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Orson Welles’ Unlikely Prophecy

Citizen Kane is one of the films whose stellar reputation rarely leads to serious engagement with what it has to teach. It is the centerpiece of Orson Welles’s reputation as a master of the art, such that from 1962 to 2002 it was the critics’ choice for best film of all time in the Sight & Sound magazine poll. Since they almost invariably abstract from plot in their judgment, critics are uniquely bad judges. Yet their opinion has sufficed to keep the film famous enough for us to think about today. And once you see the parallels between Kane and Trump, it’s obvious that the story does have a claim to enduring greatness.

The film was not popular when it came out in 1941, and that itself became part of the film’s legend—its disguised portrait of media magnate William Randolph Hearst is supposed to have hurt the movie, since the studio didn’t want to anger the man. Well, the Academy loved it anyway—it was nominated for nine Oscars, and Welles won the writer’s award. He was also nominated for directing and acting, thus cementing his personal legend as a boy genius. He was 26.

Now, the brilliant insight of the story is this: the only way America could produce a true populist, a home-grown demagogue that could rise to the top of national politics, would be through the media. The use of media in American politics is as old as the Founders and printing pamphlets, but the arrival of radio introduced a change that suddenly made people realize the potential to move politics away from political offices and into the ether. Politics became more populist, but more virtual at the same time. And subsequent technological innovations—most notably TV and the internet—have culminated in the celebrity presidency of Donald Trump.

In 1941, Welles’s prophecy seemed preposterous. Media-based politics? Surely not! Business was far more important than media—the turn of the century industrial aristocracy was as astonishing to Americans as Silicon Valley oligarchs are today. Words like tycoon and titan seemed necessary to describe the scale on which industry was acting and affecting American lives. The good and wise also thought the political establishment to be quite important, and not without reason given the era’s massive expansion of the federal government and therefore of Washington, D.C. True, FDR was a master of radio communications, but he was also a patrician from a family that had already produced a president in TR. He was also a career politician in both state and federal elected office, and a through-and-through party man.

But three generations later, Welles is proved a prophet. Americans are attracted to the use of media to create new fantasies and new ideas—so why not new politicians, too? His story puts together two facts about national politics. First, we want change, we want change to come by our choices, and we want those choices to prove to be Progress. Improvement of a kind that cannot be rolled back. Something you can believe in and rely upon.

Secondly, we want Progress to come by great leaders who reveal our future to us today. Success in America is always a half-concealed prophecy about the future. A great man today is an everyman tomorrow, or at least in a generation. That’s part of the explanation for why we have so little instinct for veneration of our ancestors. That’s why so much talent goes into business rather than politics. Most people would rather produce important improvements that the whole nation embraces rather than pursue elusive fame. Commerce and technology count more with us than history, reputation, and character.

Strange as it may seem, it is almost a ritual with us to award triumphs in the press, on TV, and the like to those who have accomplished something that seems pregnant with the future. We see in them something of the best of America and something also of ourselves. We are proud that the country can produce greatness—that’s what it means to fulfill the promise of the land of the free. Even before we understand the consequences of significant technological changes, we are feverish. So also are the great men who so often emerge in these conditions. The problem with so many of them is that they really want our love and find they cannot live without it.

Welles worked hard to make Kane, this man of destiny, a plausible character in early 20th century America. This is why he ignored Hearst’s life story and instead created a man stuck between past and future, poverty and unimaginable wealth, American straightforwardness and aristocratic sophistication. Like Trump, Kane had family trouble and grew up with the goal of becoming successful, educated, and sophisticated in order to inherit wealth. To say he was unloved does not quite describe it. Like Kane, Trump ascended among the patricians of America but never liked them and retained the option of populist revolt against his class.

They both went into media for the same reason—they didn’t need the money, they needed the adulation of the masses. Here we begin to look into the democratic soul. We all understand at some level that sensible people don’t crave celebrity; or if they indulge the fantasy, they wouldn’t risk their sanity pursuing it. Yet we love celebrities. Since we’re all the same in a democracy, we hope to find something greater, above us, which we can all focus on, at least temporarily. Kane is at the root of this new age where Americans create their own version of aristocracy through the media. But celebrity naturally tends to scandal, because we’re egalitarians. We do not worship idols; at some point, we want to bring them down.

Kane thrives on scandal because he hopes to direct it against elites who disdain the people and fear publicity. As a populist leader he could cause scandal without being ruined by it. That’s a blueprint for Trump’s own political action, directed against established elites in Washington on behalf of the people in the rest of the country. This retains a certain understanding of Progress—achieving more democracy by attacking the organized interests that get in the way and which can plausibly be described as restraints on popular will.

Given the vastness of the land, radio was the first technology of communication that truly unified America. All of a sudden both the public and each household individually could be addressed. Celebrities—those who live by the love of the public, even aside from any talent or virtue—had a new opportunity. Politics itself made it possible to bypass the entire party system, to say nothing of the complicated federal system, and a politician could talk to the people directly. But it also meant that politicians could listen—that is, learn what the people wanted and when they might be persuaded to give in to their anger or desires.

This led Kane to think he was directing the popular mind and will. Newspapers in the age of radio communications allowed Kane to make the news be whatever he wanted it to be—often with the populist goal of enabling forgotten Americans in the slums to come to the center of public debate. This, too, prophesied Trump’s campaign style and substance uncannily, despite the change from radio to TV as the dominant form of communications. Populism’s story of championing underdogs against elites is easily revived in American politics, it only takes a daring man.

Of course, Kane is destroyed by something that first looks like a chance event: a sexual scandal, one that doesn’t begin to compare with the ones Trump has already breezed through. Kane fails on the cusp of power, while Trump has already achieved more than he could have imagined. America has changed in important ways; among them, the increasing democratization Citizen Kane dramatized has led to the abandonment of traditional mores. Decency was decisive in a way it no longer is and so older generations of elites were safe from populism in a way they are not now. Our America has become more like Kane’s, and thus it presented a great opportunity for Trump.

But the movie reveals that Kane was not undone by bad luck. He is at some level an aspiring tyrant—he wishes to possess solely and wholly the objects of his interest. In a way, America wouldn’t be enough, which is why he’s distracted before he even wins his election. Public success could not satisfy his private desires. He wouldn’t be able to dedicate himself to the job he so desperately wants. Strange as it may seem, his erotic sins lead him back to his nature, away from the Progressive posturing. But for all his shameless self-assertion, he is not able to abandon the love of the public, and so he ends up without honor and without happiness.

America cannot love any leader, however great he or she seems, for too long. The freedom of the people guarantees that they will be fickle, to some extent, in their allocation of admiration. A desperate desire for that love leads both to great successes and great failures. Technological revolutions have created new possibilities for attracting attention and gaining honors and rewards, but no lasting way to control a free people. Neither radio nor TV has been too useful to elites who want the people to obey their designs. We are now in the midst of another such revolution—digital technology is rapidly changing our means of communication and therefore how politicians reach their audience.

Again, it is possible for someone like Kane to arise. Political talent is often most prized in times of crisis, but the talents appropriate to crisis do not always translate to everyday concerns. We are always surprised by this most predictable fact about our way of dealing with change, because we do not understand the desires in our own hearts. We only realize what we want when we fall in love with a great man, or as more recent events now show, a great woman. But then it invariably turns out not to be quite what we were hoping for. It will happen again, as Orson Welles predicted. The media gives too much power to our fantasies, and like addicts, we cannot deny ourselves. We had best learn to mitigate the problem, at least.

Editor’s Note: Readers interested in discovering more of Welles’s political and psychological insights can listen to the author’s podcast on the movie.

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