Note to readers: I wrote this article and filed it to The Nation before finding out from a friend, just before publication, that a few days earlier Marc Fisher had written a short essay about Trump in The Washington Post that also cites A Face in the Crowd. Fisher quotes some of the same passages from Kazan’s movie that I have, but I’ve decided to keep some of them in this article because I believe they really do speak to the nature of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
In 1957, Elia Kazan directed an extraordinary movie about demagogy, titled A Face in the Crowd. In it, Andy Griffith portrays a hard-drinking ne’er-do-well with a folksy demeanor, a talent for playing the guitar, and—as he discovers by accident one day—an extraordinary presence when a radio mike or television camera is put in front of his face.
The film’s dramatic arc is deceptively simple. A local radio host, Marcia Jeffries, played by actress Patricia Neal, is looking to tell the stories of ordinary people by putting a microphone attached to a recorder to their mouths with no advance warning. She stumbles upon Griffith’s character, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, while he’s sleeping off a drunk in a local jail in a small Arkansas town. His performance is so compelling that the station decides to hire him. Within weeks he has built up a cult following, with a shtick that is part shock-jock, part Dr. Phil. He alternates between vulgarity and confession, between insult and homily, and listeners lap it up. A star is born. Within short order, Lonesome moves from local radio to regional television, becoming a boob-tube sensation in Memphis. And from Memphis he makes the leap to New York.
But beyond this rags-to-riches story is a portrait of egomania, of narcissism run amok, and finally of megalomania. In the Big Apple, Lonesome, unschooled and running on instinct, takes on the world, going from one media triumph to the next. He buys a penthouse suite overlooking Central Park and decorates it in the tackiest ways imaginable. He hosts glitzy dinners, surrounding himself with acolyte-celebrities. He becomes a national sensation, with girls swooning at his every word and boys wanting to emulate his every action. He’s invited to emcee events, to showcase marketing campaigns. He becomes a brand, his name attached to everything from quack medicines to political campaigns. And, somehow, in the process, he comes to believe his own bullshit, evolving from being an irascible rogue to being an increasingly manipulative, dangerous demagogue.
“All those millions of people believe in me, doing what I tell ’em to,” Lonesome snarls, the undertone of menace barely held in check. Later, as he seeks to make the leap into politics, he bellows at one of his patrons (as Fisher noted in his essay), “I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influencer. A wielder of opinion. A force. A force!” There’s a fury in his voice, the snarl of the overseer, a coarseness and a brutality now fully unleashed. “Who could rally the people better than I could?” he bellows in a drunken frenzy. “Secretary for National Morale. How’s that sound?… This whole country is just like my flock of sheep.”