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.”
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What happens when a narcissist is unleashed by the mass media and becomes convinced that his media persona is actually both capable and deserving of ruling the world? Kazan’s movie warned of the dangers. Today, nearly sixty years later, Lonesome Rhodes has come to life in the form of Donald Trump. The brand-name mogul, the reality-TV star, who resides in a gauche Versailles-styled penthouse overlooking Central Park but who plays to the anxieties of poor and marginalized people far from the epicenters of power, has come to believe his own guttural, shits-and-giggles shtick. And, tragically, the popularity footprint he gained through The Apprentice—look at the camera, strut your big-man, alpha-male stuff, ruthlessly cull your participant-hopefuls with the infamous “You’re Fired” tagline—and appearances in tough-guy arenas such as World Wrestling Entertainment has translated into political capital. For a not insignificant portion of the voting-age population, the fatuous bromides of faux-reality TV qualify Trump, who has never previously run for any public office, to be the most powerful human being on earth.
Trump articulates the resentments and fears that these voters feel against particular demographic groups. Not because he believes them, necessarily, but because they serve his need for adulation. It’s the language of street violence pushed by the billionaire autocrat, redolent of second-rank tyrants such as the Shah of Iran, Papa Doc Duvalier or Augusto Pinochet, who wanted the world to think they were bigger than they were, and who wanted to be loved by their followers for the fear that they instilled in their opponents. It is the language of raw power, utterly unrestrained by the nuances of legitimate authority.
Trump pursues this strategy with deliberate disregard for the political niceties of the democratic back-and-forth, labeling opponents as enemies and dissenters as traitors. His dehumanization of domestic opponents takes the language and the ferociously callous attitudes of war—those that rationalize what we euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation techniques” against terrorism suspects and remote-controlled drone assassinations of enemies—and imports them into the domestic landscape. After a decade and a half of war, perhaps it should be no surprise that a master propagandist has now harvested, for domestic electoral gain, the macho rage-culture that grows out of the violence of conflict.
Trump freely talks the language of the fifth column, the stab-in-the-back rhetoric beloved of fascists of an earlier epoch. And he generalizes about entire races and religions in a way that would have been familiar to members of the White Citizens’s Councils in their backlash against the civil rights movement. He promises to “Make America Great Again,” and, in calling for Mexicans to be deported, Muslims to be barred entry, and Black Lives Matter protesters to be beaten, as well as in his mockery of the way that Asians speak English, he conveys that what he really means is “Make America White Again.”
Above all, Trump borrows a coarse, violent, proudly un-empathetic language from the worst elements of talk-radio and cable television—the extremist rhetoric of G. Gordon Liddy calling on his followers to kill BATF agents; or of Rush Limbaugh equating liberals with terrorists. When Trump casually labels all Mexicans as rapists and criminals; when he advocates barring all Muslims from entering the country; when he accuses a female journalist of being in a snit against him because she is menstruating; when he mocks Hillary Clinton for taking a long bathroom break—in all of these slurs, he is using the combination of toilet humor and schoolyard bullying of Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. When he says he will kick the shit, or beat the hell, out of foreign enemies, or carpet-bomb an entire region, and when he urges his supporters to “knock the crap” out of domestic protesters at his rallies, saying he will pay their legal fees if they do so, he is normalizing, in the political discourse, a fascist intolerance, a dehumanization of opponents, which has long been the norm on the nation’s angry airwaves.
According to Dr. Alec Pollard, director of the Center for OCD and Anxiety-Related Disorders at the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, Trump is carefully using fear-based images and words to build a political constituency among those already primed to angst, already feeling deeply uncertain of their place in the world. Polling data backs this up: Trump’s supporters are particularly fearful of terrorism, of immigrants, of economic dislocation. “The transmission of danger information is one pathway to the acquisition of fear,” Pollard explained. “And if that information is amplified and emotionally or factually exaggerated, you’re more likely to get that fear.” It’s similar to the Big Lie strategy used by fascist propagandists to connect with deeply anxious, angry, Germans and Italians as they built their street-fighting power base in the 1920s and ’30s.
And, when it comes to “factual exaggeration,” or flat-out lies, Trump is a master.
“USA! USA!” his supporters chant. Trump responds, “Do we love our country?!” Chopping the air with his hand, he tells his audience, in his New Hampshire victory speech, that, “no one is going to mess with us. Believe me.… We are going to make our country soooo strong.” He tells his supporters, “We’re going to build a wall. It’s going to be built.” And he chops the air again. “USA! USA!” they chant. Trump stops, looks at them, almost hugs himself in his florid orangeness, in his moment of triumph, saying, more to himself than his audience, “It’s sooooo beautiful.” It’s the only time in his speech that his volume falls off. There’s an extraordinary intimacy to those three words, an almost masturbatory intensity.
“He knows how to play the media and he knows how to insult people,” says George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the influential book on political framing, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. “He can come out a winner in an insulting contest. And winners deserve to win [in the Trumpian world view] because they’re strong. Trump plays audiences. He’s playing a fighting game, and TV loves that. He guarantees a fight every time.”
