Dusty Rhodes, 1957
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump told an audience in Iowa about a week before the state’s caucuses. “It’s, like, incredible.”
– Donald Trump, 2016
And to this I’d add from the 1998 film Bulworth, in which a Senator standing for one too many re-elections has an extended Aleppo moment in which he can’t resist slaying the sacred cows of American politics, starting in a black church:
“You got half your kids are out of work and the other half are in jail. Do you see ANY Democrat doing anything about it? Certainly not me! So what’re you gonna do, vote Republican?”
“I mean – come on! You can have a Billion Man March! If you don’t put down that malt liquor and chicken wings, and get behind someone other than a running back who stabs his wife, you’re NEVER gonna get rid of somebody like me!”
The beneficiaries of demagoguery are the headline, not Trump
As we tell the story of Trump’s presidential bid, it may be more interesting to look beyond the flaws of an ambitious by flawed man, and to the array of beneficiaries who enable them. There’s no shortage of those ready to egg even the most compromised leader on, hoping for a seat beside and influence on an ascendant but flawed leader.
It’s less about change than changing the channel
Some angry voters may simply want to send Trump to DC to be as a political cherry bomb in the mouth of the body politic. For these voters, the bigger the jerk, the better the disruption.
But, perhaps a decade of reality television has changed the way part of the electorate thinks about elections. Voting for some may feel more like picking which character to see more of next season, rather than who could best work a government. Recall Trump’s critique of Carly Fiorina’s face to Rolling Stone…
Trump later explained this was his critique as an expert in entertainment. He may have seen this right. In the age of big money politics, voting may be less about change, than changing the channel from one corporate network to another.
Value voters would have stood for persecution
What about the values voters who supported Trump through an entire spectrum of bullying and demagoguery starting with Muslims? They accepted a level of religious persecution, as long as it was directed away from them. Heck, they may have accepted it a an advantage to their religious expression.
The GOP’s values voters went along with the racist-friendly “Idiot Wing” of the Republican party which turns out big in the primaries, in support of candidates who join in their delusions just long enough to win a nomination, and to escape still able to disavow their jackassery. Think ‘birthers’, creationists who want evolution demoted, and those who construct gun ownership the primary point of their relationship with government. Anyone who seriously asks, “What would Jesus do?” would not likely lead with call for wide ownership of assault weapons, building walls, elevating the rich, or the boasting and insults which seem to be involuntary reflexes for Trump.
GOP leaders would have sacrificed their relevance
Just four years ago the visionary, bold leaders of the GOP had a “come to Jesus” moment resulting in six goals to reverse their losses in national races. Trump’s campaign backfired on all six, and most notably on the two biggest – that if the GOP doesn’t do better with Latinos and women, demographics will marginalize the party nationally.
Emerging with Trump, a candidate who denied the authority of a sitting judge because of his Mexican heritage, and who made a magically-Mexican financed wall his signature policy proposal, probably isn’t what this strategy called for. And setting aside Trump’s long list of transgressions toward women– can the owner of a beauty pageant really be the GOP’s idea of an emissary to women? Did anyone really not see this coming a mile off? Donald Trump played “stole your nose” with the Republican Party. This was the Republican’s Uber moment, and they lost to a casino owner who had made his name in traditional media.
Conservatives would have lost world standing
Belittling John McCain ended any serious consideration of Trump for me. Certainly it pushed ideologically impure but virtuous people like Colin Powell out of the GOP tent. But then Trump’s inexplicable penchant for dictators, his fixation on nukes, and his disregard for allies did wake up some America’s hawks. But few took any protracted defensive stand against the nominee who at best was anathema to an ethic of sacrifice, and who at worse would make America an unreliable ally and potentially a chaotic threatening power.
Each election cycle, a part of the GOP complains they lost because their candidate wasn’t conservative enough. But when given the choice between arch conservative Ted Cruz, and Trump who takes a kind of white identity pose that is indistinguishable from racism, the Republican’s picked the functional racist. I use this term advisedly, noting he’s settled race-based housing discrimination charges, called for the death penalty for the Central Park 5, taken a law and order posture on Black Live’s Matter – and eschewed those who disagree as politically correct. Add in his disrespect to a Mexican judge, comments about Mexican rapists and murders, vilification of Muslims, and the discussion is at most whether race baiting is the same as racism.
