Citizen Kane Predicted Donald Trump?

Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which turns 75 this month, is Donald Trump’s favorite movie. It’s not hard to see why. The film tells the story of an American tycoon, the inheritor of a great fortune, who spends his life vainly pursuing the love he lost in childhood. His historic career takes him right to the cusp of great political power—the governorship of New York—but he falls short thanks to his own hubris.

Something in Charles Foster Kane’s relentless pursuit of more—more wealth, more possessions, more influence—strikes a very definite chord with Trump, as he himself admits. “I think you learn in Kane that maybe wealth isn’t everything,” Trump told documentary filmmaker Errol Morris “because he had the wealth, but he didn’t have the happiness.” Or, as Kane puts it early on in the film, “You know … if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

But Kane is about more than just the damaging, isolating power of wealth—or “accumulation,” as Trump puts it. Welles didn’t simply make his protagonist a rich man; he made Kane a media baron, whose influence extends far beyond his riches because he controls the press. And that, more than anything else, is why Citizen Kane remains essential viewing three-quarters of a century after its initial release. Few films offer such a perceptive view of the media’s role in shaping American politics and thought. Even though Kane depicts an era dominated by the newspaper and the telegraph, and emerged when radio and newsreels held sway, its lessons have only become truer in the age of television and the Internet.
Kane’s media empire is built on “fakery in allegiance to the truth.” Like the real historical figure that inspired him (the great yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst), Kane willingly reshapes the facts in service of his own beliefs, heedless of the real-life damage he might cause. As the brash young publisher of the New York Inquirer, he tackles the “money-mad pirates” making fortunes on the backs of the underprivileged—even though his own finances are tied in with theirs. In the same scene, he gleefully seeks to spur a conflict between the U.S. and Spain, cabling a reporter in Cuba (in an echo of Hearst): “[Y]ou provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.” He promotes himself as a truth-teller, a righteous defender of the downtrodden, but he always puts his own interests first and foremost. “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio,” Kane declares early in the film, perhaps in a sly reference to War of the Worlds. As an alternative, he promotes his own paper: “Read the Inquirer.”
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