Television also likes a message that plays to a large audience, which perhaps goes some way to explain the extraordinary decision by major broadcast stations to air Trump’s inflammatory commercials calling for the barring of Muslims from entering the United States. It’s unimaginable that those same executives would have OK’d the airing of a commercial by, say, the American Nazi Party urging the country to bar all Jews. But, in his relentless campaign to demonize Muslims, Trump has tapped into a growing Islamophobia in America, one shared by tens of millions of Americans and huge percentages of Republican primary voters, according to recent polling on the issue. And he has made plausible, if not respectable, programmatic anti-Muslim policies that, until recently, had existed only on the margins of the American body-politic. He has made the airing of bilious commercials a moneymaker for television stations that feel they have little to lose by pandering to this increasingly popular bigotry.
Many politicians act stupid and aggressive, dumbing down their vocabulary, but Trump has taken this to an extreme. In October, The Boston Globe ran an analysis showing that the candidate’s public vocabulary is that of a fourth-grader. He uses few words and repeats them endlessly, etching a series of simplistic, often violent, images into the brains of his audiences. At the same time, Trump’s body language, according to communications experts such as Jack Brown, a well-known Las Vegas-based communications coach (his clients include politicians, law-enforcement personnel, attorneys, and businessmen), is hyper-alpha male: He sits in interviews with his legs spread far apart, his hands pointed in a downward temple toward his crotch. He frequently places his hands out or up, palm downward, which is a classic sign of dominance, of pushing down on the world.
Brown has analyzed tens of thousands of images of political candidates over the years. He is, he says, astonished by how Trump’s body language reads “manipulation.” “He’s like a walking, talking, example of all different variations of propaganda. He plays into fear. He’s repetitive. He’s loud. He uses hyper-alpha body language.”
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The inability of GOP opponents to articulate a credible response to all of this, beyond saying they don’t like or believe Trump, is the really devastating legacy here. The party establishment had an opportunity to label Trump’s language and behavior from the get-go as unacceptable, as that of the iron fist and jackboot, but they didn’t do so. None of the other Republican presidential hopefuls have said they would refuse to support a Trump candidacy were he to win the nomination. None of the senior GOP senators—with the partial exception of Lindsey Graham—governors, or congressmen have said that his statements make his entire candidacy beyond the pale. There has been no concerted move to excommunicate him from the party, or to educate primary voters as to the philosophical implications of Trump’s hierarchy of races and religions. Yes, they critiqued his plan to ban Muslims, but mainly as something impractical rather than as something catastrophically immoral. They criticized individual policy stances rather than his fundamentally anti-democratic package as a whole.
Even John McCain, who was personally mocked by Trump in the crudest manner possible—for being captured and tortured in Vietnam, which made him, in Trump’s cruelly Manichean world, a “loser”—has kept his silence. It’s nothing less than astounding, says Kathleen Jamieson, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, that Trump’s popularity actually increased in the wake of that crazed statement.
All of this has opened the door for a hoodlum language of violence in US electoral politics not previously advocated by a mainstream party. Even a candidate like Pat Buchanan, back in the 1990s, never explicitly urged his “peasants with pitchforks” followers to thuggery in the way that Donald Trump has done.
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Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, Trump declared that he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and his people would still support him. It was marketed as another blustering announcement of his strength. But it was actually an extraordinary statement of contempt for his followers. He might just as well have said,“You guys are so dumb you’d vote for a murderer so long as he looked and sounded like me.”
Again, the similarities to Kazan’s movie are striking. The finale of A Face in the Crowd (spoiler alert) is devastating. Marcia Jeffries, both in love with Lonesome and also, finally, aware of how dangerous he has become, reluctantly decides to destroy him by leaving the mike on after his television show has ended. In horror, millions of fans hear Lonesome savagely ridicule them to his stage friends.
And that is when Lonesome Rhodes discovers that cult followings built around a voice on the radio and a face on the TV can disintegrate as quickly as they develop. He is abandoned, shunned, left absolutely alone. In the final scene, one of the most psychologically brutal in all of cinema, he stands, solitary, in his gaudy penthouse, US flags standing cocked—at an angle clearly intended to conjure up images of Nuremberg rallies—along his cavernous living room, screaming into the night. “Who else can rally the people like Lonesome Rhodes? The people listen to Lonesome Rhodes because the people love Lonesome Rhodes! Lonesome Rhodes is the people! The people is Lonesome Rhodes!” As he bellows, a machine he has invented, which plays back the sound of a crowd applauding wildly, accompanies him. The canned cheers and the demagogue’s rants ricochet off of the walls. But outside, no one is listening anymore.
One can only hope that Trump’s support will similarly evaporate in the coming weeks. It showed signs of doing so in Iowa; but his victory in New Hampshire has clearly added a jolt of oxygen to his unpleasant campaign. He is, at least for now, a bona fide front-runner.
Yet whether or not the mogul-turned-megalomaniac wins the GOP nomination may in the end be less important than what he has already accomplished. Donald “Lonesome Rhodes” Trump has immeasurably coarsened the political discourse and unleashed a toxic wave of bigotry. He has made respectable extreme views that, until recently, had been excluded from polite company. And he has normalized a fascist language of intimidation and violence. It is a truly venomous legacy.