A Bush was his wing man just for a whiff
This pattern of just going along to get some is personified by Trump’s affable video side-man eleven years ago, Billy Bush. He’s the nephew of former President George H. W. Bush and the cousin of former President George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, who ran against Trump in the primary. There he was grinning and encouraging Trump’s misogyny with his own, “Your girl’s hot as shit, in the purple.” And for showing complete joy to be positioned by big Donald, to walk by the hot actress Trump assigned him. To be the beta to Trump’s alpha, and revel in his scraps….of wisdom, isn’t limited to Billy Bush, but he’s its poster boy.
But Mrs. Lincoln, did you like the play?
There is a human instinct to suck-up to new leaders, or to at least not to challenge them directly. Even in business, so many tried to sidle toward the spotlight on Trump’s success, even while carefully claiming not to endorse him politically. My fellow social media windbags fawned over how he is the epitome of their own profession, be it: Public Relations, Content Marketing, or leadership. I jokingly imagine the same people in the 1930’s noting they aren’t necessarily for Hitler, but gosh Mein Kompf is a classic example of thought leadership, and Hitler’s architectural aesthetic and iconography was design-forward and generations ahead of…well, you get the idea.
Decent people simply don’t praise the incidentals of indecency. Let’s be honest, most no one was surprised to learn that Trump is rather asshole. We’ve had over a year of his campaign, which has been fruitful in overt racism, bullying, and misogyny. How could we not imagine that his private life wasn’t fit for family viewing. He has settled sexual harassment lawsuits, had co-ventures with criminals, and currently has a civil case in New York alleging child rape pending against him.
What is surprising, is when others voluntarily stand-up to excuse him. Rudy Giuliani showed his response to this admission of sexual assault, “I don’t know how much he was exaggerating, I don’t know how much is true.” As a 28 year old woman for Trump suggested on WBUR today, if the then sixty year old trump were sexually aggressive – the women likely provoked it.
The headline for me this election season, is that this pattern was acceptable to more than 40% of the US electorate and the vast majority of Republican leaders – until this week. It took hearing Trump admit he treats non-Muslim, not Mexican, non-Journalist, non-fat, actually attractive white women like meat, to break off value voters, conservatives, and GOP leaders. Inciting political violence, racism, and a degree of profligate lying that stretches from denying the current President is an eligible citizen, to being unable to disclose his taxes. Chanting “lock her up” and the RNC, and proposing to to ban to ban all Muslims, a 1.6 billion member religion from entering the US….that didn’t trip the trigger. Somehow, he could pass as forceful, slightly dirty but irascible guy until this week.
It’s good politicians across America this weekend started to use their daughters and sisters as a face-saving exit from the cluster fuck a Trump presidency would bring. Obviously, his earlier statements would have affected a lot of other people’s daughters: Muslim one’s were harassed for wearing a hijab as the fruit of Trump’s alarm, or those who are overweight, or wanting to be a jurist with Mexican heritage. But for hearing the mating call of the Donald, a near plurality of voters might still be riding Trump’s campaign in to a dark chaotic night.
After the Primary, Trump Accomplished Little
No matter how extraordinary Trump’s rise in the primaries was, what he achieved in the general election at its apex was claiming the same states with the same rough margins that Mitt Romney did for two election cycles before. Mr. Trump, it turned out, brought no special sauce to the general election. A GOP core, voted against the other side. Perhaps with less ad spending, and perhaps in spite of more shortcomings than usual. Trump was magical in the primaries, and mayhem in the general election.
The GOP core were lined up to do what they’ve done before again, until non-intentional irony….currently America’s greatest export, kicked in. Trump, he master promoter, guru of content marketing and king of all media – got taken down by his own history of spastic self-promotion. And do doubt this nugget was served up to mainstream media, by a disciplined political operative, who waited for the shot potentially for months or years.
This release was a kill shot. The inclusion of a family member of America’s Republican political dynasty makes in an iconic moment. But it comes at a cost, as beating a discredited Trump will give the hollowest of mandates. There is an affirmative case to be made for Clinton, which I don’t mean to diminish by leaving it for the more conventional analysis it deserves. If this video is the kill shot that turns the electoral tables for good, Clinton’s affirmative case won’t be an assertable mandate from this election.
So, go watch a good film
I’m not in the business of writing political obituaries. But I have now seen A Face in the Crowd several times, to feel like I’ve seen the pattern book for Trump’s story.
There may be decades of political discussion ahead about this famous year. But for today, you can see our year’s biggest political story synthesized better than any punditry can do in real time. And a menacing Andy Griffith, and doe-eyed Patricia Neal is a treat.
Transcending time and reality, isn’t that what great art is for? I’ll be watching the debate tonight….but tomorrow, I’m ready for the wisdom of 1957. Perhaps not a better year, but one with a shared purpose that might be a tonic in our day too. Or, at least a relief and distraction from a venomous political season.